By Julius Mugwagwa, recently in Pretoria, South Africa
Xerophytes are known to ‘rise from the dead’. They are families of plants that are adapted to living under arid desert conditions, sometimes appearing dead and good for writing-off. Yet, through their multiple anatomical and morphological adaptations to their environments, they are able to survive and continue their life cycle when conditions improve. Policies, ideas, practices and indeed innovations do too. In my research and practice experience, I have observed a number of issues coming back to the fore and making unexpected and expected impacts alike on contemporary practice, not least in the unpredictable African journey towards development and implementation of mechanisms to govern the adoption and use of genetically modified crops.
Participating in a southern African conference on biotechnology and biosafety from the 3rd to 5th of March in Pretoria, South Africa was a deja vu moment. It brought me face to face again with the persistence of pro- and anti-biotechnology battle lines two decades and several billion investment-dollars into a technology that is meant to be as good for farmers and consumers as it is for seed and agro-chemical companies. A lot of the realities surrounding how countries have been attempting to develop and/or harness and deploy GM-based biotechnologies in their agricultural systems came back to the fore. In fact, most of the realities have not gone away at all … issues of legitimacy when it comes to who leads harmonisation processes; issues of varied and varying institutional custodians of biotech in countries; issues of how to harness and embed regulatory lessons into national and regional systems; the contentious roles of multinational agrochemical and seed companies in championing adoption and governance of biotech in the region; the neglected role of history in shaping current agendas … it’s a complex and dynamic mix of realities that need recognition and taking on board in shaping and directing policy agendas. But how this happens in practice is an entirely different challenge altogether. It’s a path that has been walked and it appears players new and old all walk the same path. For theory, policy and practice, there is a challenge to interrogate the origins and ‘hiding places’ for the pockets of policy and practice tensions, how to ameliorate them, and what impact they have on policy and practice hindsight and foresight. Is it possible for there to be innovative and adaptive engagement mechanisms, linked intricately to all voices ‘loud and quiet’, and for policy stagnation and gridlocks resulting from ‘resurrecting’ issues to be minimized? Or is modern ag-biotech simply ungovernable in Africa??