Embracing agricultural biotechnology


Agriculture contributes over 25 percent of the Gross Domestic Product and employs above 70 percent of the labour force in most African countries’ economies. This is according to the African Biosafety Network of Expertise, a science-based biosafety resource network for African regulators.

The African Biosafety Network of Expertise adds that most people in Africa use agriculture as their avenue to escape harsh realities of life. Surprisingly, less is being done to embrace agricultural biotechnology – a science and technology technique used to improve plants, animals and microorganisms and to fight poverty.

As a result, very few African countries have embraced agricultural biotechnology. In fact, only 10 countries are taking necessary steps.  According to the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications, only South Africa grows genetically modified food crops while Burkina Faso and Sudan grow GM cotton. Seven other African countries – Cameroon, Egypt, Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, Nigeria and Uganda – have conducted GM field trials.

This slow adoption of agricultural biotechnology is hampering development on the continent and in the process agricultural productivity is constrained.

Causes of the slow uptake of agricultural biotechnology are many and take in concerns on access and benefit sharing.

Dr Florence Wambugu, the Executive Director of A Harvest Biotechnology (AHBFI), an Africa-based foundation whose mission is to promote the use of biotechnology for sustainable agricultural development and to fight hunger and poverty in Africa, concurs: “African core issues on GM crops can be summarised as concerns on access and benefit sharing, that is opportunities to engage in GM – trade; possible trade barriers with Europe and limited availability of local expertise in biotechnology with poor infrastructures (local capacity development).

More so, lack of awareness is heightening the problem and media is partly to blame.” Professor Naagla Abdullah, head of the Agricultural Genetic Engineering Research Institute at Cairo University, agrees: “The problem is the media and people against biotechnology. The media has peddled lies and misinformed policy makers and the public.”

To drive the growth of agricultural-based economies of Africa, from hunger, malnutrition and poverty cycles to economic prosperity, Wambugu says Africa truly needs a “kind of agricultural biotechnology revolution.”

“…agricultural biotechnology has demonstrated impact on increased productivity per unit of land through control of insects and pests and can help reduce environmental damage due to poverty,” adds Wambugu.

Dr Jonathan Mufandaedza, Chief Executive Officer of the National Biotechnology Authority of Zimbabwe, an autonomous research and development institute with a mandate to develop Zimbabwe through both conventional and cutting-edge biotechnologies, also agrees but urges political leaders and policy decision makers to be armed with accurate information for them to make proper decisions regarding the adoption of agricultural biotechnology.

“Opinions and policies generated by policy-makers have to be beefed up by experts. Our politicians, therefore, need to be equipped with proper information so that when they make decisions they are properly informed not through misinformation or other wild claims but by facts,” he says.

Mufandaedza further says African countries should create platforms that encourage more research to enhance the uptake of agricultural biotechnologies. They should focus on bringing agricultural biotechnology to people.

“Stakeholders in the science industry should focus on bringing the technology to people. They can do this through education tours in schools, universities and the public; exhibitions and shows; public debates which may be targeted on journalists or the public,” adds Mufandaedza.

Furthermore, the task of explaining biotechnology requires people of uncommon talent and intelligence. Accordingly, mass media, being the most available and accessible source of information, should play an integral and valuable role.

This is because the power and influence of the media in shaping attitudes, beliefs, and behaviour are immeasurable, particularly with regard to a new and revolutionary agricultural technology with enormous potential impact in people’s lives. Decision-makers and the public must therefore use the mass media for information handling, dissemination and to help people form opinions about agricultural biotechnology.

It is worthy to note that the presence of local scientists is also of paramount importance when it comes to assessing the health impacts of GM crops and new life science technologies in African countries.

Additional elements of comprehensive strategy for biotechnology in Africa, according to Wambugu, should include collaboration between public institutions (Non-Government Organisations, research institutions and universities) and the local private sector, a focus on food security and on indigenous African crops such as cassava, yam, banana, maize and the sweet potato. 

Wambugu goes on to say: “Funding of agricultural biotechnology by African governments where South Africa is taking the lead and countries such as Nigeria have started programmes, need to be increased. Internal trade between African countries needs to be encouraged for food security to reduce over reliance on European Union trades and concern on trade barriers.”

More so, stakeholders in academia, industry and government must gradually develop functioning biosafety regulatory systems.

According to an Agricultural Biotechnology brief, the development of an effective national biosafety system is important to encourage the growth of domestic biotechnologies; to ensure safe access to new products and technologies developed elsewhere; and to build public confidence that products in the marketplace are safe.

The absence of a suitable framework affects the ability of the public and private sectors to invest in agricultural biotechnology and to make agricultural biotechnology products available so that the benefits they afford can be realised.

However, Wambugu urges companies in Africa to come up with strong Intellectual Property incentives to develop new products.

Wambugu says: “Companies need a strong Intellectual Property incentive to develop new products, but seeds and technologies must be made available to farmers in developing countries through strategic partnership. Several companies have shown a willingness to do this, and to participate in various partnership initiatives.

“For instance, the Rockefeller Foundation facilitated African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF) has provided ways for north or south partnerships to open the African market in a mutually beneficial and sustainable manner. Such efforts must be encouraged and nurtured as they offer new models of doing business within the changing environment.”

Wambugu goes on to say: “We need to build African leadership in human and infrastructural capacity building. We need a good dialogue with the farmers, and to include them in the process so that they can accept new technology, with demonstrated benefits, which they must see clearly for themselves. Farmers should also be involved in the trials to generate information they can use to make decisions.

“Put succinctly, a clear African agenda driven by an African strategy needs to emerge from the global biotechnology arena, …we need to move from debate to more constructive engagements that will result in sustainable agricultural development that is greatly needed – so as to stimulate the desperately needed ‘biotechnology agricultural revolution’ in Africa”.

March 2014
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