Technological advances since the advent of science continue to shape human life. Scientists constantly endeavor to develop technologies aimed at aiding development in different sectors of society. However, not all products of such effort are free of controversy as some fail to convincingly address queries related to their freedom from risk to users, the environment and indeed their general acceptability to the larger sphere. Such a technology simply succeeds in polarizing the very population it intends to serve by creating pockets of resistance to the technology.
Over the past decade or so, the world has witnessed advances in biotechnology with the coming on the scene of genetic engineering, an application that involves artificial modification of an organism's genes or blueprints through insertion of genes from any other organism on earth regardless of taxonomic placement. An organism resulting from such a process is called a Genetically Modified Organism (GMO). Genetic engineering is one such technology that has met considerable resistance in both the developed and the developing world.
Proponents present the technology as a key to the solutions boardroom to many problems that have plagued humanity for centuries including food insecurity and further contend that it offers opportunities for new breakthroughs in medicine and industry. Opposing views, on the other hand label the technology as intolerable tampering with the steady state of nature threatening to set on the loose a whole spectrum of irreversible dangers to the human race. The major bone of contention lies with the sector of agriculture where genetic engineering efforts seam to be concentrated with the resultant production of genetically modified crops and foods. Environmental, economic, food safety, social and moral concerns are advanced by views opposed to genetic engineering to which proponents of the technology still struggle to find convincing explanations.
Technological advances are always a consequence of human intellectual effort and legal protection of such effort is often sought by the technology developers to protect it from unwarranted copying. Legal instruments exist in many countries recognizing the importance of intellectual property protection in various sectors of the economy. However, the extension of intellectual property protection to products of genetic engineering particularly genetically modified crop seeds has thrown the system into fresh controversy especially in developing countries. Patents, which are the mechanism of intellectual property protection of such crop seeds, not only discourage reuse of patented seed from one growing season to the next but also growing of such seeds without the consent of the patent holder. The implication is that farmers have to buy fresh seed every season, an expensive and largely unaffordable undertaking to a majority of smallholder farmers who are normally resource-constrained. More importantly, the phenomenon threatens to push to extinction an age-old practice of seed saving and free access through sharing among smallholder farmers in developing countries that has formed the basis of food security in these regions. As such food security in these countries is under threat and calls for exclusion of intellectual property rights (IPRs) and the subsequent patenting from crop varieties derive their justification from the foreseen threat.
The dangers linked with genetically modified products especially plants and crops are many. Fears are raised of contamination of the local landraces by the foreign genes in genetically modified relatives. Safety of genetically modified foods for human consumption remains contentious with views largely polarized. As such movement of GM foods across sovereign borders has become a subject calling for strict scrutiny. Genetically Modified (GM) food aid from developed countries, which are also leaders in genetic engineering, to starving nations in the developing world has equally become controversial.
Over the past decade, issues of genetic engineering, intellectual property rights and genetically modified food aid have gained new research importance in many countries including developing nations. A study was conducted in Malawi supported by the Africa Biodiversity Network (ABN) to establish the status of Genetic Engineering (GE), Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) and GE food aid in Malawi. Genetic engineering in general and agricultural biotechnology in particular is only at a rudimentary level in Malawi being confined to the second-generation order characterized by tissue culture and application of molecular markers within the University of Malawi. Third generation biotechnology (genetic engineering) involving recombinant DNA has not yet been implemented in Malawi and there have been no official trials of GM crops due to lack of technical capacity, clear policies, legislation, regulations and guidelines to drive the process. Even government research stations have not conducted genetic engineering activities despite harbouring interest in the technology.
However, the government recognizes the importance of science and technology in national development evidenced by the establishment of the National Research Council of Malawi (NRCM) in 1974, a body mandated to manage science and technology for national development. To strengthen activities of NRCM, a first science-related policy, the Science and Technology Policy was adopted in 1991, which unfortunately never bore fruit due to lack of proper vision and funding problems. A new Science and Technology policy was adopted in 2002, which was followed by the passing of the Science and Technology Act in 2003 in an attempt to revive the role of science and technology in the country' development. The latter piece of legislation calls for the establishment of the National Commission for Science and Technology (NCST), a body with similar mandate to NRCM, which it is assumed, will be dissolved once NCST becomes functional.
Being a signatory to the Cartagena Protocol of 2000, Malawi passed the Bio-safety Act in October 2002 to provide a legislative framework for the safe development and application of biotechnology and its products in Malawi. However an examination of the Act reveals that several key areas required by the Bio-safety Protocol are not covered by the Act. In fact, a closer study of the Act shows that its main aim is to manage the safe and responsible use of GMOs and gene therapy. It is therefore currently being recommended that the title of the Bio-safety Act be amended to GMO Act and the aim of the Act be amended to center on the management of GMOs and gene therapy.
The study revealed that Malawi has no biotechnology policy save for the pieces of legislation mentioned above but there is full recognition of the need to develop a national biotechnology policy. Currently, priority is being directed towards developing an agricultural biotechnology policy to provide an urgent framework to tackle the raging issue of genetic engineering and its products. A step has already been taken towards policy development through the proposed policy framework, which is proposed to be managed by NRCM. The proposed policy framework sets out to address aspects including strengthening of infrastructure to facilitate biotechnology research, development and commercialization; strengthening of capacity for development of biotechnology within government, research institutions, academic institutes and the private sector and establishment of a commitment to finance biotechnology and bio-safety by the government, private sector and funding agencies. The proposed policy also has provisions to address issues of public awareness on agricultural biotechnology in addition to opening Malawi to long-term national, regional and international partnerships for biotechnology in Malawi.
Malawi is a member of the World Trade Organization (WTO) and a signatory to the WTO Agreement, which spells out the code of conduct of a country's trade with other WTO members. The WTO Agreement has a component on trade-related aspects of intellectual property rights (TRIPS) to which Malawi is committed to enact minimum standards of intellectual property protection. Domestic statutes protecting intellectual property in Malawi include the Acts on copyrights, trademarks, registered designs and patents. Intellectual property protection of genetic engineering products particularly GM crop varieties should have been covered under the Patent Act but the Act falls short of excluding biotechnology and products thereof from patentability.
Malawi often finds herself entangled in food security problems largely attributed to low crop productivity. The rural population, consisting of over 60% of the total, is often vulnerable since produce from one harvest often does not last until the next harvest. In such cases, food aid is sought from the region and/or beyond to bridge the gap and Malawi was in such a situation in the 2001/2002 growing season when it was faced with a serious hunger crisis in recent memory. The crisis was so bad that the country was declared in a state of disaster1. Flow of food aid followed the declaration and in the process 300MT of genetically modified maize was supplied to Malawi through the World Food Programme (WFP). The consignment became an issue of great debate in the country as various stakeholders and commentators advanced views on it largely over its threat to local maize genetic pool if the grain got planted. The government finally decided to mill the grain so that it is given out as flour instead of whole grains to curb any intentions of planting the grain by the recipients2.
Declared by Dr Bakili Muluzi, President of Malawi on 27th February 2002 in Johannesburg, South Africa.
The Government through His Excellency Bakili Muluzi quoted by the Nation newspaper of 11th September 2002, reported the milling cost the government US$20 million.