The case for biotechnology in Africa´s agriculture
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Walter S. Alhassan. 2003. The case for biotechnology in Africa´s agriculture. Knowledge for Development. CTA, Wageningen, The Netherlands
Permanent link to this item: http://hdl.handle.net/10568/63792
The challenge: Food production and poverty reduction remain the primary goals of efforts to advance socio-economic development in Africa and the well-being of its people. The scope for increasing food production through area expansion, the use of agro-chemicals and irrigation is limited. Intensification of production holds the key for Africa's future. The challenge is to develop technologies for intensifying agriculture for resource-poor farmers that use minimal external inputs in environments that are already bedevilled by so many biotic and abiotic stresses. Modern biotechnology has been identified as the most potent technology for rescuing Africa from the effects of food shortages, just as the 'green revolution' did for the countries of Southeast Asia in the 1970s.
Applications The Convention on Biological Diversity defines modern biotechnology as ´the application of in vitro nucleic acid techniques, including recombinant deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) and direct injection of nucleic acid into cells or organelles´. Modern biotechnology has far-reaching consequences for agriculture, the environment, medicine and industry. In agriculture, several uncontroversial tools of modern biotechnology are already in use, such as tissue culture, marker-assisted selection (molecular breeding), diagnostics and modern recombinant vaccine production. Through the use of tissue culture vast quantities of clean (pathogen-free) vegetatively propagated planting material can be produced as clones from a particular plant tissue. This is the most widely applied biotechnology tool in Africa at the moment. DNA characterization and the use of marker genes associated with particular desired traits to be selected, can greatly assist in speeding up crop improvements through conventional breeding. Molecular diagnostics allow pathogens to be quickly and accurately identified before the damage can be visibly detected. Recombinant vaccines produced using modern biotechnology techniques are very potent and have minimal side effects. These modern biotechnology tools, if applied with other enabling technologies (such as improved agronomic practices, and agro-processing), market support, farmer credit and rural infrastructure, could greatly advance the course of Africa´s agriculture. However, it is the use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), or products of genetic engineering, that could bring about a true revolution. Genetic engineering is used as a last resort when traditional or conventional means of solving problems are either intractable or would take too long to accomplish. Several genetically modified crop plants are already in use or are actively being developed to address the problems that affect crops in Africa. These include Bt maize and Bt cotton for insect resistance, virus-resistant cassava, varieties of bananas and plantain that are resistant to black Sigatoka disease, vitamin A biofortified maize and rice, and fruits that produce edible vaccines. The use of planting materials that are resistant to insect pests and pathogens will minimize the use of agro-chemicals, with obvious benefits for both biodiversity (by reducing harmful pesticide residues) and the health of farmers (fewer cases of poisoning). Despite the proven benefits of the use of GMOs in agriculture, there are perceived risks associated with the possible effects on human health and the environment. Biosafety regulatory barriers are therefore being put in place to ensure that GMOs are at least as safe as their conventional non-GM counterparts. Status of biotechnology and biosafety in Africa The biotechnology tools currently in use are tissue culture, DNA characterization, marker-assisted selection and molecular diagnostics. So far, genetic modification (GM) biotechnology is very limited and is so far confined to Egypt, Kenya, South Africa and Zimbabwe. Most recently, Burkina Faso has introduced field trials for Bt cotton. Apart from South Africa, none of these countries has commercialized any GM product. The signatories to the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity agreed to put in place measures to ensure the safe handling of GMOs (or living modified organisms, LMOs) within countries and their transfer across national boundaries. The Protocol became legally binding on 11 September 2003, having been ratified by at least 50 countries. In sub-Saharan Africa, only South Africa and Zimbabwe have introduced biosafety legislation. Cameroon, Côte d´Ivoire and Kenya, Nigeria and Uganda have draft legislation at an advanced stage of discussion. The remaining countries are either in the process or have yet to start developing their biosafety frameworks. The way forward The current level of awareness of biotechnology and biosafety in Africa is low, so that vigorous outreach activities are needed. Capacity building for biotechnology for GM and non-GM products must be enhanced in the vast majority of African countries. There is also a need for the regional harmonization of efforts in both product development and in the application of biosafety legislation and regulations. It is crucial that Africa masters biotechnology and develops products that will be appropriate to its needs. Above all, Africa must have the capacity to be its own spokesperson in international fora on the safety and the risks of GMOs. Accra, 15 November 2003. Walter S. Alhassan is the former Director-General of CSIR, Accra, Ghana