Africa has made tremendous progress in crop biotechnology with seven countries – Eswatini, Ethiopia, Malawi, Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa and Sudan – having already approved commercialization of biotech crops. However, stewardship is key in ensuring sustainability and quality management of the approved biotech crops. To delve into this issue, the DrumBeat secured an exclusive interview with Prof. Walter Alhassan, a distinguished African biotechnology and biosafety expert. Prof. Alhassan currently runs Biotechnology and Stewardship for Sustainable Agriculture in West Africa (BSSA), a non-government organization that provides stewardship on biotech crops in Africa. Between 2009 and 2014, Prof. Alhassan worked with the Forum for Agricultural Research in Africa (FARA) as the Coordinator of Capacity Strengthening for the Safe Management of Biotechnology in Sub-Saharan Africa (SABIMA) program. He has also been at the helm of the Ghana Council for Scientific and Industrial Research as the Director General.
- Africa is making some progress towards adoption of biotech crops with Ethiopia, Eswatini, Kenya, Malawi and Nigeria joining the league of adopter nations. Why do you think the tides are finally turning in the region?
The progress towards adoption of biotech crops in Africa is quite commendable. This can be attributed to growing awareness among the African people and resilience among the proponents of the technology. The proponents have always been talking about biotechnology and engaging scientists on radio, television, international fora and many other meetings. Awareness creation has been going on since the first biotech crops were commercialized 24 years ago and this has been instrumental in influencing uptake of the technology. Farmer engagements through visits to trial sites have helped bolster confidence on the importance of biotech crops. Once farmers believe in the product, they put pressure on policy makers to support its adoption. Political will exemplified by African Heads of State has also been a key factor to continuous progress in adoption of biotech crops on the continent. When leaders show interest in a technology, everything moves forward. Ethiopia and South Africa provide a classic example on exemplary political support for crop biotechnology.
- What key issues do these “new adopter nations” now need to focus on to ensure successful adoption of biotech crops once in farmers’ hands?
Stewardship should be at the core in ensuring adoption and sustainable cultivation of biotech crops. The issue of stewardship was a new concept with most agri-biotechnology researchers in sub-Sahara Africa let alone farmers until I took up SABIMA. Once stewardship came along and researchers were exposed to it, we all realized the importance of this concept. You may come up with your product, put it in the market and make it available to the farmer. However, the farmer can lose the product if there is lack of stewardship in the management of the product. Stewardship issues are critical and attention must be given to them.
Another key issue to focus on is quality seed production because eventually, the technology must go into the seed. Breeders must be keen to do a good job. They must make sure the variety is stable and has uniformity. Good stewardship cuts across the board thus everyone along the product development process must make sure the germplasm is stable and quality of the seed supplied to farmers is guaranteed.
- What does stewardship involve and why is it important?
Stewardship is the responsible management of the technology. It ensures the product has integrity and delivers its promises. Good stewardship ensures you pay proper attention to details and involves accurate record-keeping, so that you may go back to evaluate the process effectively should the need arise. Accurate recording of all activities is the heartbeat of stewardship. This process ensures a product is not adulterated as you move along in the product development chain. Good stewardship facilitates acceptance of the developed product and is key in ensuring good growth characteristics.
- Given your expansive experience while leading the SABIMA project, what gaps still exist and what do these countries need to put in place to bridge those gaps?
Farmer engagements in many African countries have been insufficient. From my experience with SABIMA, a program implemented in six African countries (Ghana, Nigeria, Burkina Faso, Kenya, Uganda and Malawi), farmer interactions with project scientists were minimal. In 2011, the first Pan-African Stewardship Conference saw an overwhelming endorsement for SABIMA program as ten more African countries expressed interest to be part of it. Sadly, the program ended due to lack of funds before it could address the farmer engagement gap. This gave me a conviction to establish BSSA in Ghana with the objective of getting stewardship principles to the level of the farmer. It has always been my hope that scientists can handle stewardship at farmers’ level since little has been done to enlighten farmers on how to maintain the integrity of the seed containing a GM trait. However, I am relieved to see Prof. Ishayaku from Nigeria engaging farmers on these issues when it comes to Bt cowpea.
