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 You are in: Bureaus/Offices Reporting Directly to the Secretary > Policy Planning Staff > Secretary's Open Forum > Proceedings > 2001 - 2002

A Conversation on Agrobiotechnology and Food Security

Dr. Calestous Juma, Director, Science, Technology and Innovation Program, Harvard University
Washington, DC
June 22, 2001

Opening Remarks and Introduction by Alan Lang, Chairman of the Open Forum

Photo of Dr. Calestous JumaOne of the most urgent challenges facing the international community is strengthening food security in Africa in ways that are consistent with the principles of sustainable development. Crop yields have stagnated in many parts of the developing world, especially in Africa. Cereal yields in Africa have increased at nearly half the rate of those in Latin America since 1970. Poor soils, low rainfall, high temperatures and the prevalence of pests continue to undermine food security in many parts of Africa. In some countries cereal yields have fallen because of soil nutrient decline. These challenges are compounded by the high costs of imported agricultural inputs. Improving the situation will require greater investment in research, reliance on emerging technologies, and greater improvements in governance systems at all levels.

The strength of the U.S. in the world arena lies in science and technology. It is admittedly the world's scientific superpower and commands unparalleled stocks of scientific and technological knowledge needed to address the problems facing Africa. One of the main challenges in the country today is how to use this strength to engage African countries in new forms of international cooperation. U.S. leadership in the application of biotechnology in agriculture and human health is widely acknowledged and is at the center of major international controversies.

The global community is grappling with how to address Africa's challenges in the fields of food security, human health and environment. Agricultural production is particularly central to Africa's economies, most of which are agriculturally based. In addition, the future of agriculture will determine the fate of environmental management efforts. U.S. scientific and technological capabilities, especially in the field of biotechnology, should be mobilized to solve Africa's food security problems as a matter of strategic policy on both sides of the Atlantic. But addressing these challenges will require both sides to work together to build the strategic capabilities needed to bring science and technology to the center of the development process. Science and technology should be a key theme in U.S. foreign policy in general and development assistance in particular. It should also be an organizing principle for Africa's Relationship with the U.S.

This paper is divided into four sections. The first section explores the interactions between biotechnology and international relations. The second section examines emerging challenges related to food security in Africa. The third section outlines opportunities for biotechnology partnerships between the U.S. and the continent. The final section presents a set of areas where strategic capacity building is needed to ensure the effective implementation of collaborative efforts between the U.S. and Africa.

Biotechnology And International Relations

Science and technology is increasingly being recognized as a key force in shaping international relations. While the role of science and technology in international security and energy is widely acknowledged, it is only now that its pervasive role in international relations is being recognized. But this phenomenon is explicit in the character and content of a number of major international environmental agreements adopted by governments in the last decade, especially in the environmental field. Advances in a number of fields such as genetics have resulted in the call for new international regulatory instruments. Technological developments in other fields such as satellite imagery are starting to shape the prospects for monitoring compliance to international agreements. In still other fields, advances in the sciences are opening up new opportunities for solving persistent problems in health, agriculture and environmental management and thereby raising new issues about access to new knowledge for development.

These trends are starting to place new demands on the functioning of ministries of foreign affairs and other government organs that deal with international development issues. Recent international negotiations surrounding the role of biotechnology in the international economy have highlighted the growing impact of science and technology in international diplomacy. Relations between countries are based largely on existing patterns of industrial and agricultural production, as well as the associated trade. Technologies that change the patterns of production have the potential to create new trade relations and affect the nature of international cooperation.

Aid agencies and their counterparts in African countries are increasingly dealing with scientific and technical issues involving knowledge of advances in fields such as molecular biology and ecology. For example, participating effectively in the global debate on GM foods requires an appreciation of the biological sciences as well as the related fields, such as law, economics, ethics and sociology. The technical nature of many international negotiations is favoring countries that use scientific knowledge to inform their positions. In addition, technical knowledge is also shaping the way governments interact with industry and non-governmental organizations (NGOs).

