AFRICA – Research experts have underscored the importance of harmonization of individual country regulations as well as the close coordination of government approaches for the long-term benefit of agricultural innovation in the African region.
The experts explored the policy implications for seed systems in the sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) region where genetically modified (GM) crops are being approved by different countries in the area.
Good seed quality is important to a country’s agricultural productivity and much more to a continental sub-region. The availability of these seeds, on the other hand, is affected by the legal and regulatory environment of the region.
It was observed in the study that as the seed sector in SSA evolved as more GM seeds became available, the layers and dimensions of regulations became more complex. In particular, plant breeding in its early stages needs to consider various environmental regulations and food and feed safety.
The process of variety registration also needs to be aligned with biosafety procedures. According to the scholars, when a new GM seed variety is commercialized, factors that need to be considered are the general stewardship practices, pest resistance management, stipulations in seed laws and regulations, and managing adventitious presence in conventional seed sales.
Their analysis revealed that close intra-government coordination and representation of institutions in national biosafety committees expedite timely reviews and decision-making.
It also unveiled that public-private partnerships can guide commercial introduction of GM technology to ensure familiarity, farmer awareness, and product stewardship.
As per the study, policy reforms that promote harmonization of regulatory mandates can be adopted by multiple countries.
The specialists emphasized that governments need to prepare for the judicious introduction and dissemination of GM technologies citing that emerging best practices can be shared among governments for the benefit of the countries involved, especially those who have limited capacity and expertise.
Similarly, they egged on the formulation and adoption of common guidelines to manage the introduction and intra-regional trade involving GM seeds.
The overall picture of GM crop adoption in sub-Saharan Africa is steadily evolving as a growing number of governments authorize their commercial adoption and have additional GM events in the research and development pipeline. As of 2020, commercial cultivation involved seven countries, with another five countries planting GM crops in pre-commercial confined field trials.
Priority areas of harmonization have included synchronization of national regulatory and coordination mechanisms, phytosanitary measures, common processes of seed certification, testing, release, and registration of plant varieties between member countries and establishment of common plant catalogues.
It is anticipated that these efforts contribute to the development of a more formal seed sector supplying certified or quality-declared seeds. It should be noted that across Africa, the informal seed sector is still by far the main source of ‘uncertified’ seeds. In the East African Community (EAC), specifically Arusha, Tanzania, maize farmers lead the way in adopting certified seeds, estimated to be 20–30% of the total use.
GM seeds regulations
The draft EAC Seed and Plant Varieties Bill is silent on the handling of GM seeds. This implies that the handling of GM seeds has to be managed in accordance with evolving national biosafety policies and legislation.
Recently, under the leadership of the African Union, there have been efforts to facilitate continental harmonization of seed systems. This is partly driven by the need to ensure alignment and harness benefits associated with the recently launched Africa Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA).
Development of continental guidelines under the African Union would inform and support the implementation of various annexes of the AfCFTA that govern the functional and structural dimensions of the seed sector.