- How do we ensure farmer compliance with biotech crops stewardship protocol given Africa’s agricultural setting of 70% small-scale and mixed farming enterprises?
Political will is key. The government needs to provide necessary resources that will facilitate effective compliance. In addition, scientists who developed the product must link up with the farmer. They must not only make sure the technology is available but must also work closely with farmers for a number of cropping seasons and ensure the developed seeds given to them produce projected yields under appropriate agronomic practices. Constant monitoring is paramount in ensuring farmers are doing the right thing. Additionally, the extension staff have to be part of the stewardship program – they must be trained on how to continuously engage farmers to handle the crop.
- The world has over two decades of experience with Bt cotton whereas Bt cowpea is the “new kid on the block.” How should compliance be checked in the context of Bt cotton and Bt cowpea?
The stewardship principle cuts across regardless of the crops that you are dealing with. Therefore, we would still need to follow the old system of continuous monitoring, together with extension staff, when checking compliance. Seed quality must also be checked regularly, and we need to have mechanisms for quick testing in the field to ascertain presence of the gene. Scientists must develop a means for a quick check on the presence of Bt genes in both cotton and cowpea. Additionally, seed integrity is key because if the seed monitoring system is weak, farmers will be at a great loss. Stewardship, unlike biosafety, is not legislated. It is a good practice that must be developed and nurtured.
- What key lessons can these upcoming countries learn from the Burkina Faso experience for example?
The issue of stewardship comes into play. The cotton buying company in Burkina Faso, Sofitex that has the ginnery, said Bt cotton produced short fibres against their expectations. They tried to blame it squarely on the Bt gene. However, the problem there, relates more to the breeding. The foreign cotton variety carrying the Bt gene that was introgressed into the local variety is of shorter fibre length than the receiving local variety owned by INERA, the national research institution. It is likely the short fibre length characteristic was not bred out adequately before the variety was released and that this emerged over the 8 years of segregation that Bt cotton was grown. The short fibre cotton that emerged was still effective against the boll worm. It could still be produced and marketed though with a loss in market premium it enjoyed in the past on the international market. This could go on as research was carried on to get a replacement variety with the ideal fibre length. The Burkina experience should serve as a lesson for factoring stewardship principles in breeding processes as well.
- When you reflect on how far we have come as a region with adoption of biotech crops, what other piece of advice would you give to projects that have received approval for commercialisation?
Countries must have good seed regimes that guarantee production of quality seeds. Biosafety laws also need to be harmonised across countries and within a region to ease movement of commercialized biotech products across borders. This will lay a favorable ground for optimization of the African Continental Free Trade Agreement. Project scientists, molecular breeders and pure breeders must also work together to make sure the product carries good quality. I would also urge the projects to continue working with the farmers, even after commercialisation.
- What do you consider as biggest challenges to adoption of biotech crops in Africa and at what point should stewardship be considered?
Legislation in some African countries are not user-friendly in the context of crop biotechnology. This technology has been around for 24 years and fears of the unknown are no more. In this regard, legislation should be made conducive for research, development and commercialization of biotech crops. Insufficient funding to carry out awareness creation is another challenge. This process needs to be supported wholesomely. Governments need to provide resources to support research and strengthen awareness creation programs in their countries.
- Your final thoughts as the continent starts showing signs of take-off?
Africa must wholeheartedly warm up to crop biotechnology since this technology has been with us for over two decades. Capacity building for bio-scientists must be strengthened going forward so that when challenges come, we are ready. We should not sit down and wait for donors to support the growth of biotechnology on our continent; we must take the initiative to support and embrace it ourselves.
Prof. Walter Alhassan can be reached on firstname.lastname@example.org