The formation of science advice capacity in the U.S. Department of State is an example of the importance that governments are putting on science and technology in international diplomacy. This development not only serves as a source of inspiration for African countries, but also provides new opportunities for capacity building in African countries on science diplomacy. The existence of such capacity in African foreign ministries will help to create a basis for a common vocabulary on key international issues, in areas such as biosafety, intellectual property protection and overall scientific and technological cooperation. Working with African countries to bring science and technology to their diplomatic activities will improve cooperation and dialogue between the U.S. and Africa.

Assessing Emerging Challenges

Food security in context

There is considerable debate over food production trends and the technological options available to humanity to meet current and future needs, as well as over the role that industrialized countries can play in technological cooperation. Production patterns indicate a steady decline in growth of cereal crop yields from 1967 to the present, and a further decline is projected to 2020. This decline is seen in developing, as well as developed countries. Africa will be most affected by changes in the patterns of global food production and distribution.

Africa faces a number of choices today. It can expand production by bringing new land under the plough, but this process will lead to greater environmental degradation and loss of biological diversity. Alternatively, it can modernize its agriculture and use a wide range of available technologies-including biotechnology-to intensify production, as a way of reducing the need to expand the area under cultivation. The option to expand the land area may also be limited by the availability of essential inputs, such as water. Meeting Africa's food security goals in a sustainable way will require a strategy that involves prudent expansion, as well as use of modern technologies to intensify production.

Food security in Africa is perceived in the context of episodes of hunger and starvation. Indeed, images of starving children and regular reports on "food insecurity" from international institutions such as the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations have reinforced this narrow conception of the situation in Africa. Food security in Africa needs to be viewed in the wider context of sustainable development, addressing economic, social and environmental considerations.

The essential issue here is that African agriculture plays a much larger role in human welfare than just providing food for the hungry. The bulk of economic productivity in African countries is still based on agriculture. It is the linkages between agriculture and the rest of the economy that are critical for human welfare in these countries, and not the mere act of feeding the population. This view of agriculture's role helps to explain why arguments in favor of food imports or distribution of grain surpluses are of limited strategic value.

Agricultural production is also closely intertwined with environmental management, and changes in one field directly affect the other. A genuine transition towards sustainable agriculture would be the single most important measure that African countries could take to implement the goals of sustainable development. Viewed in this way, agriculture is so central to the future of these economies that it should occupy the same strategic status as that of defense in many countries for ages. It is the ultimate national security issue and should be viewed as such.

Many of Africa's conflicts are related to uncertainties over access to natural resources, which are currently viewed as the basic source of livelihoods. Scarcity of basic resources-either real or perceived-is a major source of insecurity and conflict in Africa and threat to human welfare. Reducing direct dependence on natural resources is a key element in peace and security in the region. In this regard, measures that promote agricultural sustainability and widen economic opportunities will play a key role in turning around a seemingly hopeless situation in Africa.

The role of science and technology

The role of science and technology in globalization is currently at the center of a wide range of international controversies involving agriculture, medicine and information technology. These controversies are part of the on-going challenge to globalization in general and the perceived global influence of the U.S. in the post-Cold-War period in particular. These debates stem from the fact that science and technology is currently viewed in the industrialized countries as a major tool for international competitiveness. But this view has emerged concurrently with the growing recognition of the need to use emerging technologies to address the needs of the poor in developing countries. There is an apparent conflict between the way science and technology is currently used and the expectations of a large section of humanity that is not able to afford basic requirements, such as essential drugs, basic nutrition and energy.

Social movements and groups around the world are therefore questioning the role of new technologies in meeting the needs of the poor. They contend that new technologies have helped to widen the gap between the rich and the poor within and between nations. Others have gone as far as suggesting that modern technological innovations are a source of the social, economic and ecological problems facing African countries. There is a general mood of suspicion, cautiousness and hostility towards technological innovation worldwide, often fueled by a wide range of social movements. This questioning of technology is reflected in the global debates over access to essential drugs, genetically modified (GM) foods, and open-source software.

The debate over agricultural biotechnology has so far focused on international trade in GM foods. Attempts to resolve the growing concerns through the 1992 United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) dealt largely with environmental aspects of living modified organisms (LMOs). Issues related to human health are being negotiated under the Codex Alimentarius Commission administered by the Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Health Organization. Other bodies in the United Nations systems are handling different aspects of the biotechnology debate. For example, the United Nations Commission on Science and Technology for Development is examining issues related to biotechnology capacity building in developing countries. The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) is looking into the trade-related aspects of biotechnology. Despite these efforts, the debate has so far focused largely on the risks associated with biotechnology and sidestepped its potential benefits in developing countries.

