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October 19, 2009

Michigan university receives grant to promote biosafety in Africa

by Meredith Skrzypczak

Millions of dollars could empower African agricultural officials to make decisions on biosafety issues to help farmers, thanks to a partial grant received by Michigan State University.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation awarded a $10.4 million grant last week to MSU and the New Partnership for Africa’s Development, or NEPAD, to be used during a five-year period. The money will be used to provide the African officials, called regulators, with up-to-date training and information to promote biosafety. By providing regulators with science and technology information, they will be able to make their own decisions in biosafety.

The grant, which is part of $120 million in total grants to promote long-term food security, also will combat hunger and poverty in the African region, Bill Gates said in a press release. “Helping the poorest small-holder farmers grow more crops and get them to market is the world’s single most powerful lever for reducing hunger and poverty,” he said.

Karim Maredia, a professor of international agriculture in the Department of Entomology, is the lead coordinator for the partnership between NEPAD and MSU. NEPAD offices are located in South Africa and representatives were unable to be reached. “What MSU will provide is … technical support, training, capacity building and most importantly … we will connect the biosafety and biotechnology resources from all over the world to the center in Africa,” he said.

The African Biosafety Network of Expertise, which will be located in West Africa, will provide information to regulators with a Web portal, workshops, seminars, internships and other courses. It was established with a grant from the same foundation in February 2008. Using the resources at the center, Africans can consider the debate on the safety of genetically modified organisms, said Jeffrey Riedinger, the dean of International Studies and Programs. “There’s an international debate about whether genetically modified organisms are safe for humans,” he said. “In effect what Africans have been saying (is), ‘We would like to be in a position to make our own decisions.’”

The updates in science and technology promoted at the center will help the regulators, who in some cases act like the Food and Drug Administration, in determining what types of biotechnology will be used in the country, Maredia said.

“Part of having the expertise to have their own genetic research is that … different countries in Africa may choose to do research where there isn’t an existing market or research,” Riedinger said.

The partnership between MSU and NEPAD will address issues and concerns of farmers and the people who consume the food, said Stephanie Motschenbacher, the director of communications for International Studies and Programs. “(The grant will) address those issues and concerns … with the people who actually consume the food,” she said.

The State News

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