African GM safety drill

The African Union has set up a school to educate and train future regulators in genetically modified (GM) crop biosafety. The African Biosafety Network of Expertise (ABNE) was officially launched in April in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, with a five-year, $10.4 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. This continent-wide initiative, administered by the African Union’s New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD), aims “to build functional biosafety systems,” says program director Diran Makinde, who notes that of the 12 African countries that have biotech crop research programs, only 3 have reached the stage of commercialization. A tour of Africa taken in 2008 by Makinde and his staff to assess the nations’ different needs highlighted the lack of regulatory expertise. The visiting team concluded that any pan-African solution would need to provide online information resources, training workshops, technical support and partnerships. Today, ABNE’s website offers environmental, socioeconomic and food safety advice and information on issues related to GM crops through a live chat function handled by staff. In late March, before the official launch, ABNE hosted a workshop for about 40 regulators in Accra, Ghana, to discuss locally developed, insect- resistant transgenic crops. ABNE’s staff also took part in a training course last fall at Michigan State University in East Lansing to ramp up their own expertise. These newly minted ABNE trainers are equipped to guide regulators in risk assessment and management issues to enable GM crop adoption. But they will need to learn quickly if they are to succeed in training regulators and consultants across Africa’s major languages, according to Theresa Sengooba, a researcher with the International Food Policy Research Institute in Kampala, Uganda. Given the varied state of African biosafety infrastructure, another of ABNE’s challenges will be to determine “how best to help countries which are already advanced as well as those which are behind,” Sengooba adds. Makinde points out, however, that ABNE enjoys an “added value” from NEPAD’s status as a technical arm of the politically well-connected African Union. This supplies the network with the necessary kudos to approach national ministers responsible for agricultural planning and biotech research in African countries. Makinde intends to help two or three additional African countries reach the commercialization stage, and improve regulatory decision-making in the rest within the program’s initial budget. “Our main objective,” Makinde stresses, “is to contribute to food security in Africa.”

First published by Nature Biotechnology: [html] [pdf].