Ironically, the discussions over biotechnology in the late 1990s focused largely on its potential applications to meeting the needs of developing countries. Governments negotiated and signed the CBD based on detailed consideration of the potential role of biotechnology in development. Indeed, developing countries argued that they could use their biological resources to create new industries using the emerging technology. In addition to the CBD, the role of biotechnology in development is clearly articulated in Chapter 16 of Agenda 21, the program of work of the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development.

The promises of these international commitments remain unrealized, largely because biotechnology has increasingly been defined in terms of its risks, and little consideration has so far been given to finding mechanisms that offer a balanced assessment of its potential in developing countries. Enterprises in developed countries have in turn been slow to engage in technological partnerships in developing countries, because of concern over the lack of a policy environment that supports the use of emerging technologies. For example, developed countries are concerned about the absence of effective biosafety and intellectual property protection systems. Efforts to place biotechnology in a risk frame have gone hand in hand with concerns over globalization and the growing dominance of the U.S. in international agricultural trade. In other words, trade competition has provided the context in which international debates over biotechnology have been conducted.

It is therefore not a surprise that the first international regime regulating biotechnology-the Cartagena Protocol-deals mainly with trans-boundary movement of LMOs, which is in effect an international trade issue. The rules and decision procedures set out under the Cartagena Protocol are designed to regulate international trade and have inspired a wide range of analyses that examine its relationship with the World Trade Organization (WTO). Follow-up negotiations on international regulation of biotechnology now focus on issues such as labeling and traceability, which are also trade-related issues. In recognition that these debates are rooted in international concerns over trade, the U.S. and the European Union have sought to use other mechanisms, such as roundtables or forums, to resolve their differences.

Indeed, numerous developing countries are concerned about the trade implications of biotechnology, especially in the context of globalization. Developing countries fear that trade liberalization could undermine their commodity exports through product substitution using biotechnology. Cheaper foods produced through the use of modern biotechnology are also perceived as a threat to existing commodity markets. The requirement to remove subsidies for agricultural production as part of the globalization processes threatens to alter the competitiveness of agricultural commodities from countries that do not have access to modern technology.

Industrial country consumers continue to express skepticism towards transgenic foods. This is partly because they have a wide range of foods from which to make the necessary choices. They therefore question the need to use new technologies to make incremental changes in their foods without offering tangible benefits, especially those that help to improve human welfare. Indeed, industrialized countries already face challenges associated with excessive production of food. Many of these countries, especially in Europe, have put in place policies that seek to link food production with environmental conservation. Corresponding institutional reforms that combine agricultural, environment and consumer protection ministries illustrate a change in policy focus and public outlook.

Industry in the developed countries is looking into ways of producing foods relevant to the consumers. Fields such as "nutraceuticals" or "functional foods" are emerging as a response to the growing concern among consumers about their health and well being in general. The success of such investments is still in doubt, but it is evident that the concerns in industrialized countries stem from the view that meeting food security is no longer the concern of consumers. Much of consumer interest is shifting to the quality of the food consumed and its contributions to improved health.

The situation in many developing countries-especially in Africa-is different. Low-income families in these countries are faced with a wide range of challenges that include malnutrition, hunger and related illnesses. Addressing these challenges requires the deployment of available technological options. The poor often rely on a limited range of food sources, and as ecological degradation continues, the capacity to meet the needs of the poor diminishes. Raising agricultural productivity while promoting sustainable land use becomes a key element. Indeed, in many poor regions of the world, agricultural production is done by women, who also have other critical household responsibilities.

Responding to these challenges requires investment in technologies that are appropriate to the needs of low-income communities in diverse ecological zones, often located in areas that are not served by major markets. Agricultural production in these areas will need to be equally diverse and to reflect local needs and preferences. Genetic modification and the emerging techniques of genomics offer the possibility to design farming systems that are decentralized, responsive to local needs and that reflect sustainability requirements through greater productivity. 

