Biotech in Africa: Can public pressure overcome a lack of political will?

By Joseph Opoku Gakpo

August 30, 2018

Lack of political will is the major barrier preventing the widescale adoption of biotechnology throughout Africa, according to agricultural stakeholders across the continent.

They also identified other barriers, including confusing communications on biotechnology, the activities of anti-technology groups, unpredictable and cumbersome regulatory systems, fear-mongering campaigns, scientists who will not speak out for the technology and the absence of local funding for science and technology efforts on the continent.

“If you woke me up at 2 a.m. and asked me, ‘why is it that biotech is not penetrating Africa?’ I will say politics. Politics. We politicize everything. We have very low political will. History in Africa shows us that without political will, nothing happens in Africa,” said Nancy Muchiri, senior manager for communications and partnerships at the African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF), during a panel discussion on “barriers to biotech for food security in Africa” at the Bio-Africa Convention in Durban, South Africa.

The panel discussion was moderated by Peter Haas, deputy assistant secretary for trade policy and negotiations at the US State Department. Other panelists were Motlatjo Makaepea, chief director at the Gauteng Province Department of Agriculture and Rural Development in South Africa; Motlatsi Mothusi, an independent farmer in South Africa; and myself, a journalist from Ghana.

“When you vote them into power, they walk straight 180 degrees into parliament. As soon as they are there, they roam around in circles like a compass, then finally, they spill out like waste in a ball point pen. They will not deliver,” said Mothusi, who has a 30-hectare farm in the Gauteng Province where the majority of the maize and soya he grows is genetically modified. For nearly a decade, his farm has been an educational site for agricultural sector stakeholders from across the continent who want to learn about the impact of the technology.

Mothusi lamented that politicians are usually slow in acting on what is good for the people, even if the benefits are clear, and said it is about time farmers stood up to them. He recounted that some politicians and farmers from Kenya returned to visit his farm to learn about impact of biotechnology two years ago, and he chased them out, telling them to go back home and implement what they had already come to see in the past.

About 13 African countries, including Nigeria, Mozambique, Ethiopia and Uganda, are in varying stages of adopting biotech crops, ranging from approving enabling legislation, conducting research and field trials and establishing biosafety institutions. Some of these processes have been under way for more than a decade, at a cost of millions of dollars, but the countries have yet to make the improved crops available to farmers. Currently, only South Africa and South Sudan are growing commercial biotech crops in Africa.

Egypt and Burkina Faso had previously commercialized Bt maize and Bt cotton, respectively. But in 2012, Egypt imposed a ban over unfounded safety concerns and in 2015, Burkina Faso stopped growing Bt cotton over disputes about fiber length. Muchiri said political will prompted Burkina Faso’s government to introduce Bt cotton in 2008, and the decision to abandon it eight years later was also the result of political interference by the government then.

But I argued that the absence of a strong “people’s will” is rather a bigger barrier. The reluctance of farmers to demand access to the technology, and the inability of scientific experts to voice their support, are more serious challenges than the absence of political will. If ordinary farmers are pushing for biotecnology, the politician will have no choice but to cave in, even if they do not have the political will to advance it on their own.

The sure way to overcome the lack of political will is to inspire a stronger people’s will, I noted. If farmers are demanding better seeds, and citizens join the chorus, it will demonstrate increased public support for advanced technology in agriculture, and the politicians will allow it.

Can the people’s will overcome the lack of political will? I believe it can.

Muchiru also expressed concerns about the way anti-science groups have stepped up their campaign against biotechnology in unexpected ways, which she sees as a major barrier to adoption. “We are seeing their tactics and approaches. It is seeing a face that we did not expect. It’s taking a legal dimension now. You find deliberate misinformation to intentionally mislead, so it is a totally new scenario. And we are seeing that across Africa,” she said in reference to legal actions in Ghana and Nigeria against biotech crops and fear-mongering campaigns throughout the continent.

Makaepea saw a need to step up education and communication on the science behind the development of biotech, saying it is about time to position youth at the forefront of biotech promotion. “Our education system has a long way to go to change the situation,” he said.

Haas noted that biotechnology has a key role to play in helping the world deal with food insecurity, saying, “We need innovation and technology to do our jobs and to continually do it better. We all know that there is usually resistance to new technology and that has been the case with biotechnology.”