29 March 2006

Africa: From Curitiba to African Farms, Spreading Biosafety Knowledge

Curitiba, Brazil — Although Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) have long been a hot topic at the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) in Curitiba, Brazil, most farmers in Africa are still ignorant about GM products, presenting an information challenge for African policymakers.

Elkad Bakeihahoki, a corn farmer in Ruti, Mbarara district in south-western Uganda, interviewed by Panos just before the CBD meeting in Brazil, said he had never heard of GMOs. Others, unaware of the controversy surrounding GMOs - about their potential impact on health and the environment - said they wouldn't mind testing out GM crops if they could increase farm yields.

But farmers are not alone in their ignorance: the general public in most African countries is not aware of GM products. As one African delegate to the CBD meeting pointed out, many Africans have been unknowingly consuming GM cooking oil from the United States for a decade now, "and nobody has raised a complaint".

Who should inform the public?

Under the CBD's Biosafety Protocol, all governments and supporting organisations are encouraged to share information on GMOs.

A special mechanism called the Biosafety Clearing House runs an online Biosafety Information Resource Centre - it includes a roster of experts and links to various websites - to inform governments about managing the risks associated with GMOs. The measures sound substantial, but what do those in government who have to make critical decisions about GMOs think of them?

Ugandan delegate, Dr David L N Hafashimana, said that his country's Ministry of Water, Lands and Environment works with the National Biosafety Committee and Farmers' Federation and expects them to pass on any information to farmers.

"Besides, we deal with science and technology, agriculture and natural resources committees and some members of these committees are also members of parliament. We also work with consumers groups and the media. [They] should disseminate information," he said.

Hafashimana, who is the senior inspector for Conservation, Biosafety and Standards, said his department is understaffed and underfunded. He said district environmental officers should obtain information from the relevant ministries and pass it on to people in villages.

Delegates' views

Senegal is on the western tip of Africa, far removed from Uganda. But the situation appears to be pretty similar. Dr Abou Namadou Toure, head of the Senegalese delegation, was categorical: "Farmers in Senegal don't know GMOs."

"Now that the NGOs and indigenous groups have attended the CBD meetings, perhaps they will pass on information to the farmers when they go back home," he told Panos.

He credits the media for doing its work but doubts if the information channelled through the media is enough.

He said the Senegalese government itself does not disseminate information on biodiversity. "Government delegates who attend global meetings on biodiversity only share it with experts and technocrats when they go back to their countries," Toure said. "Yet the food aid we receive [could be] from GMOs. And we don't have the capacity to test it for GMOs. The government should caution the donors."

The situation in Burkina Faso appears to be slightly different. A delegate from Burkina Faso, Soumayila B Bance, said that not all farmers in his country know about GMOs. But since 2001, the government has been discussing GMOs and now has rules governing their introduction, including taking a precautionary approach.

"Recently our country adopted a law on how to use GMOs," said Bance. He added that authorities in Burkina Faso are testing GM cotton produced by biotech companies Monsanto and Syngenta.

He said that the environment and agriculture ministers, along with nongovernmental organisations, often organise meetings with farmers' representatives to educate them about GMOs.

What do the NGOs say?

The Africa regional NGO coordinator from Zimbabwe, Dr Joe N Mushanga, said that NGO staff with technical expertise talk to farmers about GMOs in his country.

"[Delegates] put the information in the ministries yet there is no machinery to filter that information down to the farmers," he said.

One obvious problem across Africa is that farmers, based in villages, are unable to access internet-based information clearing houses.

Teresiah Ng'ang'a, programme officer at a Kenyan NGO called Participatory Ecological Land Use Management (PLUM), said her organisation tries to spread awareness among farmers through the radio - especially in local languages.

"We also use a video play in Swahili in which a group of farmers act out the roles to show other farmers the impact of GMOs on their livelihoods."

"Very little information is available. I think a lot needs to be done by the media in Kenya. The delegates here face quite some challenges because they are not the ones to implement the policies. They only give reports and recommendations to the relevant ministries and the ministries go ahead with the implementation," she added.

Pat Mooney, veteran Canadian campaigner on biotech issues and head of the Action Group on Erosion, Technology and Concentration (ETC), said that in his country they use national-level conferences and farmers' meetings to share information with farmers.

But he added: "Although we try to share information with the farmers, people still don't have enough. There should be radio programmes targeting local communities."

Sander Van Bennekom, a Dutch NGO worker and policy advisor, said he had never heard of the CBD Biosafety Clearing House.

Advice from Brazil

The mayor of Curitiba, Carlos Alberto Richa said at the opening of the main CBD meeting on 20 March that there is a need to generate global awareness and information - otherwise much of the efforts in Curitiba would go to waste.

The governor of Curitiba, Roberto Requião agreed: "We need to spread education and mobilisation in the world."

The provisions made by the CBD for information, communication and awareness about biodiversity and GM topics are still in their infancy. Whether these mechanisms are up to the job of creating dynamic and inclusive debate for all the parties involved is yet to be seen. There is a long way to go before farmers in Africa are really involved in making the decisions that affect them.

Ebenezer T Bifubyeka is a reporter with The New Vision newspaper in Uganda and founder of the Mbarara Environmental Advocates Link (MEAL), which seeks to create environmental awareness among local leaders, politicians, academics and the general public.

His coverage of GM issues has won him a Panos fellowship to report on the WTO ministerial meeting in Hong Kong in December 2005 and from the CBD meeting in Brazil in March 2006.

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