Biotechnology policies for Africa
Establishing research programmes in agricultural biotechnology has become difficult in view of the diminishing budgets available, for "national agricultural research. Which priorities should be addressed through biotechnologies? Which technologies are relevant and accessible, and what are their costs and impact? How certain is it that investments in advanced research will result in products beneficial to resource-poor farmers? How will issues relating to biosafety and intellectual property rights be handled by developing countries? Since biotechnological research usually requires high initial human and financial investments, and has predominantly longterm benefits, this situation calls for important decisions for governments to be made.
The Intermediary Biotechnology Service (IBS) organized a regional meeting from 2427 April 1995 in South Africa to stimulate policy discussion aimed at ensuring the integration of agricultural biotechnology with the broader national priorities. Representatives of 10 African countries attended this second regional policy seminar (a similar seminar was held September 1994 in Singapore for Southeast Asia). The sectors represented included agriculture, science and technology, industry and planning.
Most African countries do not have specific policies for setting priorities in biotechnological research, and R & D institutions are often free to adopt and apply biotechnology within the context of ongoing projects and programmes. It is generally assumed that biotechnology will result in economic benefits such as increasing productivity, reducing production costs or losses due to pests or diseases. However little evidence is available which would enable governments to assess the economic, social and environmental costs and benefits. Therefore many participants at the seminar made it clear that both technical and economic considerations are important ingredients of the biotechnology decision-making process. Limited budgets should not mean that socio-economic
analyses are forgotten, and it is essential that resources are used to develop methodological approaches to address socio-economic issues properly, not only at the project level, but also at the national and regional levels.
Closely related to the economic issues is the problem of involvement of the end-users of the technologies. The needs of all the players, be they farmers, food processors or consumers, should be considered carefully in designing a policy. The questions needed to be asked are: does the end-user want the product? What is the size of the market and what is the customer prepared to pay for the product? One of the ways of setting policy and research priorities for biotechnology is through discussions between all stake-holders, including farmers, researchers at the scientific and managerial levels, and policy makers at the national and regional levels. While this process might be more time-consuming compared with top-down priority setting, some people believe that it will be more sustainable.
Although farmers are able to give scientists feedback and suggestions as to research priorities, partnerships between farmers and the scientists are often underdeveloped. Farmers should be involved through representative organizations, rather than by consulting one single farmer. Strengthening research should go hand in hand with strengthening farmers' organizations. Besides being part of the prioritizing process, farmers should also be involved in the diffusion of existing and future technologies.
The main message from the seminar held in South Africa was that socio-economic analyses are important, but it should also be kept in mind that decisions based on the outcome of an analysis might differ between governments and companies. Governments may pursue specific social aims, which do not always result in direct net value to the economy or commercial development in the short-term. Additionally, researchers in agricultural biotechnology might be reluctant to cooperate with economists in the initial stage of a project. This can make the collaboration highly complex, though no less desirable.
The regional seminar undoubtedly had a positive function in bringing people together at a regional level to share experiences about the difficulties encountered in developing biotechnology policies, but it is difficult to assess the full impact of such meetings. The actual implementation of possible actions identified during the discussions may encounter several difficulties, so that the overall success of the meeting will depend on the ability of the country delegates to exercise influence through their organizations at the national level.
A report on the seminar, containing full papers and summaries of the discussions will be available by the end of 1995.
A more detailed article on this seminar, written by Gerda van Roozendaal, will appear shortly in the Biotechnology and development monitor.
Contact: John Komen, Intermediary Biotechnology Service, ISNAR, PO Box 93375, 2509 AJ The Hague, THE NETHERLANDS. Fax (31) 70 3819677 E-mail J.KOMEN@CNET.COM.