Biotechnology: Africa’s Hope for Food Security and Improved Health

Published on 25th May 2009

GM crops could boost food production and reduce hunger crisis in Africa. Uganda’s researchers in bio-technologies are convinced that successful implementation of Genetically Modified (GM) crop production would boost food production and end the hunger crisis bedeviling most countries   in Africa today. In Uganda, over 40 out of 83 districts are currently facing a threat of hunger following persistent droughts, floods and crop disease strains like cassava mosaic and bacterial banana wilt. 

The experts currently meeting at the Lake Victoria shore colonial town of Entebbe say that Africa needs to adopt biotechnology in order to feed its starving population in view of stagnating agricultural productivity, harsh effects of climate change and a growing population. 

Figures available at the Uganda’s ministry of Health indicate that   malnutrition  is widespread with more than 36 percent of children under three years and 10 percent of mothers in Uganda suffering from chronic under-nutrition. 

Millions of small holder farmers in Africa can no longer grow enough food to sustain their families, communities or their countries leading to recurrent food crises on the continent, according to Uganda’s minister of state for Agriculture Lt. Col. Bright Rwamirama .He says that pests, disease and unpredictable climate conditions have made large scale production untenable in Uganda. 

South Africa, Egypt and Burkina Faso have started commercial use of GMs while others like Uganda are carrying out field trials. Some countries like Zambia have vehemently refused to embrace biotechnology. 

Dr. Mark Rosegrant, the director of International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI’s) Environment and Production Technology Division says  that in the coming years, growing populations, stagnating agricultural productivity, and increasing climate change will make it even more difficult for Africa to tackle poverty, hunger, and malnutrition. He adds that Considerable experience suggests that biotechnology can contribute to improved food production and quality in developing countries. Moreover, crop traits currently in the development pipeline—including drought and heat tolerance—are of particular value to African farmers.  

Through continued research, IFPRI hopes to provide more information about genetically modified crops and their potential to benefit smallholder farmers and improve the lives of other poor people throughout Africa. 

“To confront these challenges, many African countries are increasingly assessing a range of tools and technologies, including agricultural biotechnologies, which hold great promise for improving crop yields, household incomes, and the nutritional quality of food in an environmentally sustainable way,” argues the expert. 

Research presented at the ongoing conference,  shows that in delaying the approval of GM fungal-resistant banana, Uganda foregoes potential benefits ranging from about US$179 million to US$365 million a year. 

 According to IFPRI analysis, expansion in the adoption of GM crops could also significantly lower the price of food in developing countries by 2050. Realizing these benefits, however, depends on acceptance by farmers, public awareness and consumer preferences, regulatory and market issues, and strong political will, including the willingness to invest in new technology. 

According to experts, deciding whether or not to make GM crops a priority in their agricultural development and food and nutrition security strategies and invest in modern biotechnology is an important consideration for many African countries. Dr. Rosegrant  says  that by bringing social scientists and decision makers together, the first-of-its-kind conference aims to bridge the gap between policy and research, and provide solid information and evidence on which sound choices and investments related to GM technology can be made. 

To help inform such policy decisions, conference participants are sharing research findings that address critical questions, including, What are the potential economic gains and drawbacks of GM crops, especially for poor, rural households, What obstacles prevent smallholder farmers from gaining access to and successfully using GM technology, and how can these constraints be overcome and the  lessons  to be  learned from other developing countries, such as South Africa, China, and India, where GM crops are already being commercially grown by smallholder farmers. 

Improving of policymaking to ease the dissemination and commercialization of agricultural biotechnologies as well as the regional and international trade implications of growing GM crops in Africa will also be discussed in the three day event.  

“Managing the opportunities and risks posed by GM crops, including trade-related challenges, requires countries to have well-functioning, efficient, and responsible biosafety systems,” says Dr. Margaret Karembu, director of the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA) AfriCenter in Nairobi, where the Kenya Biosafety Bill became law in February 2009, joining Mali and Togo, which enacted national biosafety legislation in 2008. 

“These countries’ experiences offer useful lessons for other African countries working to develop biosafety policies, including the increased potential to benefit from proven research and help smallholder farmers with limited resources gain access to agricultural bio-technologies and successfully use them,” she added. 

The conference under the theme “Delivering Agricultural Biotechnology to African Farmers: Linking Economic Research to Decision Making,” is organized by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) in collaboration with the Uganda National Council for Science and Technology and the Science Foundation for Livelihoods and Development. 

The International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) seeks sustainable solutions for ending hunger and poverty. IFPRI is one of 15 centers supported by the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), an alliance of 64 governments, private foundations, and international and regional organizations. 


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