THE AFRICAN HIGH-LEVEL PANEL ON BIOTECHNOLOGY: THE AFRICAN UNION SEEKS ADVICE ON MODERN BIOTECHNOLOGY
By Cyrie Sendashonga, Member of the High-Level Panel on Biotechnology and Regional Coordinator, CIFOR-Central Africa
The development of and application of modern biotechnology has opened up a wide range of possibilities, including the production of genetically modified plants, animal and microorganisms. These developments are, however, characterized by increasing scientific complexity, policy uncertainty and public anxiety over real and perceived potential benefits and risks. In Africa in particular, these issues impinge on intra-regional and international cooperation because most of the African countries do not have the necessary policies, infrastructure, capacities and other resources to individually or collectively regulate and manage the development and application of genetic modification in particular and biotechnology generally.
Many African governments are taking part in international and/or regional fora where issues pertaining to regulation of biotechnology and trade in its products are discussed, most notably: the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety under the Convention on Biological Diversity, the Codex Alimentarius, and the relevant agreements under the World Trade Organization (WTO) - especially the provisions pertaining to the Sanitary and Phyto-Sanitary (SPS) and the Technical Barriers to Trade (TBT) agreements. With increasing international trade in biotechnology products, the African governments have recognized the importance of regional cooperation to address possibilities and the range of issues associated with biotechnology and genetic modification. Within the framework of the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD), they have resolved to promote programmes that will “generate a critical mass of technological expertise in targeted areas that offer high growth potential” from biotechnology and also “harness biotechnology in order to develop Africa’s rich biodiversity and…..improving agricultural productivity and developing pharmaceutical products” (NEPAD 2001). The first NEPAD ministerial conference on science and technology “resolved to build regional consensus and strategies to address concerns emerging with advances in new technologies, including biotechnology,…..”. The conference called upon the Secretariat of NEPAD to “….establish ways and means to build Africa’s capacity for risk assessment and management of biosafety, in particular promote the establishment of regional and sub-regional biosafety facilities; and facilitate Africa’s participation international fora, processes and discussions on global biotechnology issues”.
In the context of the African Union (AU), African leaders resolved to take a common approach to address issues pertaining to modern biotechnology and biosafety by endorsing decision EX.CL/Dec.26 (III) that calls for an African common position on biotechnology. It was in echoing this decision that the NEPAD Science and Technology Steering Committee recommended at its second meeting that the NEPAD Secretariat and the AU Commission establish a high-level panel of eminent persons/experts to advise Africa on the scientific, policy and legal issues pertaining to the development, commercialization and application of modern biotechnology.
In response to the above decisions and recommendations, the Secretariat of NEPAD and the AU Commission established the High-Level African Panel on Biotechnology (APB) in June 2005, as a body of eminent experts with a specific remit to provide the AU, its Member States and its various organs as well as NEPAD with independent and strategic advice on developments in modern biotechnology and its implications for agriculture, health and the environment. The details of the terms of reference given to the Panel and its membership can be found on the website of the NEPAD Secretariat. The Panel’s tenure was set to be 18 months (commencing with its first meeting) at the end of which it was expected to make recommendations on the nature of regional institutional arrangements that are required to promote and sustain common regulatory approaches to the application and use of, and propose a strategy and policy on modern biotechnology.
The Panel held a series of meetings between August 2005 and November 2006 in Johannesburg, South Africa, Alexandria, Egypt, Nairobi, Kenya, and Cairo, Egypt. Some of the meetings were organized to provide opportunities for face-to-face consultations with various stakeholders, including: governments’ representatives, parliamentarians, diplomats, development partners, civil society, scientists, industrialists, environmentalists, agriculturalists, farmers, church/religious leaders and development experts. At various stages throughout its work, the Panel also made available online its evolving draft report to encourage and solicit as much feedback and as many comments as possible from a broad range of stakeholders inside Africa as well as outside. The Panel finalized its report for submission to the January 2007 AU Summit of the African Heads of State, which had endorsed “The Role of Science and Technology for the Development of Africa” as one of the major themes proposed for consideration by the Summit.
The report of the Panel is a comprehensive document covering all aspects that had been included in the terms of reference, and it is available on the NEPAD and African Commission websites. It includes an Executive Summary, which sums up the main recommendations of the Panel. The report is about the role of modern biotechnology in the transformation of African economies and examines how a wide range of opportunities presented by biotechnology can be tapped by African countries. It focuses on how best to build the capacity needed to harness and apply the technology to improve agricultural productivity and public health, increase industrial development and economic competitiveness, and promote environmental sustainability in Africa. The report also takes into account the importance of promoting the conservation and sustainable utilization of Africa’s rich biodiversity.
The Panel draws its recommendations from analysis of the current research and development on the continent and outside Africa and some of the emerging social, economic, legal and political issues that surround the development, dissemination and marketing of biotechnology and its products. The main message of the report is that regional economic integration in Africa should embody the building and accumulation of capacities to harness and govern modern biotechnology. Regional economic integration bodies are key institutional vehicles for mobilizing, sharing and using existing scientific and technological capacities, including human and financial resources as well as physical infrastructure for biotechnology R & D and innovation. The loci of action are primarily local innovation areas, which have core research and business institutions. International partnerships in biotechnology are critical to the realization of Africa’s biotechnology strategies and should be pursued actively.