By Dr. Rasha Omer
Poverty and despair defined my childhood while growing up in rural Sudan. This tough upbringing became a blessing in disguise as it ignited my ambition – a strong purpose for a better life for my people. Most parts of Sudan are arid and semi-arid, with erratic rainfall patterns, making it difficult for the country to produce sufficient food for its populace. The desperate situations we encountered inspired me to work towards helping my community overcome food insecurity. With that, I pursued a career in agricultural biotechnology, with specialization in genetic engineering of drought-tolerant maize. Reasons? Because I believe this technology has the ability to produce crops that can thrive in harsh Sudanese conditions.
My dream of becoming a crop improvement specialist almost hit a snag due to the challenges of balancing societal demands with my education. Sudanese culture places household responsibilities on girls, depriving them time to go to school. However, that would not stop me. I was determined to gain an education that would enable me work for my community.
After graduating, I got a job as a Research Assistant at the Agricultural Research Corporation (ARC) of Sudan, in the biotechnology lab. I began actualizing my dream at this point. My role as a young scientist was to assist in transforming different plant varieties. I quickly learnt that agricultural biotechnology is one of the most viable solutions to the serious food shortage in Sudan. My passion, hard work and undying interest to bail my countrymen and women out of their plight won me a scholarship to study a Master of Science degree in Genetic Engineering, with specific focus on drought tolerant maize, in 2005, and later a PhD in the same area in 2009. The scholarship was awarded to me courtesy of the Association for Strengthening Agricultural Research in Eastern and Central Africa (ASARECA).
Sudan has not commercially planted genetically modified food crops but I am confident that it is only a matter of time before this happens. Currently, I am the Deputy Director of Biotechnology and Biosafety at ARC and my priority is to see my country plant biotech food crops that will address food insufficiency and nutritional needs of the growing population.
With climate change, drought has become a major cause of food insecurity and poverty in sub-Saharan Africa. Sudan need to expedite adoption of genetically modified crops that have the ability to withstand these conditions. In 2017, Sudan grew 192,000 hectares of biotech cotton representing an adoption rate of 98%. An estimated 90,000 Sudanese farmers grew the crop on average farm sizes of 2.1 hectares. Exceptional performance of the biotech cotton program has gained attention from the Prime Minister, given the crop significantly contributed towards the economy. The government should therefore draw valuable lessons from this experience, and transition the country towards planting genetically modified drought-tolerant crops.
It is critical that farmers in Sudan get more involved in biotech crop adoption processes even as research continues. Little has been done to sensitize the public on the benefits of drought-tolerant crops and thus public education is highly needed.
Worth noting is that women play an instrumental role in adoption of agricultural technologies. Traditionally, women are intimately involved in food production thus they need better tools that come with modern biotechnology. Further, as custodians of family and children, facilitating their access to improved seeds will enable them to improve the quality of life for their loved ones.
From my experience as a mother, Sudanese women suffer the most from erratic climatic conditions in the country. Their love for agriculture and humanity, and the mere fact that they bear the greatest brunt of feeding their families, means that they can strongly influence policies that can ease access to agricultural biotechnology.
Modern biotechnology is the best option for Sudanese smallholder farmers. Bt cotton has taught us this. However, Sudan’s arid and semi-arid areas have great prospects to become the country’s breadbasket if we adopt drought-tolerant sorghum, millet, and maize. It is time for the country to go beyond biotech cotton.
Dr. Omer is the Deputy Director of Biotechnology and Biosafety at the Agricultural Research Corporation (ARC) of Sudan. You can reach her on firstname.lastname@example.org