Africa has a low uptake of biotech food crops due to lack of awareness and stiff resistance, scientists said on Thursday. International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA) AfriCenter director Dr Margaret Karembu told a biotechnology experts meeting that adoption of agricultural biotechnology has lagged behind compared to the rapid rates seen in the medical and health sectors.
"Where are we as Africans? This is the question, we need to think seriously about the good work (on agricultural biotechnology) going on in our labs," she said. "What is our place in the global biotechnology space. We need reclaim it and improve the livelihoods of our farmers across the continent."
Dr Karembu said lack of awareness and a constrained regulatory environment had also slowed down the uptake of agricultural biotechnology.
"Lack of awareness of the benefits and the regulatory framework has affected the tide towards the adoption of biotechnology. The victim mentality has been largely to blame for this.
"We think of ourselves as victims of the technology. The fact is that our public institutions and universities have been doing research on biotech crops for years and this has not moved to the commercialization stage," the biotechnology expert said.
She said the 'victim mentality' impacted negatively on regulation.
"If we make the regulatory framework tough we are perpetuating the dominance of multinationals," Dr Karembu said. "A stringent and expensive regulatory process slows down uptake and the completion process of products for commercialization.
"The regulatory process is so burdensome and makes everything unpredictable. There is fear of change and challenging of the status quo. There is so much resistance and that push and pull effect."
Prof Naagla Abdullah, head of the Agricultural Genetic Engineering Research Institute at Cairo University blamed the media for stalling the adoption of agricultural biotechnologies on the continent.
"The problem is the media and people against biotechnology," she said. "The media has peddled lies and misinformed policy makers and the public. We need facts and to keep our enemies (media and anti-GMO activists) near us and not way. We have to put facts forward for policy makers and the public to make informed choices."
National Biotechnology Authority of Zimbabwe chief executive Dr Jonathan Mufandaedza said lack of awareness coupled with a low human resource base in terms of competencies in biotechnology was to blame for the low uptake of biotechnology in Africa.
"It's a new technology and we need to build a critical mass of expertise running through the entire education chain," he said. "Opinions and policies generated by policy-makers have to be beefed up by experts," he said.
"Our politicians need to be equipped with proper information so that when they make decisions they are properly informed not through misinformation or other wild claims but by facts."
Zimbabwe, Dr Mufandaedza said, needed to conduct more research to enhance the uptake of agricultural biotechnologies.
He said it was important for the country to participate in international biotechnology profiling to enhance collaboration and strengthen the country's research capacity.
Science experts were meeting for the launch in Kenya of the global status of commercialized biotech crops report for 2013.
Debate on biotechnology, more specifically genetically modified foods, is still on the front burner in Zimbabwe with the vast majority of consumers remaining highly suspicious of GM technology while scientists and pro-GM supporters argue that the fears are unjustified.
The development of agricultural biotechnology has proceeded rapidly amidst public controversy over the ethics of genetic manipulation and the required level of regulation.
Claims about the promise of new technology have been greeted with scepticism, vilification or outright opposition by anti-GMO activists. Debates on GMOs have often been dominated by slander, innuendo and misinformation.