AATF hosts second biosafety regulators retreat

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Simon Tefu, a farmer who grows genetically modified maize and soya beans in his 325-hectare farm in Randfontein, Gauteng Province: Photo Credit AATF.

Open dialogue among biosafety regulators a precursor to progressive regulation in Africa

By Panagrimedia Correspondent, May 23, 2024, AATF and the African Research Council (ARC) of South Africa hosted the second biosafety regulators retreat attended by 57delegates from 16 African countries.

The retreat, held in Pretoria, South Africa in April, was initiated by AATF’s Open Forum on Agricultural Biotechnology (OFAB) Project in 2023 to provide a space for mutual learning and engagement among regulators. The OFAB Project Manager, Vitumbiko Chinoko, noted that the retreat provides a platform for unbiased and open dialogue on biotechnology and biosafety regulation in Africa which is critical for biotechnology development in Africa.

“This retreat serves as a crucial opportunity for regulators to exchange experiences and insights, ultimately enhancing biosafety management and regulation to support biotechnology research, development and commercialization in Africa,” he said.

Africa’s progress in biotechnology development is commendable, with 11 countries now equipped with biosafety frameworks, up from 3 in 2003. Recent achievements include Rwanda’s approval of a biosafety law enabling biotechnology research and commercialization, and Nigeria’s approval of three genetically modified crops, positioning the country as a leader in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Vitumbiko notes that continuous learning and collaboration are essential, stating that the retreat focuses on topical issues of interest to regulators such as labeling, litigation, crisis communication and public participation. The 2024 retreat included capacity strengthening for upcoming policymakers and negotiators to UNCBD negotiations for eight countries of Madagascar, Angola, Namibia, DRC, Botswana, Zambia, Malawi, and Mozambique.

Vitumbiko highlighted the importance of incorporating value-based messaging and simplifying biosafety concepts when communicating biosafety matters to generate trust and confidence of the people who are targeted end users of research outputs.

Speaking during the opening ceremony, Dr. Kingstone Mashingaidze of ARC noted South Africa’s significant adoption of agricultural biotechnology, demonstrating its potential to enhance productivity.

‘‘South Africa stands out as the foremost adopter of agricultural biotechnology in Africa with over 85% of the maize produced being through genetic modification,’’ said Dr. Mashingaidze noting that utilization of agricultural biotechnology stands out as a top strategy towards combating persistent food shortages in Africa.

‘‘However, the slow uptake of biotechnology products primarily stems from insufficient awareness regarding the potential benefits of the crops,” said Dr Mashingaidze while urging for enhanced awareness creation to overcome existing barriers.

Dr. Mathurin Rouamba, CEO of the National Biosafety Authority (NBA) of Burkina Faso, underscored the importance of stringent biosafety review processes to ensure safety in biotechnology practices. For instance, he referenced the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, which reinforces the need for the safe management and transfer of living modified organisms, safeguarding biodiversity, and protecting human health.

According to the President of the Ethiopia Society of Biotechnology (ESoB) and Chairman of the National Variety Release Committee in Ethiopia, Professor Firew Mekbib, the spread of disinformation and misinformation by those opposed to biotechnology has put regulators in a difficult position. Prof Mekbib added that this situation will persist until scientific knowledge becomes more widespread and understandable.

Ms. Mutibo Chijikwa, Senior Biosafety Officer of the National Biosafety Authority of Zambia said that the regulators’ meeting is timely and significant for African regulators, especially those who share boarders, to learn about regulation provisions and how they are implemented in various countries, including sharing data and insights.

During the retreat, the regulators visited a GM maize farm in in Randfontein, Gauteng province, South Africa, where the farmer, Mr Simon Teffo who has been growing GM maize since 2012, shared his experience and highlighted the benefits of GM crops.

Teffo told regulators that he chose GM maize when extension officers offered him various varieties of seed options due to the technological benefits. ‘‘A farmer does not need to be told the benefits of GMOs, just give them access to both conventional and GM seeds, and with trials, a farmer will settle on what works for them, that is what I did’’ he said.

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