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Executive Director at the African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF), Dr. Denis Kyetere, has said improved seeds, especially by genetic modification and other farm technologies, are the best bet for enhanced agricultural productivity in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA).
This is a region where smallholder farmers make up 70 per cent of people that depend solely on agriculture for livelihood and suffer most challenging farming problems.
Speaking at the 2012 ‘Bio International Convention: the Global Event for Biotechnology’ in Boston, MA, USA, Kyetere also said smallholder farms also have lowest farm production costs and any investment would be visible and impactful.
The use of improved technologies will result in higher and better yields, labour savings and will also allow for possible crop diversification and address production constraints such as insect and weed pests, drought, diseases, and soil degradation and protection of the environment. “I believe the greatest impact, benefit and return on investment will be realised at smallholder level,” he said.
However, while agric biotechnology advances rapidly in the developed world, developing countries are struggling to keep pace for various reasons including human and institutional capacity challenges, lack of familiarity with the biotech product development process, and difficulties in navigating cumbersome regulatory processes.
“We are calling on the private sector to partner with the public sector to contribute to the development and delivery of biotechnology tools to smallholder farmers in sub-Saharan Africa to help overcome some of these challenges. The private sector can contribute their technologies, know-how and even funding.
“Other key areas include capacity strengthening in areas such as stewardship, product development and deployment and participating in policy development debates where they can share their experience with governments”, Kyetere added.
Despite these challenges, there is increased and encouraging biotech activity in Africa. Awareness on the potential of modern agricultural biotechnology in the region is on the increase with various countries already applying various tools.
South Africa, Burkina Faso and Egypt already have developed commercialised genetically modified (GM) crops. In addition, six countries have enabling bio-safety laws in place that allow the safe development and commercialisation of GM products.
The 2011 Global Status of Commercialized Biotech/GM Crops produced by the International Service for the Application of Agri-biotech Applications indicates that there is increased biotech research around important staples in Africa such as cowpea, cooking banana, rice, maize, cassava, sorghum, and sweet potato.
There is also greater attention and interest towards intelligent crops that can utilise natural resources to ensure environmental conservation; produce enough food – such as water use efficiency, nitrogen use efficiency, and tolerance to stress such as salt, drought and heat.
In addition to the above, resolutions and actions have been taken at continental, sub-regional and country levels to provide general direction, support policy decisions and action and contribute to R&D activities. This activity has also recognised biotechnology as offering options to food security.
“However, there are immediate challenges to overcome so as to advance biotechnology development in SSA – these include emerging regulatory/bio-safety frameworks that may delay smallholder farmers from accessing the tools of biotechnology and prevent them from enjoying the benefits that this may bring to their farming productivity,” said Kyetere.
Some bio-safety policies could serve as a disincentive to introducing technologies to smallholder farmers.
Kyetere also noted that misinformation and controversy regarding biotech was a hindrance to public acceptance of biotech in the region. The process of bringing biotech to SSA is also riddled with trust issues as skepticism of private sector involvement in humanitarian projects through public private partnerships (PPPs) is expressed.
Further, insufficient government funding for research contributes to slow growth of biotechnology on the continent.
“In order to support biotech crop development in less developed markets like sub-Saharan Africa, there is need to nurture and initiate efforts that contribute towards creation of an enabling policy environment for the development of such innovative technologies,’ said Kyetere.
He added that biotech research programmes benefit from enabling activities that deal with intellectual property, licensing, technology stewardship, regulatory science, communication and issues management, market linkages and research, and development management and coordination.
Currently working in 8 countries in SSA, AATF facilitates access and delivery of affordable agricultural technologies for use by smallholder farmers in Africa.
Priority areas for the Foundation include addressing targeted agricultural constraints facing these farmers which include the impact of climate change in agriculture; pest management; soil management, nutrient enhancement in foods; improved breeding methods; and mechanisation.
These are addressed through the access, development and deployment of accessible, transferable, adaptable and proven technologies.
Projects that AATF currently participates in include: striga control in maize; development of insect-resistant cowpea; improvement of banana for resistance to banana bacterial wilt; biological control of aflatoxin; development of drought tolerance in maize; and development of nitrogen-use efficient, water-use efficient and salt-tolerant rice varieties for use by smallholder farmers in SSA.