29 June 2005

West Africa: Churcher Urges Ecowas Ministers

The ECOWAS Ministerial Conference on Biotechnology, has ended in Bamako, Mali, with a reminder to African countries that the decision to accept modern biotechnology and its potential role in enhancing food security on the continent, should be determined by weighing potential or perceived risks against potential benefits.

Ghana's Minister of Environment and Science, Christine Churcher, who made the reminder, noted that although the facts available suggest that the potential benefits of modern biotechnology are guided by good science, socio-economic and political considerations would determine its adoption or rejection.

She was addressing the final part of the Ministerial session of the Conference, which ended on a positive note.

All the ministers, agricultural scientists, researchers and producers agreed that, while it is necessary for Africa to take advantage of biotechnology tools such as genetic modification to boost her agricultural production, it is essential to create the right environment for its adoption.

These include adopting biosafety regulations to ensure that products of agricultural biotechnology are safe for humans and the environment.

The agricultural producers who were mostly representatives of various farmer groups across the sub-region, were however concerned about whether the method will eventually not make them to become dependent on the developed countries for seeds.

But from the recommendations of the Committee of Experts adopted by the Ministers, countries are encouraged to give priority to scientists in terms of funding and other logistics, so that they can develop biotech tools appropriate for the small-scale farmers.

ECOWAS member countries were asked to develop their national policy and legislation on biosafety latest by July 1 next year, in order to facilitate the harmonising of the sub-region's biosafety system, which should be completed by 2008.

The ECOWAS Secretariat was also tasked to adopt the necessary measures that will facilitate the implementation of a regional strategic plan on biosafety for the benefit and access of biotechnology in West Africa.

The Secretariat was further asked to make the ECOWAS Ministerial Conference on Biotechnology an annual affair, while the Executive Secretary was charged to liaise with the African Union's Commission and organise an African Conference on Biotechnology.

The recommendations follow intensive discussion during the first two days of the conference by the participants on the way forward for the debate on modern agricultural biotechnology application in the sub-region.

Their recommendations formed part of the report presented to the ministers for deliberations by the President of the Committee of Experts, Dr Mahamane Issaka , General Director of Niger's National Institute of Agronomic Research.

Another recommendation was for countries to increase budgetary allocation to agriculture to 10 percent, to foster research activities. The gathering also agreed to hold the next ECOWAS Ministerial Conference on Biotechnology in Accra, in June next year.

In her address, the Minister of Environment and Science, Christine Churcher, mentioned that currently there are about 50 countries worldwide involved in thirty thousand field trials of over 45 different genetically modified crops.

This, she said, 'suggests that soon the world market will be flooded with genetically modified crops adding that this time round, Africa must be actively involved while there is an opportunity to be assisted by the developed world for the requisite capacity to be built to adopt the tool for increased crop yields.'

Ms Churcher pointed out that such a step would enable the continent to address persistent food insecurity and sustainable development.

She urged the various countries to quickly develop their biosafety regulations and commit sufficient funds for establishing the needed framework. Ms Churcher said, 'this is the only way Africans can manage modern biotechnology for a healthy life, while accelerating the socio-economic development of the continent.'

For his part, the Nigerian Minister of State for Agriculture and Rural Development, Chief Bamidele Dada stressed the vital need for the management and dissemination of information on biotechnology. He said implementing a harmonised Biosafety Regulation for the sub-region can only be possible if there is a harmonised information dissemination system to complement it.

Chief Bamidele further called for building of partnerships between African Research and Development Institutions and the developed countries.

He said such collaboration between the International Institute for Tropical Agriculture and the Nigerian National Root Crops Research Institute, has brought work on the deadly cassava mosaic disease to an advanced stage of transformation in cassava research.

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