With the strong backing of certain aid agencies and the biotechnology industry, West African leaders are turning increasingly in favour of using biotechnology in agriculture. The term “biotechnology” covers many areas, but here the aspect causing the most controversy is GM seed technology. While supporters in the region emphasise the importance of not missing out on the potential of this new technology, there remain many issues with regards to proper regulation and the likely dependence of small scale farmers on multinational seed companies if introduced.
Developmental agencies such as USAID and many bodies within the UN present GM seed technology as a vital tool for increasing crop yields, thereby helping to secure food security and lift farmers out of poverty. On the other hand, many campaign groups from the region highlight other factors equally pressing for improving crop yields such as poor irrigation. Furthermore, with regards to cash crops, for those farmers who do receive high yields, many consider that restrictive trade barriers and heavy subsidies maintained by Western nations represent much greater barriers to achieving profit. Finally, recognising that the issue of food security is very complex (see Choike’s in-depth report Agriculture and food sovereignty
for more detailed discussion) although higher crop yields will help in many cases to secure better food security in countries, the example of the famine in Niger in 2005 shows that food distribution and trade mechanics (keeping food prices too high for the population to afford) equally need to be addressed.
In addition to the popular debates arising from health and environmental concerns more generally, a major issue for the region concerning the introduction of GM seed technology is the lack of knowledge on behalf of the local communities or public debate of the issues at stake. Under the Convention on Biological Diversity, it is the responsibility of governments to inform and consult the people before allowing the introduction of GMOs, and the African Model Law on Biosafety requires that the public be engaged in the decision-making process (Art.5
). However, very few countries are applying these principals.
Nonetheless, increasing action by civil society groups is aiming to readdress this and open up the debate. These groups are emphasising issues such as the protection of genetic heritage and the impact on small scale farmers of the likely dependence on foreign multinationals for access to seeds they have cultivated for centuries.
The country most advanced in research into GM crops in the region is currently Burkina Faso, which authorised trials on Bt and VIP variety cotton in 2003. In 2005 Ghana drafted biosafety legislation and key officials expressed their intentions to pursue research into GM crops.
Yet other countries in the region are taking more cautious measures. Benin introduced a moratorium on GM crops in 2002 (1) and more recently Mali stopped plans to produce a law permitting trials on GM crops in February 2006 (2), under pressure from consumer groups and civil society organisations.
1) see fact sheet from FAO and article in French describing the event.
2) mentioned here -in French- originally in Le Monde)