Friday, 19 March 2010

The truth shall not set you free?

By Julius Mugwagwa

Spending a week in Uganda and taking part in the agrobiotech, biosafety and seed systems conference second week of March brought me head-on with a number of persistent realities facing the development and deployment of modern agricultural biotechnology in Sub-Saharan Africa. I’ve trailed biotech debates in Sub-Saharan Africa for a decade now, and consider myself well-equipped to understand the twists and turns in the terrain. Ten years is a long time, but for me it has brought persistent feelings of paramnesia … feelings of certainty that what is being said has to a large extent been said before. However, if you ask me, that in itself is not the problem, but the underlying reasons for that stagnant debate are.

For a start, and as has long been confirmed, the dynamics behind this technology go beyond what the science can churn out. It’s to a much bigger extent about the technology-transcending politics of governing the technology to gain a balance among the contending interests of many stakeholders dotted around the value chain. Many players have entered the fray over the years to try and unblock the many grid-locks that lie in the path of successful introduction of biotech products in the region. For example, a number of NGOs and other non-state players specialising in ‘biotechnology communication’ have emerged in the region and taken over the role of educating the public on the pros and cons of modern biotechnology.

While it appears like scientists have taken a back seat to allow the specialised organisations to find and deliver suitable messages, the reality is that the majority of the people running these organisations are established scientists in their own right. They have fought the science communication battle from different fronts, starting as laboratory scientists occasionally invited to give talks at workshops or speaking their messages through others. Now they say they see the need to fight their own battles, with a little help from colleagues who specialise in communication.

Meanwhile, for the ordinary member of the public, it’s the lack of a firm middle ground which is worrying. When the debate started several years ago now, there were a number of organisations championing a neutral, balanced-information agenda, but gradually they have all moved either to the left or to the right, a trend which mirrors the funding opportunities available. The messages and the messengers seem to be following the money. Putting all this together, one cannot help sparing a moment to ponder over what one of the delegates at the Uganda conference said … that in this biotech debate the truth shall not set you free! What will? Food for thought!