Biotechnology Issues for Developing Countries

Electronic Journal of Biotechnology ISSN: 0717-3458 Vol. 12 No. 1, Issue of January 15, 2009
© 2009 by Pontificia Universidad Católica de Valparaíso -- Chile Received June 17, 2008 / Accepted October 16, 2008
DOI: 10.2225/vol12-issue1-fulltext-6 How to reference this article

Biosafety education relevant to genetically engineered crops for academic and non-academic stakeholders in East Africa

 Theresa Sengooba*
Program for Biosafety Systems, East Africa
International Food Policy Research Institute-Uganda
Kampala, Uganda
Tel: 256 41 285060/285064 Ext. 221
Fax: 256 414 285079

Rebecca Grumet
Department of Horticulture
Graduate Program in Genetics
Plant and Soil Science Building
Michigan State University
East Lansing MI 48824
Tel: 517 355-5191 Ext. 1431

James Hancock
Department of Horticulture
Graduate Program in Genetics
Plant and Soil Science Building
Michigan State University
East Lansing MI 48824
Tel: 517 355 5191 Ext. 1431

Barbara Zawedde
Program for Biosafety Systems, East Africa
International Food Policy Research Institute
Kampala, Uganda
Tel: 256 414 285060/285064 Ext. 208
Fax: 256 414 28

Lazaro Kitandu
Ministry of Agriculture Food Security and Cooperatives
Plant Health Services, Lake Zone
Shinyanga -Tanzania
Tel: 255 754 673 154
Fax 255 28 276 2731

Cholani Weebadde
Institute of International Agriculture 266
Plant and Soil Sciences Building
Michigan State University
East Lansing, MI 48824, USA
Tel: 517 355 0271 Ext. 1159
Fax: 517 432 1982

Margaret Karembu
International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications AfriCenter
C/o International Potato Centre
Nairobi, Kenya
Tel: 254 20 4223618/5
Fax: 254 20 4223600

Eucharia Kenya
School of Pure and Applied Science
Kenyatta University Nairobi
Nairobi, Kenya
Tel: 254 020 810901 12
Fax: 254 020 811575

Karim Meredia
Institute of International Agriculture
Plant and Soil Science Building
Michigan State University
East Lansing, MI 48824, USA
Tel: 517 353 526
Fax: 517 432 198

Paul Nampala
Uganda National Academy of Science
Kampala, Uganda
Tel: 256 414 533044
Fax: 256 414 533044

James O. Ochanda
Department of Biochemistry
University of Nairobi, Kenya
Tel: 254 020 4442841
Fax: 254 020 4442841

Hector Quemada
Biotechnology and Biodiversity Interface Grant Program
Biology Department
Calvin College, Grand Rapids, MI 49546 USA
Tel: 616 387 5869
Fax: 616 387 5609

Mugassa Rubindamayugi
Department of Molecular Biology and Biotechnology
Faculty of Science
University of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania
Tel: 255 22 2410223
Fax: 255 22 2410078/2410514

*Corresponding author

Financial support: The work included in this publication was sponsored by the United States Agency for International Development through the Program for Biosafety Systems implemented by the International Food Policy Research Institute.

Keywords: biotechnology, environmental safety, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda.


AATF:African Agricultural Technology Foundation
ABSF: African Biotechnology Stakeholders Forum
APEP: Agricultural Productivity Enhancement Program
BIOEARN: East African program and Research Network for biotechnology, biosafety and biotechnology policy development
Bt: Bacillus thuringiensis
CONSENT:Consumer Education Trust
COSTECH: Commission for Science and Technology
FAO: Food and Agriculture Organization
GATT: General Agreement on Tarrifs and Trade
GE: Genetic engineering
GEF: Global Environment Facility
ICGEB: International Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology
IEC: Information, Education, Communication
IFPRI: International Food Policy Research Institute
ISAAA: International Service for Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications
MSU: Michigan State University
NARO: National Agricultural Research Organization
NCST: National Council for Science and Technology
OAS: Organization of American States
OECD: Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development
PBS: Program for Biosafety Systems, USAID
TBT: Technical Barriers to Trade
UNCST: Uganda National Council for Science and Technology
UNEP: United Nations Environment Program
USAID: United States Agency for International Development
WHO: World Health Organization

Abstract   Reprint (PDF)

Development and deployment of genetically engineered crops requires effective environmental and food safety assessment capacity. In-country expertise is needed to make locally appropriate decisions. In April 2007, biosafety and biotechnology scientists, regulators, educators, and communicators from Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda, met to examine the status and needs of biosafety training and educational programs in East Africa. Workshop participants emphasized the importance of developing biosafety capacity within their countries and regionally. Key recommendations included identification of key biosafety curricular components for university students; collaboration among institutions and countries; development of informational materials for non-academic stakeholders and media; and organization of study tours for decision makers. It was emphasized that biosafety knowledge is important for all aspects of environmental health, food safety, and human and animal hygiene. Thus, development of biosafety expertise, policies and procedures can be a stepping stone to facilitate improved biosafety for all aspects of society and the environment.


