Main content area

Case studies on the use of biotechnologies and on biosafety provisions in four African countries

Black, Robert, Fava, Fabio, Mattei, Niccolo, Robert, Vincent, Seal, Susan, Verdier, Valerie
Journal of biotechnology 2011 v.156 no.4 pp. 370-381
European Union, agriculture, animal diseases, animals, aquaculture, attitudes and opinions, bioethanol, biomass, biosafety, biotechnology, case studies, consumers (people), cultivars, decision making, developing countries, diagnostic techniques, disease diagnosis, drugs, energy crops, environmental monitoring, farmers, fish production, food security, funding, health services, human resources, industry, introduced species, laws and regulations, marker-assisted selection, markets, molecular biology, pathogens, plant diseases and disorders, planting, remediation, research and development, risk, stakeholders, therapeutics, transgenic plants, Asia, Burkina Faso, Europe, Ghana, Mali, North America, Senegal
This review is based on a study commissioned by the European Commission on the evaluation of scientific, technical and institutional challenges, priorities and bottlenecks for biotechnologies and regional harmonisation of biosafety in Africa. Biotechnology was considered within four domains: agricultural biotechnologies (‘Green’), industrial biotechnologies and biotechnologies for environmental remediation (‘White’), biotechnologies in aquaculture (‘Blue’) and biotechnologies for healthcare (‘Red’). An important consideration was the decline in partnerships between the EU and developing countries because of the original public antipathy to some green biotechnologies, particularly genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and food from GM crops in Europe. The study focus reported here was West Africa (Ghana, Senegal, Mali and Burkina Faso). The overall conclusion was that whereas high-quality research was proceeding in the countries visited, funding is not sustained and there is little evidence of practical application of biotechnology and benefit to farmers and the wider community. Research and development that was being carried out on genetically modified crop varieties was concentrating on improving food security and therefore unlikely to have significant impact on EU markets and consumers. However, there is much non-controversial green biotechnology such as molecular diagnostics for plant and animal disease and marker-assisted selection for breeding that has great potential application. Regarding white biotechnology, it is currently occupying only a very small industrial niche in West Africa, basically in the sole sector of the production of liquid biofuels (i.e., bio-ethanol) from indigenous and locally planted biomass (very often non-food crops). The presence of diffused small-scale fish production is the basis to develop and apply new (Blue) aquaculture technologies and, where the research conditions and the production sector can permit, to increase this type of production and the economy of this depressed areas. However, the problems bound to environmental protection must not be forgotten; priority should be given to monitor the risks of introduction of foreign species. Red biotechnologies potentially bring a vast domain of powerful tools and processes to achieve better human health, most notably improved diagnostics by molecular techniques, better targeting of pathogens and a better knowledge of their sensitivities to drugs to permit better treatment. Biosafety regulatory frameworks had been initiated in several countries, starting with primary biosafety law. However, disparate attitudes to the purpose of biosafety regulation (e.g., fostering informed decision-making versus ‘giving the green-light for a flood of GMOs’) currently prevent a needed consensus for sub-regional harmonisation. To date, most R&D funding has come from North America with some commercial interests from Asia, but African biotechnology workers expressed strong desire for (re-)engagement with interested parties from the European Union. Although in some of the visited countries there are very well qualified personnel in molecular biology and biosafety/regulation, the main message received is that human resources and capacity building in-house are still needed. This could be achieved through home-based courses and capacity-building including funds for post-degree research to motivate and retain trained staff.