Identifying New Opportunities

Commitment to sustainability

The political basis for applying biotechnology in agriculture already exists in the form of a wide range of international commitments to sustainable agriculture. All the African countries have defined agriculture as a priority. This is partly because of the chronic food shortages in the regions and partly because of the recognition of the strategic role that agriculture plays in these economies. Moreover, agricultural production and environmental management are intricately linked into a complex system of the provision of ecological services. These relationships are expressed in a number of international agreements, which most African countries have ratified.

In addition to international commitments to sustainable agriculture, African countries are also signing onto new agreements that require reductions or elimination of the use of chemicals such as persistent organic pollutants. These commitments entail the use of new approaches that do use traditional agrochemicals. The general direction of international policy is to shift towards agricultural approaches that emphasize sustainable practices. Methods such as "low-till" agriculture and the associated use of herbicide-tolerant crops start to acquire particular significance under such changes in farming practices. Equally important are methods that use disease-resistant crops as a way of managing the use of agrochemicals.

In addition to international commitments, many African countries are currently dealing with impacts of agricultural production on natural resources at the local level and are promoting community-based natural resource management practices. These ecological changes are being reflected in overall public policy and are influencing government approaches to agricultural production, especially in marginal areas. On the whole, there is growing recognition of the importance of sustainable agriculture, providing new opportunities for applying emerging technologies in economic development.

Technological opportunities

One of the most important environmental challenges facing Africa is how to meet current food needs without undermining the ability of future generations to meet theirs. Viewpoints vary on the role of technology in the transition towards sustainable agriculture. One approach starts with the premise that technological development is the source of many of the world's environmental problems. This view has led to proposals that seek to curb the use of modern technologies, especially those derived from advances in molecular biology. An alternative view accepts the negative role that certain technologies have played, but argues that transition towards sustainable development will require greater use of innovative technologies, not less. Advances in molecular biology have made it possible to combine traditional and modern techniques in sustainable agriculture. The field of biotechnology, for example, has opened new avenues for increasing agricultural productivity while enhancing environmental conservation.

Sustainable agriculture will require African countries to make prudent choices. To do so, they must not be restricted to using only the technologies available today. Making such decisions requires access to a wider range of technologies, especially those resulting from advances in molecular biology. Undue restriction of the use of these technologies is inconsistent with sustainable agriculture and would undermine long-term ecological and human welfare.

While biotechnology cannot solve all the problems associated with agricultural production, it has the potential to address specific problems. These include: increasing crop productivity; diversifying crops; enhancing nutritional value of food; reducing environmental impacts of agricultural production; and promoting market competitiveness.

One of the ways to ensure food security is to broaden the crop base. Currently, most of the agricultural research in Africa focuses on a narrow range of crops, and many of the crops used by local communities have not benefited from modern research. One of the reasons for this focus is the heavy investment and long time frames needed to develop new varieties of crops. Modern biotechnology offers the best available options for diversifying agricultural production by speeding up the development of new varieties, including those of under-utilized crops.

Enhancing the nutritional value of crops is another important aspect of food security. Modifying rice to enhance its vitamin A content is a good example of this process. United Nations projections show that while chronic malnutrition will decline in Asia and Latin America in the coming decades, the numbers for Africa will increase significantly. Biotechnology will make it easier to maintain traditional diets while improving nutritional value. Modern biotechnology could also help in enhancing the competitiveness of agricultural products from African countries and thereby promoting their integration into the global economy. Efforts to diversify agricultural production in Africa will not only promote food security in those regions, but will also add new crops to the world food market.

Forging Strategic Partnerships

Executive leadership

Bringing science and technology to the center of Africa's economic renewal will require more than just political commitment; it will take executive leadership on both sides. This challenge requires "concept champions", who in this case will be heads of state spearheading the task of shaping their foreign relations around the role of science and technology. Such leadership is starting to emerge in Africa, and a few countries have already designated presidential advisors to help guide their efforts in this field.