Issues relevant to biosafety education and communication in East Africa

Workshop discussions and recommendations
Concluding Remarks

Table 1
Table 2
Table 3
Table 4

Production of genetically engineered (GE) crops has increased steadily since their introduction a decade ago (James, 2007). In 2007 more than 114 million hectares were grown worldwide, with 40% of those planted in developing countries (James, 2007). African countries, however, with the exception of South Africa, have not planted GE crops for commercial production, although research is in progress in a number of countries. Whether current or future GE crop technologies will be appropriate for African countries and farmers will depend on a combination of agricultural, health, environmental, social, and economic factors. Clearly, a primary concern must be safety of the products and their uses. Effective and safe use of these technologies requires the appropriate environmental and food biosafety assessment policies and processes to guide decision makers in choices for their countries, farms, and families.

The ability to perform and utilize biosafety assessments requires appropriate technical expertise, reliable sources of science-based information, and the mechanisms to deliver credible, verifiable information to a broad array of stakeholders with varying perspectives and concerns. The importance of capacity building for biosafety has been underscored by Meyer et al. (2007) noting that ‘if the issue of capacity-building is not adequately addressed, the effort that went into negotiating the protocol will have been in vain’. A number of training programs have been carried out to help develop biosafety awareness and expertise, by both African and international agencies including those offered by the East African program and Research Network for biotechnology, biosafety and biotechnology policy development (BIOEARN); the African Union Biosafety Project; the United Nations Global Environment Facility (GEF); the International Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology (ICGEB); the FAO project for capacity building of regulation of genetically modified crops, products and processed foods; the Organization of American States (OAS) Capacity Building Program in Biosafety and Agro- Biotechnology in Latin America and the Caribbean Region and the USAID- Program for Biosafety Systems (PBS) in conjunction with the biosafety and ecological impact assessment capacity building programs at Michigan State University (MSU). These programs have been valuable in providing useful information and facilitating development of national biosafety frameworks in accordance with the Cartagena Protocol. However, the needs for expertise and information go well beyond what can be provided through such short term capacity building efforts. Local expertise and experience are needed to provide relevant biosafety education, perform biosafety assessments, and make locally appropriate decisions.

In April 2007, a workshop organized by PBS/MSU, was held in Entebbe, Uganda, to explore the current status of biosafety training and educational programs within the East African countries of Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda, and to address the question of how to best develop and deliver biosafety education in the East Africa region. East African biosafety experts, educators and communicators were brought together to identify needs, share resources and experiences, and facilitate development of future strategy for capacity building. The regional workshop participants included university faculty, research scientists, biosafety officers, and representatives of Ministries of Agriculture, Environmental Institutes, National Academy of Sciences, consumer organizations, farmer organizations, research and policy institutes, agricultural development programs as well as International and Regional networks (Table 1).

Specific objectives of the workshop were to: (1) Review current status of biosafety educational programs in East Africa; (2) Share biosafety educational resources among trainers in the East Africa region; (3) Discuss training strategies and approaches suitable for various stakeholders in East Africa; and (4) Build a regional network of biosafety/biotechnology trainers for continued interactions and information sharing to foster science based decision making.

The workshop began with an overview of crop biotechnology and food and environmental biosafety concerns; a discussion of issues raised by the general public and decision makers in the East Africa region with respect to GE crops; an outline of disciplinary aspects of biosafety as a scientific discipline; and presentation of factors influencing dissemination of accurate information. Following the presentation of background information, the workshop participants were divided into two groups to have focused discussions on the educational needs for academic (e.g. students of biotechnology, biosafety, plant breeding) and non-academic (e.g. legislators, regulators, extension agents, farmers) stakeholders. A summary of current status and issues relevant to biosafety education and communication in East Africa, results of deliberations of the workshop participants, and key recommendations resulting from the workshop are presented in this article.

Issues relevant to biosafety education and communication in East Africa

Issues raised by stakeholders on GE Crops in East Africa

There are varied perceptions about biotechnology and GE crops among policy makers and the general public in the East Africa region. These perceptions are influenced by reported benefits, perceived risks, unfamiliarity with the technology, many prevailing uncertainties, and lack of confidence in available capacity to ensure safe use.

Most enlightened stakeholders are aware that biotechnology has benefits such as higher yields in crops like cotton and maize. These benefits result from control of pests that decrease yield. The value of effective weed management through use of herbicide tolerant crops is quite striking, but many policy makers are not convinced that this is applicable to the small-scale farm situation most common in the region. Benefits through reduction of pesticide application for a crop like cotton are attractive, but have to be validated under local conditions. Reduced exposure of farmers to chemicals, less toxic herbicide runoff to surface water and groundwater, control of biotic and abiotic stress factors, reduced pre- and post-harvest losses, longer shelf life, reduced exploitation of natural habitats for food crops, preservation of biodiversity, development of a broader range of crops suited for marginal areas (e.g. sorghum, cassava, pearl millet) are among the anticipated future benefits associated with biotechnology (Were and von Grebmer, 2003; Kohi, 2006). Other benefits attributed to biotechnology include improved crop quality, though the lack of real GE products in the region and distorted information often leads to imagining that any abnormally high yields or big fruits are the result of genetic engineering.

