Growing up in Ethiopia watching climate patterns change with every wake, and the subsequent diminishing of farm yields each consecutive season, fuelled my aptitude for agricultural biotechnology research. Each year, our weather spectrum stretches a bit further on both extremes, with farmers barely able to predict the planting season anymore. Gone are the days I would enjoy taking a trip upcountry, look out the window the whole journey and enjoy green expanses of all manner of crops thriving beautifully in fields. Today, more often than not, you will encounter stunted crops hit by drought, diseases wilting them from the inside and leaves bearing gaping holes made by armies of ravenous pests. A rather disturbing sight to say the least. As climate change persist, our farmers are seeing more seasons of failed crops than in the past. Mark you, these are the same crops expected to feed over a hundred million people in Ethiopia. Well, let us agree that is a tall order by any definition.
Choosing not to live in oblivion of this progressive trend in diminishing capacity to feed ourselves, I pursued a career in agricultural biotechnology research. For over a decade now, I have worked with various groups seeking biotechnological interventions in arming Africa’s staple crops with ability to tolerate drought and resist a myriad of destructive pests and diseases. These mitigation and adaptation technologies have been made possible by transferring genes conferring the sought qualities to farmer preferred crop varieties. I started off my journey as a maize breeder with Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research (EIAR) and had a chance to develop drought tolerant maize at Kenyatta University (Kenya) for my doctorate under Association for Strengthening Agricultural Research in Eastern and Central Africa (ASARECA). Afterwards, I returned home to work with EIAR on improving genetic capacity of key staple crops, which currently include insect resistant and drought tolerant maize (TELA®) being tested by African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF).
Today, we face an apparent reality that Africa is on the verge of unprecedented food crisis and we cannot afford to sit back and watch this unfold. Conventional crops have easily succumbed to droughts, diseases and pests subsequently leading to dwindling food production. In fact, according to a 2018 report by the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA), climate change may cause a 23% decline in major crop production from maize, wheat, rice, and soybean by 2050. The challenge posed by climate change on our agricultural systems call for new thoughts and approaches. Innovative interventions that employ science and technology are urgently needed to forestall this situation and sustainably address food insecurity and undernourishment.
Agricultural biotechnology has been proven to yield crop varieties tolerant to droughts and resistant to pests and diseases. Adoption of biotech crops is one of the most effective crop adaptation technologies to combat climate change. Since their commercialization 21 years ago, biotech crops have delivered substantial agronomic, environmental, economic, health, and social benefits to farmers, thus their adoption rate must be heightened.
However, heightened activism against agricultural biotechnology threaten to bring down any efforts to introduce transgenic crops in Africa. Only two African countries, South Africa and Sudan, have commercialized the crops – the former commercializing maize, soybean and cotton whilst the latter cotton. Opponents to genetically modified organisms (GMOs) have been riding on myths, misinformation and rumours to paint in a bad light, improved crops and products developed through biotechnology.
This resistance has raised doubts among policy makers in the continent, with false arguments that Africa is not ready for genetically modified (GM) crops. But why do they think the continent is not ready when the rest of the world has embraced the technology en masse? I feel it is time that scientists effectively engage policy makers and provide them with opportunities to clearly understand the importance of agricultural biotechnology in addressing food insecurity and developing national economy. These engagements are critical in nurturing an enabling policy environment that will see formulation and operationalization of suitable policies for adoption of modern agricultural biotechnologies.
Ethiopia is the latest African country to approve commercialization of biotech cotton. This development is largely attributed to the realization that the country’s cotton industry is ailing from poor production mainly due to bollworm attacks on the crop. Leading players, including policy makers, were convinced that Bt cotton will revive the sinking sector and address the huge demand for raw materials in textile and apparel industry. We must all use the same lens to see the problem of food insecurity and how biotechnology can offer viable additional solutions.
If biotech crops and products have contributed to food, feed, and fiber security and self-sufficiency in the countries that have commercialized them, then Africa ought to open up to opportunities in building sustainable food systems supported by appropriate science, technology and innovations.
Dr. Bedada is a senior researcher and biotechnologist at the Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research (EIAR). You can reach him on firstname.lastname@example.org.