Helen Oji in this report examines the African Union (AU’s) support for synthetic biology and gene drives from the adoption of safe technology.
A total of 54 nations that comprise the African Union (AU) recently gathered in Egypt to brainstorm and chart the way forward for the adoption of the safe technology. The countries took that strong position at the ongoing United Nations Biodiversity Conference in Egypt, where various proposals are being considered that would restrict access to some of these technologies.
The AU representative and Nigeria’s director-general of the National Biosafety Management Agency (NBMA), Dr. Rufus Ebegba, said the AU is committed to using safe science, technology and innovation to drive development in member states.
Restraining such an emerging trend would amount to frustrating science and technology development in Africa, Ebegba said.
He also reiterated Africa’s commitment to ensuring that synthetic biology is properly regulated while the people tap into its benefits.
Spokesman of Malawi’s Ministry of Natural Resources, Energy and Mining, Sangwani Harvey Phiri, supported the AU stand. “Currently, developing countries are facing so many challenges in the field of agriculture, health and technology. Biotechnology seems to be the potential tool that can help in addressing these challenges. So if they convention delegates put in clauses like ‘refrain,’ it’s like preventing the advancement of developing countries — especially African countries — in these fields,” Phiri said.
“These measures would invariably affect the whole population,” he added. “Farmers, will be affected as the producers of food, researchers would be affected because there will be no motivation to do further research and the economy will also suffer because much resources would now be deployed to control pests and diseases.”
However, “The word refrain means you are stopping the clock. Refraining from the use of the technology means there will be no research. But research and science are dynamic process. If we sign such an agreement that means that even our scientists cannot do research in the area of synthetic biology which can be applied in so many aspects.”
The Subsidiary Body on Scientific, Technical and Technological Advice (SBSTTA), previously tabled the issue of synbio at its preparatory February 2018 meeting in Montreal, Canada.
Australia, Japan, New Zealand, South Africa and Canada had all supported the need to complete the task of evaluating if synthetic biology could be considered a new and emerging issue within the context of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). But other nations raised concerns and called for the creation of new guidelines of risk assessment specifically for synbio before any applications could be released.
This led the group to defer action on the issues, which are now being re-discussed in Egypt. To facilitate further dialogue, a closed contact group has been formed at the ongoing Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (COP CBD). The aim of the contact group is to find a common understanding between parties and move forward in productive negotiations.
Speaking during a plenary, Bolivia raised serious concerns about synthetic biology and gene drives, saying it is an issue the nation takes very seriously. While Boliva is engaged in consultations on the issue, and willing to compromise, it still sees a need to exercise caution in the application of a technology that has the capability of adversely affecting both humans and the environment.
Bolivia proposed carrying out more risk assessments and adopting the necessary biosafety measures to minimize possible harm before organisms developed through synthetic biology are released in the environment.
Reacting to this, Ebegba cited a knowledge gap as the bane of the convention, saying the Cartagena Protocol was adopted to protect biodiversity and ensure sustainable, safe use of biological resources. He emphasized that existing biosafety regulations and guidelines already apply in this context.
“The problem we have in this meeting is that most of the representatives of these countries do not have the background information about the Convention on Biological Diversity, which has three objectives that include conservation of biological diversity, sustainable use of biological diversity and equitable sharing of benefit derived from the use of biological resources,” he told the Alliance for Science.
According to him, that both the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety and Nagoya Protocol are in line with discussions on synthetic biology, which is “a hybrid of genetic engineering and construction engineering to come out with new products.”
Director of Burkina Faso’s National Biosafety Lab, Dr. Oumar Traore, urged the delegates to allow the scientific work to be done. He noted that synthetic biology would provide Africa with the technology to address malaria and other health ailments, as well as to drive the advancement of other economic sectors of the continent.
“The problem with Africa is that people sit down and do nothing when there’s a problem,” he said. “For example, when there is disease outbreak they just sit and wait until it is out of hand. So, we need to pre-empt such challenges and this is the role of researchers, who should track the disease, embark on research and curtail it before it gets out of hand. This is what we’re asking for: science should be allowed to take its place in solving Africa’s problems.”
Meanwhile, two new studies on the Nigerian domestic financial sector reform for on-grid renewable energy investment and the development of a Measurement, Reportable and Verifiable (MRV) framework for the power sector have been endorsed by stakeholders in the environment sector.
The stakeholders met at a two-day validation workshop in Port Harcourt, Rivers State organized by United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), in collaboration with the Energy Commission of Nigeria (ECN), Federal Ministry of Environment, Federal Ministry of Power, Works and Housing.
UNDP is implementing a five-year project titled: “De-Risking Renewable Energy NAMA (Nationally Appropriate Mitigation Action) for the Nigerian Power Sector”, which components include design and development of a power sector renewable energy NAMA supported by De-risking Renewable Energy Investment (DREI) analysis; developing Policy and Institutional Framework for private investment in on-grid renewable power generation, and demonstration of first commercial on-grid renewable energy project.
The draft reports for the Nigerian domestic financial sector reform for on-grid renewable energy investment was conducted by Mr. Daniel Rossetto of Climate Mundial while Mr. Arnaoudor Vladislov of Japan handled the development of a Measurement, Reportable and Verifiable (MRV) framework for the Nigerian power sector.
Setting the tone for the workshop, the National project coordinator, Okon Ekpenyong, explained that the overall objective of the project is to assist the government of Nigeria in achieving a transformation in the electricity mix such that at lest 20GW of Nigeria’s electricity is generated by solar PV by 2030.
According to him, the project will contribute to the country’s attainment of its Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) mitigation targets in the energy sector, with expected direct emission reductions of 205,700 tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) during the project’s lifetime and additional indirect emission reduction between 6.79 and 9.72 million tonnes of CO2e.
“In addition to this, the project is to develop Measurement, Reportable and Verifiable (MRV) framework, with appropriate indicators to measure, report and verify the emission reductions that will be generated by investment in low-carbon activities under the NAMA/NDCs.”
Ekpenyong, who doubles as an engineer, Energy Commission of Nigeria (ECN), noted that the study was initiated to analyse the breadth of the Nigerian domestic financial sector due to the problems associated with on-grid renewable energy development, such as high initial capital intensity and requirement for loans and long tenures.
“The study examined both the various barriers that exist and incentives that can be put in place. It likewise proposed specific policy reforms that are applicable to Nigeria for green infrastructure investment, as well as a road map or action plan for their implementation.
“The project is also expected to develop a framework that will establish accurate measurement and accounting of actual greenhouse gas (GHG) emission reduction from mitigation actions in energy generation and end-use sectors.