The potential risks associated with biotechnology are very pronounced in the perceptions of policy makers and the general public in the region. There is concern that genetic modification could affect the safety of food and animal feed and thus pose potential risks to human and animal health. It is feared that GE foods may cause allergic reactions, act as toxins or carcinogens, affect digestibility or cause drug resistance. The food safety concerns are not only based on what the food could cause, but also due to limited capacity in the region to perform testing. Labeling as a consumer choice issue is another concern. Environmental safety concerns are very much influenced by what appears in media which highlights the potential risks posed by GE to agriculture, ecology and environment. Issues that have been raised include: invasiveness, weediness, gene flow, impact on 'non-target' organisms, mixed virus infections, new pests and diseases and unexpected variability (Kohi, 2006).

While the above listed food, health and environmental safety related concerns are often presented as generic concerns when discussing biotechnology, the socio-economic issues engender greater interest and pose more challenge to decision making bodies. The issues raised include monopoly control by the trans-national companies; the need to buy GE seeds for every new planting which small farmers may not be able to afford; profit margins being squeezed between the seed cost and declining world prices; possible loss of existing robust crop varieties and technologies; challenging market dynamics, especially with the European Union; and the concern that GE crops may undermine biodiversity conservation. Other issues include benefit sharing, transferability of biosafety assessments across the region and beyond, and co-existence of organic and GE crops. From a religious perspective there is concern over the “Unnaturalness” of the technology- “Playing God” and questioning of the extent to which this technology is enabling mankind to interfere with nature and evolution.

Given these many concerns and the limited knowledge and awareness about biotechnology by policy makers, extension workers and the farmers, there is a great need for accurate, credible information. There has been much effort to communicate the value of biotechnology, train communicators and develop message maps. While notable progress is being made, inadequate knowledge and misinformation about GE technology still prevails in the region. Efforts to address concerns include developing national communication strategies, open discussions, training and supporting efficient communicators, developing and using effective messages and IEC (Information, Education, Communication) materials, targeting the proper time and audiences, and using study tours to allow key stakeholders direct observation of GE crops in the field. Ensuring presence of appropriate biosafety systems, policies, legal instruments, and decision-making processes are critical for safe deployment of GE crops.

Key principles of crop biotechnology and biosafety

Biosafety assessment of GE crops and their uses must be based on an understanding of the technologies used for development of GE crops, the relationship of GE crops to conventionally bred crops, and the relationship of GE crop production practices to current agricultural practices and their impacts. Food safety concerns with respect to GE crops include possible impacts on toxicity, allergenicity, and nutritional content (FAO/WHO, 2000; Lehrer, 2000; Kuiper et al. 2001; Ho and Vermeer, 2004). These concerns arise from the source of introduced genes, which can come from familiar food sources or from sources that are not related to the crop; or to the transformation and regeneration processes, which can cause unintended changes in the plant due to effects on gene expression or metabolism. While traditional breeding also can use genes from non-food sources (such as disease resistance genes from wild relatives) or can cause changes in gene expression or metabolism (Baudo et al. 2006; Thomson 2006; Harrigan et al. 2007), the use of novel genes and techniques in GE crop development has instigated careful analysis of GE products (Codex Alimentarius, 2004).

Safety evaluation for GE foods as outlined in Codex Alimentarius (2003; 2004) involves extensive characterization of the gene and gene product, including testing for toxicity and allergenicity, and evaluation of gene expression and biochemical composition of the transgenic plants. GE foods are then compared to their conventional counterparts to determine whether they are ‘substantially equivalent’, or altered in a significant way that could influence food safety (Konig et al. 2004). The International Food Safety Assessment Guidelines provided by Codex Alimentarius affirm substantial equivalence as the basis of safety assessment. A conclusion of substantial equivalence is not by itself a safety assessment, but is a means of identifying the differences between the new food and its traditional counterpart, which then become the focus of the safety assessment through a framework of tests. While other attributes, such as colour, flavour, texture, or cooking qualities may influence ultimate suitability or acceptance of the GE crop, these are not food safety issues and are not generally part of a food safety assessment, unless the differences result from changes influencing factors such as toxicity or nutrition. There is international agreement on the principles of food safety assessment, and food safety assessments are done similarly in Europe, United States, Japan, and Canada, though regulatory systems may differ in the way decisions are made (Kuiper et al. 2001; Konig, 2004).

