Sunday, October 21, 2007

Biotechnology Regulation in Africa

Read "Calestous Juma: Protect Africa from technological vandalism" in Business Daily (Africa), October 21, 2007.

Lead: "African countries should adopt laws that protect the region’s research efforts against technological vandalism, argues Calestous Juma"

The article begins:
The Kenyan parliament is debating a bill to enable the country to regulate agricultural biotechnology. Critics, however, argue that passing the law would pose threats to the environment, threaten the welfare of farmers and expose the people to unknown health risks.

To the contrary, failing to adopt the law will condemn Kenya to the backwaters of technological innovation. Adopting biotechnology will do for African agriculture what the mobile phone has done for telecommunications. It will revolutionize agriculture, offer new tools for managing the environment and expand economic opportunities for farmers.
Calestous Juma argues, as he has done begore, that biotechnology is a powerful approach that would benefit African nations if used appropriately.

Juma is a professor at Harvard who has done a lot to promote the appropriate use of science and technology in developing nations, and who has been especially important in raising consciousness of the potential benefits and perils of the application of biotechnology.

I of course agree fully that biotechnology offers African nations important opportunities to improve agriculture, health services, environmental protection, and industry. If applied well, it can help reduce the burdens of disease, hunger and poverty.

I think the question is not whether Kenya should adopt laws for the regulation of biotechnology. It seems to me obvious that countries need good laws for that purpose. (And laws in each country should reflect the real risks faced by that country as well as the willingness of people in the country to accept risks.) The more important question should be whether the proposed Kenyan law is indeed a good one. Does it appropriately balance the need to protect against risks yet allow benefits to flow from the application of biotechnology?

Even with a good law, however, there is an issue of the ability of Kenya to enforce the law. Indeed, one might include enforceability as part of the criteria of "good". Too many countries with weak enforcement of laws seem to spend their time inventing laws to solve their problems rather than by creating the institutions needed to enforce the laws, or indeed a culture of "rule of law".

I would also point out that the laws and policies needed to promote the rapid adoption of biotechnology go far beyond those needed to regulate against risks from the consumption of inappropriate genetically modified foods. There have to be laws that favor the transfer of useful technologies, often involving foreign direct investment and protection of intellectual property rights.

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