Opponents of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) regularly cite lack of biosafety policies as the main reason why there should be no rush to introduce genetically modified crops in Africa. I agree with them on this, and in fact I once posted an entry in this blog encouraging African countries to speed up the enactment of biosafety rules. Biosafety laws are needed to safeguard the health of consumers of genetically modified food.

But more importantly, a sound biosafety protocol is a prerequisite to a thriving biotechnology industry. In fact, there is a nexus between well thought out biosafety laws and a successful biotech industry. United States, Canada, Mexico, South Africa, Argentina, and India all have effective biosafety laws. This explains why they have a thriving biotechnology industry.

Biosafety laws are needed not to restrict, but to promote biotech-related activities. This justifies why African countries must urgently enact and implement them. Doing so would alleviate fears that GMOs are being force-fed on Africans without considering their safety.

The laws will, according to the United Nations (UN) Convention on Biological Diversitys Cartagena Protocol to protect biodiversity, “ensure an adequate level of protection in the field of the safe transfer, handling and use of living modified organisms resulting from modern biotechnology that may have adverse effects on the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity…”

Opponents of GMOs would, however, prefer the status quo so that they can continue exploiting the lack of lack of biosafety laws in many African countries to spread all sorts of misleading information about GMOs.

It’s encouraging that lately, there have been small, but significant efforts by some African countries to enact biosafety policies. Already, Cameroon, Kenya, Namibia, and Uganda have national biosafety policies, which have made it possible for them to start conducting field trials of a wide range of genetically modified crops.

Kenya is busy experimenting on genetically modified sweet potatoes and maize. An article appearing in SciDev.net reports that Uganda is preparing field trials of bananas genetically modified to resist black sigatoka disease, a serious fungal condition. Cameroon, on the other hand, is conducting tests on cowpeas that are drought tolerant, resistant to viruses and insects.

Its important that African countries put in place biosafety policies if they want to benefit from modern biotechnology.