Scientists from European and African academic associations meeting in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, last week (27 February) joined forces in calling for the use of biotechnology in African agriculture.
The scientists, from the Network of African Science Academies (NASAC) and the European Academies Science Advisory Council (EASAC), said that agricultural biotechnology could contribute to sustainable agriculture and to providing nutrition to people across the continent. Many of the world’s most food insecure regions are in Africa.
The scientists called for increasing the amount of African-led research into agricultural biotechnology, according to a statement issued after the meeting.
Fatima Denton, who is charge of the climate policy centre at UN Economic Commission for Africa (UN-ECA), said: “African agriculture is increasingly vulnerable to environmental change as a result of climate variability and change. In this regard, biotechnology could help in breeding crop varieties that resist pests, crops that use less water, crops that use less fertilizers.”
Attendees discussed in a workshop current biotechnology research by African scientists, such as efforts to create crops with improved vitamin content, the statement said.
'Cost-effective' domestication of local species
Patrick Worms, a senior science policy advisor at the World Agroforestry Centre, told EURACTIV that the full range of different approaches would have to be taken to ensure the world’s rising population gets enough food, while combatting climate change.
"We’re going to need biotechnology; we’re going to need agro-ecology; we’re going to need agro-forestry; we’re going to need fertilisers and irrigations and tractors and whatever science human ingenuity can throw at the problem,” he said.
He added that tapping local knowledge of plant varieties could be more cost-effective in the long-run than attempting to extract more gains from Western food staples.
“These crops, on which we all depend, maize, wheat, rice, that sort of thing, have already been engineered over thousands of years to be very very different from their wild counterparts, and to already be as close to perfection as its possible to get with existing technology", he said.
“But if we focus too much of our scientific resources behind that approach, then we leave a much more cost-effective solution on the table, and that is to do the basic work of domesticating these hundreds of species that could be very valuable in ensuring food security and that are currently nearly harvested in the wild,” Worms added.
The agro-forestry expert cited the baobab, an “iconic” African tree. “It’s not been domesticated and both its fruit and its leaves have a nutritional profile which puts avocados and oranges to shame, in terms of the content of micronutrients, vitamins, et cetera.”
The German ministry of research and education (BMBF) and the UN-ECA funded the Addis Ababa workshop.
NASAC and EASAC also collaborate on other challenges facing the African continent, such as water management, climate change and health.
With Africa's population projected to grow to 1.8 billion by 2050, at least twice as much food must be produced each year to avoid widespread starvation.
But food production per capita has been declining since the 1960s, and cereal crop yields have remained stagnant, compared to South Asia, Latin America and East Asia, all of which have seen a considerable increase.
The World Agroforestry Centre says this was due to a number of constraints, including soil infertility, declining manure supplies, climate change-induced droughts and political instability. Farmers, it says, are also disinclined to invest in long-term solutions due to fears of land-grabbing, a common practice on sub-Saharan land.