South Africa Should License Research Lab on Genetically Modified Sorghum

Prof. Florence Wambugu, a renowned agricultural biotechnologist and the founder of Africa Harvest Biotech Foundation International, is currently entangled in a row with the South African government over her plan to set up a multimillion dollar research laboratory and greenhouses to develop genetically modified sorghum. Prof. Wambugu has received a huge grant - US$415 million - from Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, to develop genetically modified crops, which have proved essential in alleviating food insecurity. Her choice of South Africa stems from the fact that it’s the only African country with Biosafety laws. South Africa’s early enactment of biosafety laws has made it the preferred destination for biotechnology investors. To now hear a country that’s gained international reputation for its friendly policies towards biotechnology is attempting to block an African scientist from advancing a biotechnology cause is appalling. In justifying its decision to suspend Prof. Wambugu’s project, South Africa’s agricultural regulatory agencies have claimed that the genetically modified sorghum can contaminate varieties native to Africa. This looks like a pedestrian argument and it’s tantamount to putting the cart before the horse. For the record, Prof. Wambugu has not yet shipped genetically modified sorghum to Africa. All what she wants to do is to set up a laboratory to conduct research on the same. All what Prof. Wambugu currently wants is to build the infrastructure for genetically modified sorghum research. Such can in no way interfere with the so called indigenous African sorghum varieties. Prof. Wambugu will, at one stage, conduct field trials of her genetically modified sorghum. Then is the right time for the South African government to be worried about “contamination.” It should not be lost on anyone that South Africa has well-entrenched genetically modified organisms (Gmos) regulatory laws. So, it’s unlikely that the new genetically modified sorghum will be developed outside such laws. Genetically modified crops are not alien to South Africa. It’s not the first time a new genetically modified crop is being introduced into South Africa. The laws that governed the introduction of genetically modified corn and cotton, currently being commercially grown in South Africa must be applied to Prof. Wambugu’s genetically modified sorghum. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, by investing in agricultural biotechnology research, is sending a stark message to African countries that it’s committed to finding a permanent solution to Africa’s chronic food problems. The best way to reciprocate this generous gesture is for African governments to allow scientists like Prof. Wambugu to do their work unimpeded.

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