Environmental safety concerns include potential effects on non-target species, gene flow to wild relatives, and potential effect on biodiversity or invasiveness (Conner et al. 2003). Potential effects on non-target species may occur if GE crops produce novel defensive compounds (e.g. Bt toxin to prevent insect attack). This concern is generally addressed through testing toxicity of active ingredient on indicator organisms and by monitoring for toxic effects (Andow and Hillbeck, 2004; Romeis et al. 2006). Potential effects of transgenes on invasiveness of a crop or native species depends on presence of compatible native relatives to which gene flow could occur and the resultant impact of the new gene (Conner et al. 2003; Snow et al. 2005). Information on the location and inter-fertility of compatible relatives, including those of most African crops, is generally available in the literature; information on invasiveness can be obtained from several sources including literature or indigenous knowledge. The most careful evaluation will be needed for crops that are already invasive or have invasive compatible wild relatives (Hancock, 2003).

Two other concerns that frequently arise are primarily agricultural, rather than environmental. Many have expressed concerns about losing land races through introduction of transgenes via hybridization with GE crops (Conner et al. 2003). It is important to note that potential impact of transgenic crops on land races is not different from that of conventionally produced cultivars unless the transgene incorporated into the crop provides a unique risk to the ecosystem (Hancock, 2003). Development of resistance by the target pest to the protective compound also has been raised as a concern with GE crops. In this case, the primary concern is loss of usefulness of the control strategy, as has been frequently observed with conventional breeding for resistance or application of chemical pesticides (Conner et al. 2003; Snow et al. 2005). Strategies to delay development of resistance for GE crops include use of very high toxin levels, stacking genes, and planting refugia to allow mating of resistant individuals with non-resistant individuals to reduce frequency of resistance genes (Bates et al. 2005).

In addition to potential negative effects of GE crops on the environment, it was indicated that there is also potential for positive effects. Numerous reports have documented reduced pesticide use in both developed and developing countries resulting from production of Bt crops engineered for resistance to specific insect pests (Brookes and Barfoot, 2006; Morse et al. 2005; Raney, 2006; Sankula, 2006). The use of herbicide resistant crops has led to the use of less toxic herbicides, reduced fuel use, and has facilitated the adoption of reduced-tillage or no-till production methods that help preserve soil quality and reduce soil erosion (Brookes and Barfoot, 2006; Cerdeira and Duke, 2006).

In the discussions following these presentations, participants expressed the need for African stakeholders to look at the research done for the different GE products themselves, and make their own decisions on a case-by-case basis. Based on the prior research, decisions could be made on whether additional information is needed for the intended new environments and uses. The high costs of safety assessments and regulatory process was seen as a potential obstacle for future public-sector development of GE crops and may make it difficult for products to reach the intended users. It was also noted that given competing demands for very limited public resources, agricultural research in Africa is under-funded. These constraints will make it difficult for introduction of GE biotechnology, like many other technologies, to realize its potential (Cohen, 2005). Finally, questions regarding the scope of assessments were also discussed - is it the responsibility of scientists to address socio-economic concerns; if not, who should? It was suggested that there is need to include socio-economists and communicators to address some of those issues.

Cross cutting issues in biosafety as a scientific discipline and educational capacity in the East African region

As a scientific discipline, biosafety entails identification of risks and development of practices to analyze, regulate, manage, and prevent or minimize exposure of humans and the environment to biological hazards. The evaluations may be directed toward known hazards such as pathogenic microbes or toxins of biological origin (Isaac and Kerr, 2003) or toward assessments of other potential biological hazards such as those which may be associated with modern gene-based biotechnology. In its broadest sense, biosafety also includes preparedness to deal with biological weapons, bioterrorism, biosecurity and biodefence issues. In addition to direct impacts on the health and safety of communities and environments, the implementation of biosafety practices can influence laws and regulations, product development, production methods, and international trade (Cohen and Paarlberg, 2004). Thus, the choice of appropriate biosafety standards and methods interfaces with society at many levels and raises numerous bioethical questions that go beyond laboratory assessments of risk. In some cases, the biosafety risk assessment process has been more broadly framed, and in addition to biosafety per se, has addressed potential effects of biotechnology products on matters of trade, livelihood of communities, access to products, and benefit sharing (Kameri-Mbote, 2002; Karlsson, 2003; Dhar and Anuradha, 2004)

As a multi-faceted discipline, biosafety training must span numerous disciplines. Scientific knowledge is required in the areas of genetics, plant breeding, molecular biology and biotechnology; agricultural production practices; food science, toxicology, and microbiology; ecology and environmental science; and environmental and food safety assessment methods. Understanding of the fundamental principles of risk assessment and risk communication, and public perception and concerns about the application and use of biotechnology is also critical. Knowledge of international conventions and agreements that influence development of national biotechnology regulatory instruments such as the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety of the Convention on Biological Diversity, the Codex Alimentarius Commission of FAO/WHO, relevant World Trade Organization Agreements such as Sanitary and Phytosanitary (SPS) Agreement, Technical Barriers to Trade (TBT) and the general Agreement on Tarrifs and Trade (GATT) is also necessary (Isaac and Kerr, 2003). Students of biosafety should also know about the role of United Nations organizations including FAO, WTO, UNEP and GEF in biosafety regulations as well as that of regional organizations like the OECD and the African Union.

