In his popularly acclaimed book ‘The New Harvest: Agricultural Innovation in Africa’, the late Professor Calestous Juma boldly states that “in employing science-based agriculture, scientific advances have the potential to revolutionize African agriculture.” Few would disagree with him. I am a passionate believer in the potential of science, technology and innovation (ST&I) in building sustainable agricultural systems. This continent needs a different approach in tackling its agricultural challenges, which are numerous, recurrent, intractable and with dire consequences.
Africa’s population currently stand at 1.3 billion people, with a steady yearly growth rate of 2.5 percent. That’s a whopping 30 million people added every year! Over 60 percent of these people live in rural areas with livelihoods solely dependent on agriculture. They also feed the urban population. In addition, agriculture is Africa’s largest economic sector, contributing over 15 percent of the continent’s total GDP. Zooming into individual countries, this value is even higher – 23 percent in Nigeria, 26 percent in Kenya et cetera.
Climate change has become a global phenomenon, with Africa the worst hit region. The continent has seen changes in average temperatures, rainfall patterns, extreme weather, emergence of new and more virulent crop pests and diseases. As you would expect, the interplay of these factors, coupled with lack of prompt mitigation and adaptation strategies has resulted in significant reduction in agricultural productivity. We have an opportunity to employ ST&I to avert this crisis, promote sustainable agriculture that can comfortably feed the growing population, and support economic prosperity. One of those appropriate technologies is agricultural biotechnology.
Agricultural biotechnology can play a crucial role in bridging the food and nutrition security gap in Africa. This could be through development of drought tolerant, insect and disease resistant, fast-maturing, high yielding crops, while integrating indigenous and modern knowledge on climate change adaptation. Today, we are also concerned about access to nutritionally balanced food. Advances in biotechnology have enabled fortification of staple foods with vital nutrients. With proper deployment mechanisms, this technology can significantly improve our capacity to produce quality food.
Unfortunately, Africa has been slow in adopting agricultural biotechnologies, mainly because of the unresolved controversies surrounding use of the technology, as well as poor policy and institutional frameworks. There is also limited access of credible information among policy makers, who are often confronted with contradictory information sources bearing myths and untruths. Moreover, even when information is available, scientific facts are often interspersed with social, ethical and political considerations.
Africa has a chance to change this narrative. Experts should focus on building public confidence, while encouraging policy makers to use credible evidence on both the benefits and safety of biotechnology and its products to inform decision-making. There is need for massive awareness campaigns and public education to help people understand how appropriate biotechnologies can help overcome key agricultural challenges. Information is power. Therefore, mass and intensive sensitization would go a long way in putting to rest controversies around biotech products. Luckily, the world is now swarming with modes and platforms for sharing information – from television programs, radio shows, social media, films and documentaries. We should take up the responsibility of sharing credible information on these technologies using all available channels. African governments also need to own this technology and invest in it.
Nigeria has approved cultivation of genetically improved insect resistant cotton varieties (Bt cotton). This will positively impact farmers by reducing production costs and constant exposure to hazardous pesticides. Lowering production cost means more profit in farmers’ pockets, economic empowerment and livelihood enhancement to match farmers in adopting countries like India, South Africa, and Sudan. Textile and apparel manufacturing industries also stand to benefit from a stable supply of quality raw materials and generate thousands of jobs. Currently, Nigeria’s cotton industry is in comatose. Bollworm infestation is a huge problem, causing up to 90 percent yield loss. Discouraged farmers opt to cultivate alternative crops, leaving textile processors with no choice but to import, further impoverishing the locals. Arrival of Bt cotton is expected to change this situation for the best.
With the steady progress being recorded in adoption of appropriate agricultural biotechnologies in Africa, I am optimistic the future of the continent will be bright. Our youthful generation has a chance to embrace science, technology and innovations in laying a strong foundation for food and nutrition security, environmental sustainability and economic prosperity!
Dr. Rose Gidado is the Assistant Director, National Biotechnology Development Agency (NABDA) and the Country Coordinator, Open Forum on Agricultural Biotechnology in Africa (OFAB) Nigeria chapter. You can reach her on firstname.lastname@example.org