So far, most African countries have not developed national policies that demonstrate a sense of focus to help channel emerging technologies to solving developmental problems. They still rely on generic strategies dealing with "poverty alleviation," without a serious consideration of the sources of economic productivity. These strategies are developed mainly to meet bureaucratic requirements by international donor agencies and cannot serve as a substitute for executive leadership on strategic issues such as agricultural sustainability. Neither can they be responses to whimsical changes in development thinking, changes that are so pervasive in international organizations.

The challenges ahead of these countries are so fundamental that such executive leadership should form the platform around which to address other problems. There are no significant challenges in Africa that cannot be addressed through a strategic approach involving nutrition and human health. Indeed, as African societies become more open, they will start to demand leadership that offers direction in key areas related to human welfare. They will certainly not be able to deliver on any of such promises, without coming to terms with the critical role played by science and technology in development.

One of the central features of executive guidance is the degree to which political leaders are informed about the role of science and technology in development. While industrialized country leaders maintain offices of science and technology advice, such facilities are still nascent in African countries. Only two African countries -- South Africa and Nigeria -- have presidential science and technology advisors. This is a reflection of the weak nature of African science and technology advice institutions. So far only nine African countries have national academies of science, and of these none is engaged in any systematic advice to government.

Working with African countries to strengthen science and technology advice institutions in general, and presidential science advice in particular, will help to improve dialogue between the U.S. and its African partners. Furthermore, these institutions are essential in clarifying key issues related to technology management, such as biosafety. In addition, the existence of science and technology advice capacity will help in identifying emerging issues and potential areas of international cooperation in science and technology.

Science and technology policy

One of the limiting factors in Africa's quest for technological change has been the nature and functioning of institutions. In most cases, there are no explicit policies or institutional arrangements designed to deal with emerging technologies. In addition, little effort is made to ensure that technological goals are integrated into other economic activities. Not only are explicit policies to promote emerging technologies absent in many countries, many of the existing policies have had negative impacts on technological change. For example, many of the policies adopted to promote structural adjustment may have eroded the accumulated technological capacity in various sectors.

Having science and technology documents or laws is not sufficient. What is critical is to ensure that the institutions which form part of the innovation system are responsive to change and adaptation. For example, decisions related to foreign investment have far-reaching implications for technological change. But not all technological change is linked to foreign investment. Many of the African countries can move into the field of modern biotechnology by building on the knowledge, skills and expertise already present in the agricultural sector.

Technological innovation is a long-term process that does not show immediate results. Thus, technology policies must be part of a long-term development vision. In many cases, this long-term vision may need to be part of the political process and be based on a certain degree of consensus. Where there is no political consensus, science and technology policy strategies may not hold out long enough to show results. The long-term perspective also requires continuous adjustments of the policies and institutions, in light of global changes and new opportunities. This flexibility requires capacity to monitor such trends and could be achieved through better use of diplomatic resources.

Long-term policies are likely to succeed when they focus on specific issues or categories of products that confer a certain degree of competitive advantage to a country or region. Furthermore, the focus is likely to be maintained if there is a strong stakeholder constituency around the technological options. Such a constituency is consistent with the need to build on prior expertise and knowledge. But it should not preclude exploration of new opportunities, based on available or expected resource endowments. Investment in technical education, for example, offers the flexibility that a country needs to adapt to emerging global conditions. Unfortunately, technical education is often not considered in science and technology policy.

On the whole, the design of policies and institutions should be based on identified technological goals and not on generic terms. A focus on agricultural biotechnology and biomedical research, for example, would offer the necessary focus for rethinking existing policies and institutions. In addition, such policies and institutions should be considered in the context of the overall configuration of resources needed to deliver products. In the case of agricultural biotechnology and biomedical research, such policies and institutions will need to take into account the importance of strategic alliances and global partnerships.

Biotechnology management

The use of biotechnology in African economy agriculture should be seen as part of the overall innovation system involving goal-oriented interactions between government, industry research institutions, and civil society. The concept of "innovation systems" has been developed to better understand the linkages among the key actors involved in innovation. The basis of this view is that understanding the linkages is essential for enhancing technological performance, which in turn is viewed as being critical to the process of national competitiveness. Technical change and innovation are the results of a complex and dynamic set of relationships involving actors producing, distributing and using various kinds of knowledge.

