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Why Africa Needs Agricultural Biotech

Nature 400
July 1, 1999
By Florence Wambugu

There is urgent need for the development and use of agricultural biotechnology in Africa to help to counter famine, environmental degradation and poverty. Africa must enthusiastically join the biotechnology revolution.

The public debate on transgenic crops in Europe is centred on fear and mistrust, quite possibly resulting from the experience over 'mad cow disease'. A recent report1 from the Food Safety Authority of Ireland to address European Union concerns on genetically modified (GM) crops concluded that there is no evidence that transgenic foods are unsafe. The report, by a group led by Patrick Wall, the authority's chief executive, says that concern in Europe is based on ethical, socioeconomic and anti-multinational issues; lack of knowledge or misinformation; environmentalism; food labelling; and consideration of the needs of developing countries.

Many of these concerns have nothing to do with food safety. Transgenic foods are eaten daily in the United States, Australia, Canada, Mexico and elsewhere with no reported undue effects2-4. Nevertheless, the experts' advice does not seem to influence public opinion in Europe, probably because of a strong anti-biotechnology lobby that actively promotes misinformation and fear, and also because in some cases people have had good reason to distrust 'expert' pronouncements.

One example of Europeans' concern for the Third World is 'terminator technology' - plants engineered to be sterile. But this technology is only a concept and is not being further developed. No products are planned for Africa or elsewhere. Critics of biotechnology have used the fear of this technology to promote serious anti-multinational attitudes - for example, crops in trials have been burnt in some parts of the world.

Another concern promoted by critics of food biotechnology is that of toxins or allergies. An example is the case of the unpublished study by Arpad Pusztai, formerly of the Rowett Research Institute in Scotland, who suggested that rats fed with GM potatoes expressing a snowdrop lectin were slowly being poisoned. After an independent scientific review, these results were found to be misleading and to have been misinterpreted5. But the anti-biotechnology lobby is still using them strongly to advance its case in Europe, even though transgenic foods are rigorously tested for possible toxins and allergens before commercialization.

Surely there are parallels to be drawn with an antibiotic such as penicillin, which has continued to be used for many years despite many people being allergic to it because the benefits clearly outweigh the risks. Why is the same reasoning not applied to transgenic foods, where risks at even this low level are not proven? The anti-biotech lobby also cites as controversial the recombinant DNA processes used to develop transgenic foods. But the same processes are used to develop numerous pharmaceuticals for humans and animals, and many other industrial products. The public seems prepared to accept the application of GM techniques to new pharmaceutical products but not to food production. Why should there be different standards for crops and pharmaceuticals, particularly in Africa where the need for food is crucial for survival?

African perspective The critics of biotechnology claim that Africa has no chance to benefit from biotechnology, and that Africa will only be a dumping ground or will be exploited by multinationals6,7. On the contrary, small-scale farmers in Africa have benefited by using hybrid seeds from local and multinational companies, and transgenic seeds in effect are simply an added-value improvement to these hybrids. Local farmers are benefiting from tissue-culture technologies for banana, sugar cane, pyrethrum, cassava and other crops. There is every reason to believe they will also benefit from the crop-protection transgenic technologies in the pipeline for banana, such as sigatoka, the disease-resistant transgenic variety now ready for field trials. Virus- and pest-resistant transgenic sugar cane technologies are being developed in countries such as Mauritius, South Africa and Egypt.

The African continent, more than any other, urgently needs agricultural biotechnology, including transgenic crops, to improve food production. African countries need to think and operate as stakeholders, rather than accepting the 'victim mentality' created in Europe. Africa has the local germplasm, some of it well-characterized and clean, being held in gene banks in trust by centres run by the Consultative Group of International Agricultural Research. It also has the indigenous knowledge, local field ecosystems for product development, capacities and infrastructure required by foreign multinational companies.

The needs of Africa and Europe are different. Europe has surplus food and has never experienced hunger, mass starvation and death on the regular scale we sadly witness in Africa. The priority of Africa is to feed her people with safe foods and to sustain agricultural production and the environment.

Africa missed the green revolution, which helped Asia and Latin America achieve self-sufficiency in food production. