The adoption of biotechnology and complementary innovative technologies can catalyse productivity transformation and improve food system resilience in the developing world.
By Emmanuel Okogbenin
Climate change is a complex phenomenon with multifarious dimensions that leaves in its wake a chain of diverse challenges and interactions that results in a series of highly damaging effects and consequences, amongst which the threat to food security is perhaps the most pressing at global level. Changing weather patterns including rising temperatures, increasing drought incidences, floods and the proliferation of plant diseases are some of its effects causing havoc on farmers worldwide.
Africa, home to half of the world’s smallholder farmers, is particularly vulnerable to these threats because of its high dependency on climate related activities and very limited resources that constrain its adaptive capacity. The pressing question we face now in Africa is how to safeguard the food security of our people amid these challenges.
Failed rains and other impacts of climate change are making more African countries increasingly food-insecure. One promising solution that could be a game changer in achieving a sustainable food and nutrition secure Africa is the adoption of biotechnology and complementary innovative technologies at significant levels that can catalyze productivity transformation and improved food system resilience in the developing world in particular.
Biotech integration in African agriculture is still low and sub-optimal. Relative to other scientific disciplines of interventions, advancement in biotechnology has been very dynamic leading to the development of products that have been attributed as highly strategic in the enormous task of improving and strengthening food system resilience against climate change. The adoption of biotech solutions to climate change challenges will therefore require a system-based approach and support to help farmers overcome short food supply and loss of income. Biotechnology is rapidly availing at quick pace the development of innovative products like drought tolerant and pest resistant crop varieties that potentially maximizes genetic gain to improved productivity.
Agricultural biotechnology is the application of scientific techniques to modify and improve plants, animals and microorganisms to increase their value. It seeks to improve trait expression, productivity and product quality through a series of techniques and novel genetic improvement strategies. Several crop varieties have been developed through biotechnology.
For example, Sampea 20-T is a Pod Borer Resistant (PBR) cowpea variety traited for improved protection from Maruca vitrata to optimize cowpea productivity. This biotech product was released in Nigeria in 2021. Another major project developed to address climate change impact is the TELA Maize, a public-private partnership programme that has develop drought tolerant insect protected maize against stem borer and FAW in several countries – including Kenya, Mozambique, Ethiopia and Nigeria. Both projects (PBR Cowpea and TELA maize) were developed under AATF coordinated partnerships.
Some of the major benefits of agricultural biotechnology have been highlighted in several articles and includes increased crop productivity (for food security), greater protection from pests and diseases (with reduction in the excessive use of synthetic/toxic pesticides), improved nutritional value (for better consumer health), resource use efficiency (that permits less wastages and low GHG emissions through reduced use of inputs) etc.
But despite these evidence-based benefits, there are still significant obstacles hampering the uptake and deployment of agricultural biotechnology products. The absence of functional regulatory system and enabling policies in many African countries have largely stymied the promotion and development of agricultural biotechnology. These are challenges that must be addressed urgently by African governments who must create conducive environment to facilitate increased access and beneficial use of this technology.
A high momentum in public engagements and dialogues on different platforms on African agricultural transformation and the roles of biotechnology play in catalyzing a change has been well documented. These interactions have resulted in better understanding and increased awareness on the innovative opportunities offered by biotechnology in improving the status of the small holder farmers and the economic development of Africa. Scientists and stakeholders, recognize the importance and role of African government in creating and fostering favorable policies that are required to stimulate research and adoption of biotechnology.
Through series of well-directed and coordinated efforts, there has been a stream of increased investments in biotech projects in a number of African countries in support of the development of home-grown biotechnology solutions on the continent. While research in the use of molecular markers, genomics, transgenics and lately genome editing are increasingly being mainstreamed into genetic improvement of crops, innovative projects on genetic engineering and genome editing will need to be more rapidly fast-tracked and supported to get into the commercial pipelines to have their highly promising beneficial potential actualized to address food security challenges in Africa. Unfortunately, only a handful of countries – South Africa, Sudan, Burkina Faso, Nigeria and Egypt – have commercialised GM crops. Some 19 others have developed biosafety regulatory systems, while four are at various stages of doing so.
Harnessing the benefits of biotechnology for the prosperity of the small holder farmer for improved food and nutrition security in Africa will essentially require strong integration of biotechnology into current food system programs and initiatives in the strategic plans of countries, respective sub-regions and at the continental level. Strengthening the framework of agricultural systems in Africa to support strong pipelines for the development and deployment of biotech products will thus be critical to the process. African countries will therefore be required to take some fundamental steps to achieve this.
First, there is need to establish clear priorities by identifying specific areas and technology trajectories for biotechnology investment to meet defined goals efficiently and maximize available skills and resources.
Second, Africa must increase investment in biotechnology research and development, and forge strategic partnerships with the private sector while maintaining a focus on public good to drive and provide food for all.
Third, we must reassess intellectual property rights issues in biotechnology acquisition, development and diffusion to functionally and optimally align it to the pressing food and nutrition security demands of Africa.
Fourth, we must strengthen the continent delivery infrastructure including its extension systems to ensure that biotech products are rapidly accessed and delivered in high quality condition to maximize benefits of the innovations.
As a continent with a burgeoning population with vast agricultural potential, productivity intensification and sustainability must be achieved with less land and resources to address food and nutrition demand, reduce poverty and catalyze economic development. Biotechnology will be a game changer to achieving this has the potential to revolutionize global agricultural systems. Governments must therefore ensure that human, infrastructure, legal, policy and institutional capacities are available to optimally harness the benefits of biotechnology.
In the face of increasing threats from climate change and mounting food insecurity, the choice is clear for Africa: We must embrace biotechnology and complement it with wide spectrum of other appropriate technologies to efficiently address agricultural challenges on the continent toward building a more resilient, productive and food secure Africa.
Dr Okogbenin is the Director of Programme Development and Commercialization at AATF.
For more information, visit: the ACAT 2023 Conference website.