USAID Launches Biotechnology Initiatives with Africa: programs foster improved regulation, research, development

By Merle D. Kellerhals, Jr., Office of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State, 2 March 2001

Washington—The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), in collaboration with U.S. research groups and African organizations, has launched a series of initiatives to use the benefits of agricultural biotechnology throughout Africa to enhance food safety and security.

The initiatives include a regional biotechnology and biosafety program in East and Central Africa, biosafety regulatory training in southern Africa, public awareness of biotechnology through the region, development and distribution of livestock vaccines developed from biotechnology, and testing of genetically engineered crops in Kenya and South Africa, a USAID official said in an interview.

This multidimensional approach to food security problems is aimed at developing collaborative links between U.S. and African public and private organizations, academic institutions, and non-governmental organizations, the USAID official said.

A lot of AID's strategy in agricultural research, more generally, has focused on collaborative technology development and training of developing countries' scientists, she said.

USAID is working with the Association to Strengthen Agricultural Research in East and Central Africa (ASARECA) in a collaborative research effort between African, U.S. public and private sectors, international agricultural research centers, and other advanced research institutions, the USAID official said. USAID's Agricultural Biotechnology Support Program (ABSP), managed by Michigan State University, is providing research support to ASARECA to develop and implement this regional program, she said.

ASARECA, an organization of national agricultural and research institutions, includes Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Madagascar, Rwanda, Sudan, Tanzania, and Uganda.

It aims to develop and promote the transfer of agricultural biotechnology applications, and has initiated a program to develop and harmonize biosafety regulations at the regional level. A regional approach, the USAID official said, would streamline regulatory approvals and promotes technology transfer and private sector investment in biotechnology in Africa.

USAID's support to ASARECA is broader than just biotechnology. It includes agricultural research, seed policy, and food industry development, she said. USAID is currently working mostly at the regional level, she said.

USAID's ABSP has established a partnership with seven Southern African Development Community (SADC) countries—Malawi, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, Zambia, and Zimbabwe—to initiate a program to provide technical training in biosafety regulatory implementation. It will strengthen science-based regulation of biotechnology in the SADC region, as well as promote conformity with the science-based standards of the WTO Sanitary and Phytosanitary (SPS) Agreement and the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, USAID says.

The regional-based training focuses on scientific risk assessment, access to information, risk management strategies, and genetic techniques, the USAID official said.

And, USAID's Africa Bureau Office of Sustainable Development has provided a grant to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), though the African Trade and Investment Program (ATRIP), to work with U.S. historically black colleges and universities, the African Biotechnology Stakeholders Forum in East Africa and AfricaBio in South Africa, the International Center for the Improvement of Maize and Wheat (CIMMYT) in Mexico City, and the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) in Ibadan, Nigeria, to improve public awareness by policy makers and scientists on biotechnology issues such as concerns about food and environmental safety.

Another major USAID initiative has been its support for the development and testing of a recombinant DNA vaccine against the livestock disease rinderpest.

There are two different research projects that we're funding on livestock vaccine development in Africa. One is rinderpest, which has wiped out cattle in many regions and is a very significant problem in sub-Saharan Africa, the official said.

The vaccine to combat rinderpest was developed by the University of California, Davis, and is being transferred to East Africa. The USAID official said testing for this vaccine was done in Kenya for broader use in all of Africa.

A genetically engineered heartwater vaccine has been developed by the University of Florida and tested initially in South Africa and Zimbabwe, and a laboratory in Botswana, she said. Partners in Zimbabwe and South Africa have obtained biosafety approval for testing and an African company has been identified for commercial production of the vaccine in Africa, USAID says.

While those countries may be involved initially in the development and testing of the vaccines, the goal would be to make it available and to promote its dissemination throughout Africa, she said.

More than 10 years ago, USAID initiated a partnership between the Kenyan Agricultural Research Institute and the Monsanto Corp. to develop virus resistant sweet potatoes using genetic engineering. While USAID support ended several years ago, Monsanto has continued to collaborate with the Kenyan research institute, and Kenya recently granted approval for field testing these sweet potatoes, USAID said.

This represents a significant milestone for biotechnology in Africa—the first biotech-derived food crop to be tested outside of South Africa, the official said.

Through USAID's ABSP program, South Africa will initiate testing of insect-resistant Irish potatoes in 2001 to reduce pesticide use on food and exposure to farm workers and consumers, which can pose significant health risks in developing countries, USAID said.

In a separate interview, Calestous Juma, director of the Science, Technology and Innovation Program at Harvard University's Center for International Development, said that significant economic development in Africa is unlikely to occur unless the use of natural resources is linked to technological development within the economy.

The focus on agricultural biotechnology in Africa, he said, should emphasize: