Position Statements on Biotechnology
Minister Ngubane's Full Speech
Welcome address by the Minister of Arts, Culture, Science and Technology of the Republic of South Africa, Dr BS Ngubane, at the Africabio seminar on the Role of Biotechnology and Biodiversity in Sustainable Development: A dialogue between government, industry, international organizations and scientists in Johannesburg on 31 August 2002
Thank you very much for affording me the opportunity to deliver the welcoming address at this important event. Indeed I am honoured and privileged to be with you today.
That biotechnology and biodiversity have a cardinal role to play in sustainable development is unquestionable. That we, however, have to better understand, define and harness this role is imperative. I therefore wish to commend Africa Bio on their vision and efforts to present this seminar at a most critical juncture of the international debate on sustainable development.
The promotion of a dialogue between government, industry, international organisations and scientists, as envisaged by today's seminar, will significantly enrich our understanding of the interface of biotechnology and biodiversity with sustainable development. I am therefore, grateful for this initiative, which will indeed complement and support the work of our Department of Science and Technology, undertaken following the publication last year of South Africa's National Biotechnology Strategy.
Dear friends and colleagues, the finalisation of our National Biotechnology Strategy truly represented a watershed in the interface of South African society with biotechnology at all levels, and I therefore thought it appropriate to highlight to you during the course of my address, some of its core components. It is my hope that my remarks and of course the Strategy itself will serve to enrich your deliberations today.
The first century of the new millennium will not only belong to information and communications technology, as we are often lead to believe, but also to biotechnology, and its immense potential to contribute to human and animal health, agriculture and food production, manufacturing and sustainable development.
It is perhaps useful at the outset of my address to alert our many international guests, to whom I extend the warmest of South African welcomes, that South Africa has a solid history of engagement with what is now called traditional biotechnology. As you might be very well aware, South African wines compare with the best in the world, and one of the largest international brewing companies is South African. It is not my intention to wet your appetite, but South Africa is also home to very competitive industries, which manufacture dairy products such as cheese, yoghurt, maas and baker's yeast, as well as other fermentation products. Furthermore we are proud of the many new animal breeds and plant varieties created in South Africa and used commercially all over the world.
It is, however, also true, that despite this strong knowledge base, South Africa has failed to optimally exploit recent advances in biotechnology, especially the emergence of the so-called third generation biotechnologies such as genetics and genomic sciences. Elsewhere in the world many companies and public institutions are offering products and services that have arisen from these new biotechnologies. The growth of biotechnology industries is also not restricted to developed countries, with several developing countries such as Cuba, Brazil and China sharing in the benefits. These countries have been quick to identify the potential benefits of biotechnology and have established measures both to develop such industries and to extract value where possible.
Indeed, the development of our own National Biotechnology Strategy was inspired by these countries' successes. The Strategy is, thus, designed to enable South Africa to make up lost ground and stimulate the growth of similar activities in our country. Of prime importance is the Strategy's explicit recognition of the crucial role to be played by biotechnology in attaining South Africa's national developmental priorities - recognition, thus, of biotechnology as a critical enabler for sustainable development, especially in the areas of human health, food security and environmental sustainability.
To embrace biotechnology is indeed to further embrace our commitment to the realization of our national imperatives and specifically:
The Strategy also serves as roadmap to assist and guide us in attaining these objectives. I would like to share with you some of its key recommendations, which, for example include: the establishment of a government agency to champion biotechnology, proactive investment in human resources development, and the strengthening of scientific and technological capabilities.
The Strategy also significantly pays specific attention to successful commercialization of public-supported research and development. It concludes that a vibrant culture of innovation and entrepreneurship, assisted by incubators, supply-side measures and other supporting programmes and institutions will be critical to achieve success.
Some of these components of a successful biotechnology strategy are already in place in the South African system. Where there are gaps, our National Biotechnology Strategy, accordingly recommends specific actions to address these problems. By way of example I would like to mention a few of these:
I would, however, also like to emphasise the need for caution and sound judgment in the application of biotechnology. It is imperative that we ensure that the potential risks to human health and the environment, arising for example from the commercial use of genetically modified organisms in food production are properly managed.
Dear friends, my recommendation would be that we continuously assess our biotechnology programmes, within the framework of the South African constitution, which ensures our right to safety, to choice and to information. For the international community it is also important that we establish suitable regulatory systems for importers and exporters in the international trade in biotechnology products.
In addition, we need to ensure that we properly protect our intellectual property, indigenous knowledge, and conserve South Africa's unique biodiversity. New developments in biotechnology have indeed increased our vulnerability with respect to the exploitation of our biodiversity and inventions and innovations from publicly financed research is not effectively protected and managed. In this context the international Convention on Biodiversity's formal linking of indigenous knowledge and benefit sharing to the notion of intellectual property rights is extremely important.
I would, however, not like to end with this note of caution, albeit important. In stead, as I have been doing in a number of other events forming part of this Forum, I would like to stress that technological innovation is essential, critical for human progress.
From the printing press to the computer, from the first use of penicillin to the widespread application of vaccines, people have devised technological tools for improving health, raising productivity and facilitating learning and communication.
Technology is, thus, clearly a tool and not only a reward for development. Biotechnology is a critical part of this process. Genetic and molecular breakthroughs are indeed pushing forward the frontiers of how we can use technology to eradicate poverty.
These breakthroughs are creating new possibilities for improving health and nutrition, expanding knowledge, stimulating economic growth and empowerment. It is my hope that your discussions today will assist us in optimally harnessing this exciting potential.
I thank you.
and Agricultural Organization
Society of African Scientists
United States of America
Biotechnology Advisory Committee
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