Can Bio Science Technology Create a Vibrant Agricultural Sector In Africa?
By 2050 the world’s population is expected to reach 9 billion. This demands for an increase in food production and conservation of water bodies to meet the food and water needs of the population.
The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has envisaged that food production would need to increase by at least 70% to be able to feed the world by this period.
However, land and water resources are increasingly suffering human population pressures, which has grave implications for developing countries, in particular in Africa whose agriculture has remained stagnant for decades.
These challenges therefore would mean that Africa must take drastic action by investing hugely in agriculture, develop farmers’ expertise, and deplore technological advances in agricultural science to meet its food needs.
“There is the need for Africa governments to spend close to 45% of their annual budgets on agriculture, finding new technologies through research as the only means to helping improve food production,” said Thomas Ayamga, Monitory and Evaluation (M&E) Officer of Care International Ghana.
Ayamga suggested a replica of “green revolution” in Africa, the method used by industrialised countries after the Second World War to achieve food sufficiency and agricultural industrialisation, as the only option to achieving the needed food supply to cope with the increasing population in Africa.
Crop Researchers at the Savannah Agriculture and Research Institute (SARI), a subsidiary research institute under the Council for Scientific and Industrialize Research (CSIR), Ghana, Abdulai Lansah said there is a need for new techniques to support conventional crop breeding system to enhance traits of seeds crops.
CSIR-SARI Ghana, like other crop science institutions in Africa, are currently using conventional crop breeding technology. CSIR however, has established a confined field trial for Genetically Modified Organism (GMO) crops and is currently testing the crops for possible introduction into Ghanaian agriculture sector for adoption in their bid to improve food production.
Lansah said that, unlike the conventional crop breeding system that allows natural modification, the genetic modification procedure uses laboratory techniques to change the genes or characteristics of crops. “The genes or traits may be from animals to crops, from one different plant to another and even from human beings to crops depending on the desired traits,” he said. Genetic engineering gives original organism new characteristics such as resistance to disease and insects. The most common GMO crops are maize, soy, rice, potato, and oil seeds.
However, the use of bio science technology to alter genes of plants is raising a lot of questions and creates many controversies over the safety of GMO products. In the US, the UK and other industrialised countries as well as in Africa, some groups – religious bodies among them – are against the introduction of GMO crops because of alleged health hazards. In India, the campaign against GMOs is led by the famous feminist environmentalist Dr Vandana Shiva. Nevertheless, biotechnology companies insist that there had not been any scientific evidence indicating that consumption of GMOs is dangerous to health.
Genetic Engineering allows DNA from one species to be injected into another species in a laboratory, creating a combination of plant, animal, bacteria, and viral genes that do not occur naturally or through traditional conventional breeding systems. The use of GMO in foods was recently banned in Europe when a research conducted by the Committee for Research and Independent Information on Genetic Engineering (CRIIGEN) found that when the GMO products were fed to rats, females developed tumors while male rats died from severe hepatorenal chronic deficiencies. These findings heightened speculation about safety risks related to GMO.
Sir Brain Heap, project leader, plant breeding, genetic and bio science for farming in Africa, said science had kept global famine at bay over the centuries in spite of population growth. He said the introduction of bio science for farming in Africa is aimed to help transfer the knowledge of science and new farming practices to small holder farmers to keep food production up.
Can bio science technology help create a vibrant agriculture sector to keep pace with the increasing population in Africa? How about the safety of food produce for Africans through bio science technology?
Wayne Powell of the University of Aberystwyth disagrees with the assertion that GMOs are dangerous. He said that like any other product, GMOs have both negative and positive aspects.
The Secretary to Ghana Bio safety Regulatory Authority Eric A. Okoree said that concerns raised over the safety of GMOs are similar to fears that accompany any new discovery. He said Ghana had already put in place a bio safety framework that addresses safety concerns. But most crop scientists say bio science and genetic engineering can create a vibrant agriculture in Africa but still fear that adopting bio science technology will fail if perceptions held by people about GMOs are not corrected.
A scientist from CSIR who wished to remain anonymous said that biotech companies are hurriedly pushing for adoption of GMOs in Africa because it works to their advantage. He said that although Africa faces challenges in the agricultural sector, GMOs are not the solution because the continent is yet to explore full techniques in conventional crop breeding.
The scientist said, there are no properly equipped laboratories to effectively test GMO crops to determine their effects on health and that adopting GMOs will seriously jeopardise Africa’s agriculture.