Can media help to enhance the adoption of GMOs in Africa?

Mr. Henry Wagaba, from the Virus Resistant Cassava (Virca) project based in the National Crop Resources Research Institute (NaCRRI) at Namulonge, Uganda talks to Ugandan journalists about the virus resistant cassava trial at Mubuku irrigation scheme in Kasese early this year.

Author, Ms. Veronica Mwaba

Biotechnology, particularly the use of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs), has been a matter of immense controversy in many parts of the world including Africa, since its introduction in the mid-90s. Nevertheless, with the passage of time and increased understanding, more countries are venturing to make use of this technology while ensuring its safety aspects.

In the nineteen member states of the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) region, Sudan is the only member state that has commercialized insect resistant Bt-Cotton. Ethiopia, Kenya, Swaziland, Uganda and Malawi are at still at various levels of research ranging from confined to multi-location trial stages for a number of crops. Some of them, such as Uganda have over 15 instances of GM research going on, targeting traditional staple foods such as cooking Bananas which are being tested for resistance against the devastating banana bacterial wilt. Cassava, another food security crop is undergoing GM research to find resistance to two destructive diseases I.e the cassava mosaic and the cassava brown streak.

Other countries are undertaking research on pest resistant cotton and maize i.e Bt- cotton and Bt-maize respectively. Sweet potato, Potatoes, Rice, Maize, Vitamin A bio fortified bananas are also being tested for either improved nutrition, increased resistance against pests and drought, considered as some of the biggest obstacles for increased productivity among Africa’s farmers.

COMESA is the only Regional Economic Community (REC) that has a policy on biotechnology and biosafety, taking into account the sovereign rights of the member states. COMESA has also developed a plan to strengthen public awareness and communication on GMOs; one of the strategies aims to enhance reporting skills in science and technology through training of media practitioners in the region.

The training programme was developed to address the prevailing misconceptions disseminated mainly through the media regarding the application of modern biotechnology. Public debate is often based on misinformation, myths and stereotypes that could only be dispelled through effective media communication.

The Director of the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA), Dr. Margaret Karembu, believes that biotechnology communication strategies must be linked with each country’s cultural and political climate.

“Public support or consumer acceptance for biotech products is crucial for growing any benefits related with the expertise that is motivated by a number of interrelated factors such as knowledge level, awareness of benefits, confidence and trust,” Karembu observed during the training for media practitioners held in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia recently.

With regard to mass media and their role, Karembu says that a combination of strategic communication is required, but media assist to enhance awareness, knowledge and understanding. Therefore, the choice of combination of strategies is determined by the specific information requirements and needs.

In doubt with the biotechnology information?

In a bid to address communication challenges, COMESA, under its arm the Alliance for Commodity Trade in East and Southern Africa (ACTESA), has so far supported participation of different stakeholders in regular study tours of commercial farming of the genetically modified cotton in Burkina Faso, Sudan, South Africa, Malawi and India.

At a recent training workshop in Ethiopia for science and environment reporters drawn from the COMESA region, the State Minister, Ministry of Environment Forest of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia, Kare Chawicha, stressed the need for training of informers as a key pillar in bringing about positive change in society.

“In Africa mixed and confusing messages have led to inconsistent biotechnology and biosafety policy actions. Policy makers must have access to cutting edge scientific evidence and advice to be able to make the best decisions about the tough challenges facing our region. Therefore, media should play a key role in shaping public opinion and the situation can further be improved through training.”

He described the media as the bridge to reach out to the public and gain more confidence. As such communication officers from regulatory authorities and research institutions should equally convey the right messages to the media.

And Dr. Getachew Belay a senior Biotechnology Policy Advisor at COMESA said experts in biotechnology hold similar views.

“The experience we have is that there is miss-reporting about this technology, but currently we are seeing gradual shift towards positive coverage.” He added that capacity should be built to understand the technology a little bit better so that the media could convey the right messages to the stakeholders and the public.

Further, he observed that interaction between scientists and media as another vital step in increasing in understanding the science and ensuring that journalists report from an informed perspective.

Belay made the remarks after touring the molecular biology laboratories in Ethiopia while accompanying the 40 journalists that attended the media training.

Commenting on the media training initiative, the President of the Uganda Science Journalists Association (USJA), William Odinga Balikuddembe said: “Biotechnology is a tool that you cannot avoid. But you have to understand whether you need it or not. It is a choice.”

He observed that individual countries can learn from each other and apply the example that is practiced elsewhere.

“The world runs on science, it is a fact. But you do not need to understand every aspect of science. Science is not new but we need to understand the basics. I had a great experience to see the researchers showing examples of DNA extraction,” he said after touring the National Biotechnology Research Centre, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

Odinga noted that it is not just important for the media and scientists to interact, but more critically to know that it is the link between science and the public. Thus if the media does not understand science, then to some degree, it would be difficult to educate the public.

A lot of scientific information out there requires interpretation. The media could effectively serve to interpret the language that scientists use and break it down for the common person to understand. Balikkudembe said information plays a critical role in every aspect of development including modern biotechnology.

This article was first published by the Zambia Daily Mail

The writer is a Media/PR practitioner at the Alliance for Commodity Trade in Eastern and Southern Africa (ACTESA) COMESA Secretariat, Lusaka
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