There is no agreed definition of innovation systems, although the core approaches deal with institutional networks, relationships in the production process, and interactions between key figures in government, industry, research institutions and civil society. Innovation systems in Africa are marked by greater concern for building basic scientific and technological capacity. Most of them are not integrated into the global economy in a way that allows them to benefit from international knowledge flows. These countries are often not in a position to use state-of-the-art technologies, and they lack the basic policy infrastructure needed to integrate science and technology into development objectives.

Creating effective innovation systems not only requires greater international cooperation, but it will also entail changes in the way African institutions -- especially universities -- function. Currently, university research in most countries is neither directed at local problems, nor connected to private enterprises that can serve as vehicles for the converting research results into products. The field of agricultural research is in urgent need of reform, to give universities a role in serving as productive entities and incubators for start-up enterprises.

Agriculture plays an important role in the economies of African countries, but it still receives little policy attention. It is urgent to reexamine the long-term implications of technological innovation for the future of agriculture in Africa. The most appropriate policy foundation for such a review is the need to make the transition towards agricultural sustainability (including social, ecological and economic factors), and emerging technologies should be assessed against this standard. More specifically, there is a need to identify ways by which emerging technologies can be utilized to address the needs of poor farmers.

The on-going debates on biotechnology call for national management measures. Such measures include laws and institutions that deal with ways of maximizing the impacts of biotechnology, while reducing its risks. Such measures include capacity building in research, international partnerships, enterprise development, and community participation in technology development. They also include the formation of institutions and laws that ensure that biotechnology research and commercialization are undertaken according to specific safety protocols. These measures require close cooperation between a wide range of actors and cannot be reduced to simplistic private-public sector partnerships. Many of these institutional arrangements will depend on the nature of the technology and local ecological conditions, as well as the political cultures at the national level.

One of the key aspects of biotechnology management is identifying ways of having access to proprietary technology help by private companies or universities in other countries. This identification will require institutional innovations aimed at facilitating technology sharing. New forms of partnerships will need to be crafted, to afford access to proprietary technologies, while ensuring that property rights are protected. Efforts will need to be made, by private enterprises and other holders of technology, to build the trust needed to bring emerging technologies to address problems of poor countries. And above all, keeping technological options open for African countries should be the overriding guiding principle.

Science Diplomacy

African countries have been active participants in the international arena and have played a prominent role in keeping the development agenda alive in various forums. Africa's role in this field goes back to the early 1960s when the emergent nations sought to articulate their sovereignty at the international plane and worked closely with their counterparts in other regions of the world. They added considerably to the formulation of concepts such as the "new international economic order" and promoted them through the United Nations system. The positions taken by African countries were largely driven by the search for global equity.

International forums became the locus through which Africa pressed for reforms in the global system. Not only did Africa use its numerical strength in these forums to argue its case, but also many leading Africans became the champions of the international call for global equity. In addition, a number of African countries came to symbolize this persistent quest and a number of ideas that reflect African cultural values. They have also promoted the establishment of new international regimes such as the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (CCD).

But as the nature of international discourse shifts towards greater consideration of scientific and technological issues, African countries will also need to reexamine the composition of their foreign ministries. Their bilateral partners such as the U.S. are creating science and technology advice capability in their foreign departments. This development not only serves as a source of inspiration for African countries, but it also provides new opportunities for capacity building in African countries on science diplomacy. The existence of such capacity in the foreign ministries of African countries will help to create a basis for a common vocabulary on key international issues in areas such as biosafety, intellectual property protection and overall scientific and technical cooperation. Working with African countries to bring science and technology to their diplomatic activities will help improve cooperation and dialogue between the U.S. and its partners.


As science and technology becomes the most dominant force in international affairs, countries will be seeking to assert their global influence using this resource. Recent advances in the life science offer the U.S. a unique diplomatic opportunity to work with African countries to solve their development problems, especially those associated with food security. African countries, on the other hand, need to adjust their policies to pay special attention to the role of science and technology in economic renewal. These two interests provide a unique opportunity for forging new forms of partnerships. But this promise will not be realized, except through initial collective efforts on both sides to focus on building strategic capabilities in fields such as executive guidance, science and technology policy, technology management and science diplomacy.

Released on June 22, 2001

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