Proper governance and effective implementation of National Biosafety Frameworks, requires the ability to validate presence and concentration of genetically modified organisms in the environment or products, decision-making authority and capacity, mechanisms to enforce compliance, and effective procedures to communicate relevant information. Thus training is needed by biosafety officers, laboratory safety officers, directors of health and safety programs, biosafety committee chairs and members, technical staff, industrial hygienists, occupational health personnel working in environments with biohazards, research scientists, scientific journalists and architects and engineers designing facilities handling biological materials which are toxic, pathogenic or pests.

It was emphasized that training in biosafety should provide knowledge on crosscutting issues relevant to biosafety practices and regulations and should be accompanied by consideration of benefits and risks to the specific environment of application. Biosafety knowledge should not only be relevant to GE products but also to biological hazards such as toxins, pathogens, and invasive species, which frequently cause health or environmental impacts throughout the world (Sendashonga et al. 2005). Thus development of biosafety expertise, policies, and procedures can serve multiple important health and environmental goals.

The subsequent discussion of biosafety educational needs emphasized that biosafety issues are not new or limited to GE products, so when talking about biosafety we need to include broader issues of food safety and hygiene. It was suggested that infusing elements of biosafety and biotech in the existing science curriculum at the secondary level could avoid the challenge of overloaded curricula. While on-line courses could be very helpful in reaching a broader audience and could assist in serving regional needs, most universities in the region are not conducting e-learning in biotechnology and biosafety, except Kenyatta University in Nairobi.

The workshop participants noted that there are many training programs and resources available for biosafety and food safety education inside and outside of the East African Region (Table 2; Table 3). Organizations that routinely carry out training on biosafety include The International Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology (ICGEB), which also provides a bibliographic database and a range of publications; Michigan State University, which offers both short courses and longer-term internships for biosafety and food safety; and UNEP-GEF which organizes training internationally. There are also numerous regional and international sources of information on biosafety and food safety, many of which are web-based.

Educating and communicating effectively about the benefits and potential risks of biotechnology products

Communicating information about biotechnology and biosafety faces a range of challenges due to different information needs and backgrounds of various stakeholders, perceived interests vs. actual interests, and existing views of the technology that may influence receptiveness to information. Therefore, effective communication requires matching the proper speaker to the target group in order to enhance comprehension of audiences with diverse perspectives, levels of knowledge, and sophistication. Scientists and regulators should be involved in communication to help assure that facts are not distorted, over-simplified, or sensationalized.

Effective risk communication must deliver accurate and well presented information and ensure transparency and openness at all levels. An interactive exchange of information and opinions throughout the risk analysis process is important to clarify misconceptions and promote understanding. Constraints to risk communication in agricultural biotechnology include uncertainty, complexity and incompleteness of biosafety data, e.g., not all non-target organisms can be studied, testing cannot be done indefinitely, and standards for testing are not universally accepted. Thus the outcomes of risk assessments are estimates, and conclusions reflect value judgments. There is also distrust and scepticism stemming from disagreement among experts, lack of co-ordination among risk management organizations, inadequate risk communication skills, and a history of arrogance, distortion and exaggeration from groups on both sides of the issue. Thus the problem of risk communication is not so much to regain trust as to function without it. Psycho-social factors that determine how people process information about risk also have to be taken into consideration for effective communication.

Other constraints in biotechnology communication include limited resources and selective reporting by news media. In most cases, communicating about biotechnology is not a high priority for limited public funds, and the media tend to select stories about unusual situations such as verbal confrontations rather than agreements, or sensational situations such as disasters that may be imagined or real. Reporters tend to exaggerate “outrage factors”, heightening perception of risk (Chartier and Gabler, 2001). Truth in journalism is different from truth in science; journalists will try to obtain information from accessible sources and present both sides of an issue as if they are equally important (Chartier and Gabler, 2001).

The ensuing discussion raised several points relative to the presentation of biosafety information. There is need to develop different approaches and messages for communicating biotechnology to different target groups. The content and packaging of the messages is very important, especially with respect to presentation of potential risks. Presenting risks as real instead of potential may cause misquotation and misinterpretation. The lack of biotechnology products in current use in Africa was viewed as a further challenge to communication and reducing misconceptions.

Several points referred to the role of scientists and the media including the need to be more proactive in training scientists to become media reporters, or to provide journalists with skills in communicating about science. It was also emphasized that scientists need to be ready to provide media with information immediately when contacted to avoid misinformation, and that they should also communicate with others in their institutions to minimize misunderstanding and misinformation.

Workshop discussions and recommendations

Biosafety education needs for non-academic stakeholders in East Africa

The group addressing education of non-academic stakeholders were asked to identify key needs to facilitate availability and dissemination of reliable and relevant information regarding biotechnology and biosafety within the region. The specific questions addressed by the group were: who are the target non-academic stakeholders to be reached; what kind of information should be prepared; who will disseminate the information and in what form; what are the bottlenecks to providing information to the target groups; and what strategies could be used to alleviate such barriers or challenges? Finally, the group proposed possible methods and mechanisms to reach the target groups and recommended priority actions for the future.

