Biotechnology is Key to Food Security in Africa.

African Scientists Call for Food Security

Africa missed on the “Green Revolution” that drove Asia; the West and the larger America out of food insecurity five decades ago, but Agricultural Scientists in Kenya say, it should not miss out on the “Gene Revolution” seen to transform food production policy in the continent. First, the statement marks the progress Agriculture Science has made for the last 15 years in terms of new technologies required to improve food productivity in Kenya and Africa in general. Secondly, it represents certain steps scientists are taking towards placing the region and Africa at large under food sufficiency. Water harvesting and soil conservation technologies have resulted in a tenfold increase in land productivity.

For over a decade farming has witnessed some transformations through; soil and water conservation, minimum tillage, improved crop varieties such as the Drought Resistant varieties, and agro forestry, farmers have efficiently utilized the scarce rainfall to increase land productivity. The agriculture experts led by Kenya’s Agriculture Secretary; Dr. Wilson Songa and Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI) director, Dr. Ephraim Mukisira have called on Kenyans to embrace the available new technologies to curb hunger. Last week, during the East African Science Reporting Workshop for journalists at the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) in Nairobi, Africa Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF) Executive Director, Dr. Daniel Mataruka warned that, Africa will not develop if its national governments and citizens cannot modernize agriculture for sustainable food production. He expressed concern; why as a continent, Africa cannot embrace agricultural technologies despite; the presence of a variety of negative climatic conditions and while 265 million of its populations and still increasing in number; are poor and food insecure.

He said new technologies like biotechnology are key to food security and nutrition. In a presentation: Overcoming challenges in the African Agricultural Sector: What chance for technology?, Mataruka said the continent must change her food production policies. “America in the 1930s was poorer than Africa is now but they changed their food production policies- improvements in agriculture technology through; improved seeds, improvement in crop management and mechanisation were the sources of economic growth in this country,” said Mataruka. According to Mataruka, this was achieved basically by the US transforming her war weaponry factories into farm input; equipment and chemical production facilities after the Second World War. Asia, Latin America and the West followed suit in the 1950s-60s. He said the gene revolution is in Africa to stay and for those who are opposed to it; they are enemies of the continent that has been dogged by disease epidemics – HIV and AIDS, Malaria, Tuberculosis; name them – armed conflicts, poverty, droughts among others. The “Gene Revolution” according to Dr. Mataruka as with other scientists, is the ultimate answer to the perennial epidemics related to hunger and poverty. “Let us empower African farmers with the little available technologies in order to boost their food production,” he said.

Over five decades ago, the world experienced a striking breakthrough in Agriculture through the Green Revolution, which saved at least a billion lives from starvation in Asia and Latin America but, incidentally, Africa, then largely fed through subsistence farming, missed out and the consequences have left the continent begging for food relief since. But again despite the emergence of advanced agricultural technologies, notably modern biotechnology, Africa with over 200 million starving people, is still watching as Asia; Latin America and the West are riding on the top. “But again as I have said this is sad for food productivity is low and poverty high due to too little application of science into farming,” added Mataruka. In his book; Starved for Science: How Biotechnology Is Being Kept Out of Africa, Political Scientist, Prof. Robert Paarlberg, confronts the sad fact that people in Africa are poor because their labour as farmers has not yet been improved by science, including modern biotechnology. “Only 4 per cent of Africa’s farmland is irrigated, less than 30 per cent is planted to improved seeds, while average fertilizer in use is only 9Kg per hectare, compared to 117 kg per hectare in the industrial world,” says Paarlberg.

And during this week at KARI headquarters, agricultural research scientists attending a Stakeholders Consultation Forum on Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA)- Kenya, unanimously agreed that farmers in Africa needs intervention from science and technology tools and products to increase productivity in order to enhance food security. “Such tools and products are urgently needed to reduce poverty and food insecurity,” said Dr. Songa who urged stakeholders to work in transparent synergies if they hoped to succeed in providing the farmer with alternatives towards improving their food production. “If we are going to work together as a synergy, it is important to know what each of us is doing out there for farmers. Therefore, we need to organise ourselves in order to plan better, avail farm inputs to farmers,” said Songa. However, he stressed the need for stakeholders to recognise that for the WEMA project to succeed; all the processes involved must be addressed through public-private partnerships. “Just to ensure that, inclusivity is addressed by all. We are saying that, every stakeholder must contribute to the WEMA Project,” he added.

The WEMA Project which enhances other varieties for high yields also integrates the utilisation of traditional methods with Marker Assisted Selection (MAS) – a tool for genetic improvement – and transgenic methods. On his part, Dr. Mukisira said that in the process of transforming agriculture, KARI must come up with projects that are consistent with the erratic weather presently faced by Kenya to optimise productivity. He effectively identified WEMA as the kind of project that can achieve such a goal. However, he cautioned that WEMA may not achieve its goals without working together with the various multi-disciplinary sectors. “Lone ranging hampers success of such projects,” added Mukisira at KARI. In his research: Why we need a new agenda for agriculture; what impact can higher agricultural sector productivity have on reducing poverty? published in 2001 Prof. Collin Thirtle, said; “Each 1 percent increase in agricultural productivity reduces poverty by 0.6 percent.” and “A yield increase of 1 per cent decreases the number of people living with less than US 1 per day by 6 million.”

Despite its spirited campaign against Africa embracing Genetically Modified materials, Europe has approved 87 recombinant [GM] drugs through the European Medicines Agency since 1982 says, Prof. Paarlberg is 2009. According to him Europeans will die of diabetes and related ailments if they do not administer Humulin N (GM Insulin) for treatment of Diabetes Hepatitis B virus vaccine. “Responsible biotechnology is not the enemy, but starvation is the enemy.” Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, late Prof. Norman E. Borlaug wrote in 1970. To crown it, Dr. Mataruka said, “It is high time farmers who are still using their “grandmothers” planting material to shift their focus to hybrid seeds because the inherited materials are prone to; drought, pests, insects, and diseases.”

© 2010, George Kebaso. All rights reserved. – The views expressed here are purely those of the author and not necessarily those of the publishers. – Newstime Africa content cannot be reproduced in any form – electronic or print – without prior consent of the Publishers. Copyright infringement will be pursued and perpetrators prosecuted.

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Danielle Nierenberg says:

As an FYI, wanted to make sure you saw this post on Worldwatch Institute’s Nourishing the Planet on meeting with Africa Harvest in Johannesburg, South Africa to discuss biotechnology in Africa.

Here is the link: http://blogs.worldwatch.org/nourishingtheplanet/building-knowledge-about-biotechnology-in-africa/