Africa missed the Green Revolution, which helped Asia and Latin America achieve self-sufficiency in food production, missed the Industrial Revolution, but Africa cannot afford to miss another major global ‘technological revolution’, which can help boost our agricultural sector.
Africa is often described by derogatory remarks such as the “dark continent, the hungry continent, the disease-plagued continent” and these remarks are further reinforced by scaring statistics produced by global bodies such as the World Health Organisation and UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, which rate Africa as the continent with the highest disease burden and mortality from malnutrition, absence of protein and non-availability/shortage of food.
“For me, I think the time has come for us to use this new technology availed us to change that perception and unfortunate remarks”.
These were very strong statements that came from Mrs Shakirat O. Ajenifujah-Solebo, Chief Scientific Officer and Head of the Plant Biotech and Tissue Culture Laboratory of Nigeria’s National Biotechnology Development Agency during an interaction with the Ghana News Agency at the ongoing International Environmental Biosafety Training for 22 research scientists and regulators from 11 countries across the globe.
The training course organised by the Michigan State University (MSU) College of Agriculture and Natural Resources in Collaboration with the Plant Breeding and Genetics Program, is to offer participants science-based information, skills, and resources to help them evaluate and address biosafety issues in their respective countries.
The knowledge, information, and experience gained through this course would help participants contribute towards the development of environmentally sound and safe use of agricultural biotechnology.
Using a participatory approach, the course will foster linkages and provide opportunities for networking among participants to exchange their experiences and establish regional collaborations.
Answering a question on whether Africa really needs such a technology, Mrs Ajenifujah-Solebo said with passion that Africa must embrace agricultural biotechnology or risk being excluded from a major technological revolution that has resulted in increased food production in South America, North America and Asia.
To her, the technology was already with Africans because some countries in Africa like South Africa, Burkina Faso, Egypt and Sudan had already commercializing Genetically Modified (GM) crops whilst other countries like Nigeria, Uganda, Ghana, Cameroon and Kenya were undergoing Confined Field Trials (CFTs) backed by some form of legislation.
She explained that with emergence of climate change, crop pests and high production costs, it was urgent that Africa invested in developing agriculture biotechnology if the challenges were to be addressed.
“In the coming years, growing populations, stagnating agricultural productivity and increasing climate change will make it more difficult for Africa to fight poverty and malnutrition. And to confront these challenges, many African countries are assessing a range of tools and technologies, including agricultural biotechnologies which hold great promise for improving crop yields,” she added.
Dr Mojisola O. Edema, Associate Professor (Food Microbiology/ Biotechnology) of the Federal University of Technology, Akure, told the GNA Africa needs not re-invent the wheel but can borrow the technology and domesticate it to suit the needs of various African countries.
Though biotechnology is not the panacea to the world problems it is to complement existing technologies and also help avoid the environmental damage caused by conventional methods of agricultural production.
With the efforts being made to push biotech in African agriculture, the adoption of it has been slow in most places, due to what she described as the lack of political will from most governments, but was quick to commend Burkina Faso who started with a Presidential Decree and subsequently developed their regulations.
“I think we will need the drivers or the promoters to drum it into the ears of our decision-makers that we are losing a lot of benefits by not adapting these technologies and we must also encourage the “Seeing is Believing” strategy to reinforce that,” she added.
In most parts of the continent, farmers are witnessing a rapid decline in crops yield and this is attributed to over use of the soil, pest and other infections that have drastically affected the ability of the crops to produce more.
Recent development in biotechnology, especially genetic engineering, has made it possible for the inclusion of desired traits in staple foods that are common to the average Africans. The introduction of vitamin fortified Sorghum and Maruca-Resistant Cowpea are expected to assist farmers to improve on productivity as well as on income and their health conditions.
She noted that the application of science and technology on agriculture has the potentials of solving the problems of food security in Africa and there was the need for Africa to prioritize properly to keep its citizens from hunger against the ever-growing population in the near future.
“There are immense opportunities in biotechnology for the benefit of mankind. “Unlike what we now have, chemicals are used to control pests and diseases of plants, which are unsafe for consumption and environmentally not friendly, aside of it being expensive. But with science and technology, pest resistant plants are now bred. We have worked on the genes of cowpeas, tested them and seen that they are safe”, she spoke with confidence.
With the current increasing world population serving as a major challenge for the future and predicting to hit 9 billion by 2050, 80 per cent of whom will live in developing and transition countries, each hectare of land in 2050 will need to feed 5 people compared to just 2 people in 1960.
To feed this number, food production will have to increase by at least 70 percent on essentially the same area of land with less available water. This will then require ‘sustainable intensification – growing more from less’ by using land and resources more efficiently with the aim of meeting the current needs while improving the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.
In addition we must conserve natural resources and preserve ecosystem function while minimizing, adapting to and where possible, reversing the affects of climate change.
Experts argue that to address these challenges, genetic engineering and other technologies must be allowed to play a crucial role.
As has been with many new technologies, people are keen to embrace the benefits but are concerned about the potential risks.
Dr Ibrahim Atokple, a Senior Research Scientist at the Savannah Agricultural Research Institute, Tamale, Ghana, and the principal investigator for the Maruca-Resistant Cowpea project in Ghana, in an interaction with GNA earlier on, also agrees that Africa cannot be left behind on the global drive to take advantage of bioengineering. “All the argument we are hearing against GMOs are based on personal opinions and not science.”
To him, the world is a global village and Africa can no longer live in isolation. Therefore, the time has come for African countries to open up to the technology as presently there is no scientific evidence that shows that the technology is dangerous to humans or the environment.
Touring some Green Houses in the MSU and the CFTs, the African participants expressed their amazement at how the United States have invested so much in infrastructure and urged African governments to do likewise if we wish to catch up with the West.
According to Samuel Timpo, Senior Programme Officer and Socio-Economics Specialist of AU/NEPAD Africa Biosafety Network of Expertise, although many African countries have developed some features of their biosafety systems to regulate agricultural biotechnology, a look across the continent reveals the need for regulatory capacity strengthening.
This observation he says led to the political leadership of the continent endorsing the need for biotechnology and biosafety to co-evolve so that regulation promotes innovation while at the same time safeguards human health and the environment.
“Efforts are currently ongoing towards creating an enabling legal environment in member states for the regulation of biotechnology and for the practice of good science to ensure that the benefits of biotechnology are safely harnessed”, he added.
To him, African countries must move onto a path of sustainable growth and development and be effectual participants in the thriving global bioeconomy, which will require overcoming the challenges of food, feed and fibre that confronts sub-Saharan Africa today and biotechnology could provide the needed useful tools in agriculture, medicine and industry to address these.
“Any good technology could potentially help improve the welfare of our people but must be utilized in a safe and responsible manner. The future for Africa should be one that sees member states with functional biosafety regulatory systems and harmonized processes that will ensure that advances in science and technology are safely and sustainably used to enhance agricultural productivity, food and nutritional security, and incomes”, he asserted.
Africans are always complaining about what happens in the USA and some parts of Europe and yet we travel to these countries and consume their GM products. On our own market shelves we have imported GM products like cooking oil, tomato puree and other cereals but we criticize the technology. Why don’t we adopt the technology and domesticate it to address our own demands.
To Dr William Hutchison of the Department of Entomology of the University of Minnesota, USA, “Much has been written, the Science is here with us, it is a matter of the Will to resolve to improve quality of life for smallholder farmers, on less land”.
By Linda Asante-Agyei