Debates about transgenic (genetically-modified) crops have become highly polarised across the globe. In the process, civil society organisations and social movements have played an important role in debates on agricultural biotechnology, alongside governmental and expert science institutions.
In developing countries, debates around transgenic crops have tended to focus on biosafety and its regulation at the risk of ignoring broader socio-economic and ethical concerns. A new project by the STEPS Centre1 is exploring how to open up these debates among civil society actors. The aim is to look beyond biosafety and to address important broader concerns such as ethics around investment and technology deployment.
The focus on biosafety has tended to narrow national biotechnology debates to the control and management of risks, rather than broader socio-economic and ethical concerns about investment in and deployment of technologies.
These dynamics at the national level reflect global efforts to harmonise national frameworks around an Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) ‘ideal', seen as the benchmark for biosafety capacity building in developing countries. But is a uniform pattern of closure based on frameworks developed in such different circumstances a realistic or even desirable goal? Or should regulations be built from the bottom up, in response to local contexts and needs? This is an important concern, given the differences in regulatory reach and capacity between developing countries — and a far from uniform interpretation of the OECD ‘ideal' even among OECD countries themselves.
The STEPS Centre's pilot project will explore how debates about and beyond biosafety can be opened up. The project will focus, initially, on Kenya and the Philippines ― two countries that have been seen, at different times, as regional test cases for biotechnology and biosafety regulatory development.
In the Philippines, a national biosafety regulatory system, the first in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) region, has been in place since 1990, the result of intense lobbying by national scientists.
The National Biosafety Committee of the Philippines (NBCP) is still one of the few biotechnology regulatory bodies in the world that includes civil society representatives. Nevertheless, today’s focus on international harmonisation has placed the Philippines among beneficiaries of donor-funded biosafety capacity building programmes, against a background of concerns that national regulations ‘cost too much’.
In Kenya, following a polarised debate, the country’s National Biosafety Bill (the third in Africa after South Africa and Burkino Faso) became a law in February 2009. Nevertheless, many questions about implementation remain unanswered. Kenya’s primary crop is maize, much of which is grown on very small farms. Unlike in OECD countries, many Kenyan farmers plant own-saved or exchanged seed rather than buy commercially produced seeds. Given that maize is a cross-pollinated crop these are likely to be composites rather than pure varieties. This has serious implications for biosafety regulation.
As one government official explained to STEPS researchers, shortly before the bill was passed: ‘Farmers mix varieties. They may be shy to tell you but they are growing second generation and third generation hybrids... Implementation is the issue. This will complicate the life of the small-scale farmer ― first hybrids, now GMOs. Once the bill is passed, the floodgates will open.’
What alternative approaches might allow the development of regulatory systems that respond to social and agro-ecological realities on the ground, rather than an ‘ideal’ based on conditions in such different settings? In the coming months this project will connect members of civil society groups in the two countries for an exchange of ideas and lessons about how, when and where opportunities exist, or might be created, to open up these debates in new ways.
1 The STEPS Centre, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, is at the Institute of Development Studies: http://www.steps-centre.org/ 
Hannington Odame, Executive Director of the Centre for African Bio-Entrepreneurship  (CABE), and STEPS Centre partner is collaborating on the project.
STEPS Beyond biosafety project: www.steps-centre.org/ourresearch/biosafety.html 
I Scoones and D Glover (2009), ‘Africa's biotechnology battle’, Nature 460, 797-798 (13 August 2009) | doi:10.1038/460797a; Published online 12 August 2009 www.nature.com/nature/journal/v460/n7257/full/460797a.html