The non-academic stakeholders encompass a wide range of interests and backgrounds. An initial challenge was to identify the possible target groups and to prioritize among them. The groups for whom it was thought that biotechnology and biosafety information would be important, and who play an important role in the community included, farmer and farmer organizations, agricultural and food industries, extension workers, environmentalists, regulators, politicians and opinion leaders, policy and decision makers, mass media professionals, consumers of biotechnology products, and faith and culture leaders. The groups identified to be of highest priority to receive information were policy makers, politicians, mass media and farmers. Regulators and consumers also were thought to be important target groups.

The group discussed at length the kind of information to be disseminated to the various stakeholders and the varying needs for the different groups. It was agreed that all of the groups would be helped by basic information on biotechnology and biosafety, potential benefits of the products, and the possible cons and pros of their use. Other sorts of information needs that may vary with the target group include comprehensive information with reference to safety, compliance on international trade, environmental considerations, and bio-politics. It would also be important for farmers and extension workers to acquire knowledge and skills on good agricultural practices and proper management of the products, while market information was seen as important for politicians/opinion leaders, farmers and extension providers.

With respect to who could, or should, disseminate such information to the target group, it was suggested that scientists, non-governmental agricultural organizations, and agro-industries could play role across all target group categories. For farmers and politicians, farmer organizations and ‘champion politicians’ can be the most effective. Although the media was identified as one of the stakeholders to receive information, they also play a key role in delivery of information needed by other groups. It is important to provide the media with relevant information, and for knowledgeable groups and individuals to ensure regular and timely availability to the media.

An important part of the discussion was identification of barriers that could hinder the information transfer to non-academic stakeholders, and possible solutions that could be used to avert some of these problems and challenges. These are outlined in Table 4. Depending on the target group, challenges can include limited literacy, inadequate extension services, current misconceptions or fears, lack of trust, and lack of time and funds.

Numerous suggestions were proposed to reach the target groups and overcome obstacles. The consensus was that workshops, media, publications, audio/radio programs, on-line resources, and exhibitions could have significant impact on outreach. Radio was seen as a primary medium to reach farmers to counter limitations of distance and literacy. Other suggestions included study tours, short courses, demonstrations, and visits to biotech information centres where stakeholders could access and hear primary and secondary information from informed educators. Leading institutions from each of the riparian countries could take the lead as source of information. Local or regional institutions currently providing information and resources include African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF), African Biotechnology Stakeholders’ Forum (ABSF), International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA) and the National Councils of Science and Technology. Other reliable resources are South African-based AfricaBio and Public Understanding of Biotechnology

Lastly the group discussed and agreed on three main priority actions to start with: organizing study tours (country, regional or international) for policy-makers, politicians, and farmers; development of information materials for media; and production of IEC material (video clips, radio clips and posters) for farmers. The group emphasized the importance of reaching the media with accurate information. Study tours were reported to be especially effective by providing a first-hand look at GE crops in the field and a chance to interact with farmers currently using the technology

Development of curriculum for environmental biosafety and food safety in EA universities

The objective of the group focusing on university curricula for biosafety education was to determine key topics to be addressed in biosafety courses, identify relevant courses currently taught within the region and additional curricular needs, and identify ways to share materials and expertise within the region.

Depending on the institution, there may be comprehensive biosafety courses dedicated specifically to biosafety, and/or allied courses which cover some aspects of biosafety. In Kenya biosafety courses are offered at the BSc and MSc level at Kenyata University, University of Nairobi (MSc) and Moi University (BSc). In Tanzania BSc biosafety courses are offered at Dar es Salaam and Sokoine Universities, and in Uganda a biosafety course is offered at MSc level at Makerere University. The above universities also offer comprehensive food safety courses which include safety of GM derived foods and feed.

In determining needs for biosafety education, it was observed that several occupational programmes should include biosafety training. These include training for environmental scientists, medical researchers and practitioners, veterinary workers, agricultural researchers, food scientists, food safety regulators, biosafety officers and occupational health workers, scientists working with biotechnology tools, and laboratory employees working with pathogenic or hazardous biological materials.

The group identified a set of key topical issues to be addressed under biosafety curriculum:

Introduction to concepts and application of biotechnology and potential benefits, risks and concerns

- Basic biosafety concepts, principles and practices/techniques

- Principles and concepts of biosafety risk analysis including concepts of biosafety risk assessment, biosafety risk management and biosafety risk communication

- Relevant policies on development of biotechnology and its safety

- Bioethics, legal, and social implication of application of biotechnology

- International conventions linked to biosafety development and institutionalization.

