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Francis Wanjohi (second left) with other participants of FAO Regional Meeting on Agricultural Biotechnologies in Sustainable Food Systems and Nutrition in Sub-Saharan Africa.


On 22-24th November I had the opportunity to attend FAO Regional Meeting on Agricultural Biotechnologies in Sustainable Food Systems and Nutrition in Sub-Saharan Africa.

The meeting was focused on the status and future of agricultural biotechnologies in Africa. Food security in Africa heavily relies in the success of Agricultural Biotechnology. We need to double our food productivity by the year 2025. To do this, all stakeholders need to express their opinions and suggestions on how biotechnology can be used for food and feed solutions to bring real differences in people’s lives. We need to focus on biotechnologies that are important to smallholder farmers in Africa, who are the ones that produce most of our foods.

Debates of whether to plant genetically modified (GM) or non-GM crops are outdated. Discussions should focus on

setting the stage for future actions on adoption of biotechnologies. Modernising agriculture is not a choice but a must for African countries. There are currently no concerted efforts in most developing countries to accelerate research and development on biotechnologies. Africa should position herself to harness the benefits of agricultural biotechnology. We need capacity building to improve our human resource, research and development for innovations in biotechnologies. We should identify gaps and opportunities and address them. Some of the gaps and opportunities in agricultural biotechnology in Africa include:

a)     Skilled human resource

b)    Infrastructure

c)     Policies and regulatory frameworks

d)    Shifting from research into use

e)     Private sector engagements

f)      Intellectual Property (IP) protection

g)     Administration structures & coordination

h)    Under investment

i)      Public awareness

African countries are some of the most affected by impacts of climate change. Climate change associated problems include outbreaks of new diseases, new pests, floods and droughts. Biotechnology should be used as part of the solution to these challenges to accelerate propagation of plant materials and improve food and feed production.

Since humans became farmers rather than hunter gatherers people have benefited from biotechnology. Biotechnology is not just about GM or transgenic plants. Biotechnologies have improved from simple techniques such as tissue culture to molecular genetics techniques. New plant breeding technologies that involve gene editing are taking over from GM such as CRISPR, TALEN, RNAi. African countries do not have specific regulations for these developing technologies.

Biotechnology can be used in traditional, conventional and organic farming as a way of beating climate change. Biotechnology is an important tool to analyse biological diversity in Africa. Biotechnology has enabled production of highly effective vaccines and specific/rapid diagnosis of diseases. DNA is used for forensic timber identification that helps to fight illegal logging in West Africa. DNA is also used in conservation of genetic resources.

The rate of adoption of biotechnologies by farmers is much slower compared to the rate of development of biotechnologies and speed at which new varieties can be created. A solution for small holder farmers would be to carry out sustainable intensification to increase agricultural productivity through biotechnology.

Unless we do things differently and innovatively, there is no way we can manoeuvre around the challenges we face. Most of the foods consumed in Africa such as rice are imported. Every coin paid for food import creates employment to those producing the foods outside Africa, while we are languishing in poverty.

It is high time we attained food independence in Africa. To achieve this, it is important that we produce substitute products in mass to guarantee food security and eliminate food imports to Africa. GM crops such as Bt. Cotton have been tested for resistance to weeds and insect pests such as the cotton Bollworm in many countries in Africa, including Kenya and Cameroun. The results have been very good and scientists would like to test other crops too.

70% of Africa is favourable for agriculture. 80 % of Sub Saharan Africans are small holder farmers. Agriculture is the main livelihood of the rural people in Africa. We must deal with complexity of farming among small holders, which includes having diverse plants and livestock on their farms. We need targeted investments in biotechnology for either cereals, legumes or livestock. Inappropriate technologies limit funding opportunities. Agriculture is the biggest contributor of GDP per capita in Kenya. Kenya and South Africa are currently leading in biotechnology applications in Africa, whereas GMOs are cultivated in South Africa but banned in Kenya. Ethiopia, Kenya and Nigeria have medium biotechnology development and application capacities compared to the global status. Most African counties have not created an enabling environment for biotechnologies.

There will be over two billion people in Sub Saharan Africa by the year 2050. Most livestock are affected by diseases which can be controlled by vaccinations from recombinant DNA (rDNA) vaccines. Although Genetic Modification (GM) is controversial, we need recombinant DNA vaccines. There are currently no GM in vaccines in Africa.

Farmers need to understand GM technology to accept it. They need to be part of the planning and processing to own the products. Farmers representatives know that the solution to increasing yields is in agricultural biotechnology, but how are small holder farmers going to receive this knowledge? Who is going to provide it? Most of the food production in Sub Saharan Africa occurs in family farms. More needs to be done to increase consumer confidence and farmers satisfaction in biotechnologies. We should find ways to gain farmers’ trust when communicating biotechnology information. This is because GMOs or transfer of genes between organisms have given biotechnology a bad name. We should provide scientific solutions to governments for policy decision making. We should build partnerships and collaboration at local, national and global levels. We need to ensure that biotechnology responds to local, national and global farmers’ needs. Bottom up approach should be employed in biotechnology research. Research should be based on meeting the farmer’s needs. Farmers are central to every innovation in biotechnology, therefore we cannot succeed without their involvement. Farmers should be involved in the whole value chain process of seed and inputs development through ways such as participating in trials. Governments should provide conducive environment for this collaboration. Nobody wants technologies which are imposed on them. We should integrate research and development with farmers, policy makers, manufacturers, retailers and other sectors. The future is in our hands.

“I don’t think if I see a new product that is good for my consumption and I can afford it that I’d be hesitant to buy it. But if I have concerns about my safety then I will have a problem accepting the product. Consumers should be informed and not kept in the dark regarding biotechnologies,” said one of the participants. Information on biotechnology should be coupled with biosafety.

“Farmers in Kenya are aware of the benefits of Bt. Cotton and have been closely involved in the progress of its development by Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organization (KALRO). They are looking forward to the day when they will be allowed to grow Bt. Cotton and reopen their ginneries which have been closed for years because they could not get good harvest from the conventional seeds,” said one of the farmers’ representatives. In South Africa, the Agricultural Research Council (ARC) requests farmers organizations to fund a research that will offer a solution to their problems, then the council gets back to farmers with research results which deliver on their promise. This has enabled the council to get 40% of their budget being funded by farmers, a situation which should be borrowed by other African countries.

We should make pragmatic recommendations to make Africa move, let’s learn from mistakes and experiences of other countries. We should anticipate new technologies and understand their implications on food security. Development of agricultural biotechnologies should be led by national governments in partnership with the private sector for the benefit of smallholder farmers. There should be cross sectoral collaborations to manage biotechnologies. Safety analysis and assessments should be done for each product. Risk assessment should be done on a case by case basis. All biotechnology programs should abide to the country’s regulations. International policies and best practices should be adopted where local policies are missing. We need to convince the governments to adopt the technologies. Some countries strongly said NO to GMOs and then there was drought and they realized that they had been listening to rumours. Science should be allowed to guide policy development.

Finally, we acknowledge the challenges faced by African countries but it is good to start somewhere. Borrowing the words of Martin Luther King Jr, “If you can’t fly then run, if you can’t run then walk, if you can’t walk then crawl but whatever you do you have to keep moving forward.”

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