The need to improve the overall education in biosafety was noted. It was suggested that the biosafety educators work together to develop a model biosafety curriculum for East Africa, possibly by assembling a small panel of experts from each country to review existing curriculum and make recommendations to university representatives. Where full University courses could not be accommodated, it was recommended to include biosafety aspects in other relevant existing courses. It was also suggested that some biotechnology and biosafety aspects should be integrated into secondary school curriculum. The group agreed to form a biosafety trainer’s network to facilitate optimum use of the available capacity and sharing of training materials.

Concluding Remarks

The regional biosafety education workshop developed several prioritized recommendations to improve biosafety education and communication in East Africa. Specific actions to reach non-academic stakeholders included organization of study tours for policy makers, politicians, and farmers; development of information materials for the media; and development of IEC materials for farmers and extension workers. The primary recommendations for university instruction were to define key curricular needs and components, and establish mechanisms to allow for exchange of information and materials among institutions and countries. Finally, a recurring theme was that biosafety expertise serves important health, food, agriculture, and environmental safety concerns that extend beyond biotechnology applications. Academic and non-academic education programs should be structured to facilitate improved biosafety in all aspects of society and the environment.


The authors wish to acknowledge support from USAID Washington, D.C. and the USAID Uganda Mission, through the Programme for Biosafety Systems that enabled them to carry out this workshop. The work included in this publication was partially sponsored by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) grant to Michigan State University through the Program for Biosafety Systems (PBS) project implemented by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) under the USAID Leader with Associates Cooperative Agreement EEM-A-00-03-00001-00. Program management assistance from the International Food Policy Research Institute office in Uganda, Michigan State University and from the leadership of PBS project is highly appreciated. We are also very grateful to the governments and institutions that allowed the participants to take part in this programme.


ANDOW, D.A. and HILBECK, A. Science-based risk assessment for non-target effects of transgenic crops. BioScience, July 2004, vol. 54, no. 7, p. 637-649.

BATES, S.L.; ZHAO, J.; ROUSH, R.T. and SHELTON, A.M. Insect resistance management in GM crops: past present and future. Nature Biotechnology, January 2005, vol. 23, no. 1, p. 57-62. [CrossRef]

BAUDO, M.; LYONS, R.; POWERS, S.; PASTORI, G.M.; EDWARDS, K.J.; HOLDSWROTH, M.J. and SHREWY, P.R. Transgenesis has less impact on the transcriptome of wheat grain than conventional breeding. Plant Biotechnology Journal, July 2006, vol. 4, no. 4, p. 369-380. [CrossRef]

BROOKES, Graham and BARFOOT, Peter. Global impact of biotech crops: Socio-economic and environmental impact of the first ten years of commercial use. AgBio Forum, 2006, vol. 9, no. 3, p. 139-151.

CERDEIRA, A.L. and DUKE, S.O. The current status and environmental impacts of glyphosate-resistant crops: a review. Journal of Environmental Quality, August 2006, vol. 35, no. 5, p. 1633-1658. [CrossRef]

CHARTIER, J. and GABLER, S. Risk communication and government, Theory and Application for the Canadian Food Inspection Agency [online]. Canadian Food Inspection Agency Public and Regulatory Affairs Branch, 2001 [cited 04 June 2008] 26 p. Available from Internet:

CODEX Alimentarius. Foods derived from biotechnology, Joint FAO/WHO Food Standards Program [online]. 2004 [cited 04 June 2008]. Available from Internet:

CODEX Alimentarius. Commission Guideline for the conduct of food safety assessment of foods derived from recombinant-DNA plants [online]. 2003 [cited 04 June 2008]. Available from Internet:

COHEN, J.I. Poor nations turn to publicly developed GM crops. Nature Biotechnology, January 2005, vol. 23, no. 1, p. 27-33. [CrossRef]

COHEN, J.I. and PAARLBERG, R. Unlocking crop biotechnology in developing countries-A report from the field. World Development, September 2004, vol. 32, no. 9, p. 1563-1577. [CrossRef]

CONNER, A.J.; GLARE, T.R. and NAP, J-P. The release of genetically modified crops in the environment, Part ll Overview of ecological risk assessment. The Plant Journal, January, 2003, vol. 33, no. 1, p. 19-46. [CrossRef]

DHAR, B. and ANURADHA, R.V. Access, benefit-sharing and intellectual property rights. The Journal of World Intellectual Property, September 2004, vol. 7, no. 5, p. 597-639. [CrossRef]

FAO/WHO. Safety aspects of genetically modified foods of plant origin. Report of a Joint FAO/WHO expert consultation on foods derived from biotechnology. World Health Organization. Geneva. 2000. [cited 04 June 2008], 57 p. Available from Internet.

HANCOCK, J.F. A frame work for assessing the risk of transgenic crops. Bioscience, May 2003, vol. 53, no. 5, p. 512-519.

HARRIGAN, G.G.; MARTINO-CATT, S. and GLENN, K.C. Metabolomics, metabolic diversity, and genetic variation in crops. Metabolomics, September 2007, vol. 3, no. 3, p. 259-272. [CrossRef]

HO, P. and VERMEER, E.B. Food safety concerns and biotechnology: Consumers attitudes to genetically modified products in urban China. AgBio Forum, 2004, vol. 7, no. 4, p. 158-175.

ISAAC, G.E. and KERR, W.A. Genetically modified organisms and trade rules: Identifying important challenges for the WTO. The World Economy, January 2003, vol. 26, no. 1, p. 29-42. [CrossRef]

JAMES, Clive. Global status of commercialized biotech/GM Crops: 20077. ISAAA Brief No. 37. ISAAA: Ithaca, NY. 2007, 125 p. ISBN 978-892456-42-7.

KAMERI-MBOTE, Patricia. The development of biosafety regulation in Africa in the context of the Cartagena Protocol: Legal and Administrative Issues. Review of European Community and International Environmental Law, April 2002, vol. 11, no. 1, p. 62-73. [CrossRef]

KARLSSON, Mikael. Biosafety principles for GMOs in the context of sustainable development. International Journal for Sustainable Development and World Ecology, May 2003, vol. 10, p. 15-26.

KOHI, Yadon. Challenges in implementing biosafety systems in developing countries. In: Towards a common Regional Policy, Regulatory and Biosafety Framework on Genetically Modified Organisms in East Stakeholders. Consultative Workshop. September 2006. Entebbe, Uganda. PBS Eastern Africa, 2006. p.14-38. Available from Internet:

KONIG, A.; KOCBURN, A.; CREVEL, R.W.R.; DEBRUYNE, E.; GRAFSTROEM, R.; HAMMERLING, U.; KIMBER, I.; KINUDSEN, I.; KUIPER, H.A.; PEIJNENBURG, C.M.; PENNINKS, A.H.; PAULSEN, M.; SCHAUZU, M. and WALL, J.W. Assessment of the safety of foods derived from genetically modified (GM) crops. Food and Chemical Toxicology, July 2004, vol. 42, no. 7, p. 1047-1088. [CrossRef]

KUIPER, H.A.; KLETER, G.A.; NOTEBORN, H.P.J.M. and KOK, E.J. Assessment of the food safety issues related to genetically modified foods. Plant Journal, September 2001, vol. 27, no. 6, p. 503-528. [CrossRef]

LEHRER, S.B. Potential health risks of genetically modified organisms: How can allergens be assessed and minimized. In: PERSELY, G.J. and LANTIN, M.M. eds. Agricultural Biotechnology and the Poor: An International Conference on biotechnology. (21th - 22th October 1999, Washington D.C). Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research 1818 H Street N.W. Washington, 2000, p. 149-155.

MEYER, Hartmut; TAMALE, Erie and GIL, Lionel. The Third Coordination Meeting for Governments and Organizations Implementing or Funding Biosafety Capacity-Building Activities February 26-28 2007 Lusaka, Zambia. Electronic Journal of Biotechnology, July 2007. Available from Internet:

MORSE, S.; BENNETT, R.M. and ISMAEL, Y. Genetically modified insect resistance in cotton: Some farm level economics impacts in India. Crop Protection, May 2005, vol. 24, no. 5, p. 433-410. [CrossRef]

RANEY, Terri. Economic impact of transgenic in developing countries. Current Opinion in Biotechnology, February 2006, vol. 17, no. 2, p. 174-178. [CrossRef]

ROMEIS, Jorg; MEISSLE, Michael and BIGLER, Franz. Transgenic crops expressing Bacillus thuringiensis toxins and biological control. Nature Biotechnology, January 2006, vol. 24, no. 1, p. 63-71. [CrossRef]

SANKULA, Sujatha. Quantification of the impacts on US Agriculture of biotechnology-derived crops planted in 2005. National Center for Food and Agricultural Policy, 2006, 110 p. [cited 04 June 2008]. Summary available on Internet

SENDASHONGA, Cyrie; HILL, Ryan and PETRINI, A. The Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety: Interaction between the Convention on Biological Diversity and the World Organization for Animal Health. Review Science Technology. Office International Epizootics, 2005, vol. 24, p. 19-30.

SNOW, A.A.; ANDO, D.A.; GEPTS, P.; HALLERMAN, E.M.; POWER A.; TIEDJE, J.M. and WOLFENBARGER, L.L. Genetically engineered organisms and the environment: Current status and recommendations. Ecological Applications, April 2005, vol. 15, no. 2, p. 377-404. [CrossRef]

THOMSON, J.A. Seeds for the future. The impact of genetically modified crops on the environment. Ithaca, New York, Cornell University Press; 2006. 158 p. ISBN 978-0-80147368-5.

WERE, O.S. and VON GREBMER, K. Biotechnology, agriculture, and food security in Southern Africa. International Food Policy Research Institute, Washington D.C. and Food, Agriculture, and Natural Resources Policy Analysis Network, Harare, Zimbabwe. 2003.

Note: Electronic Journal of Biotechnology is not responsible if on-line references cited on manuscripts are not available any more after the date of publication.

Supported by UNESCO / MIRCEN network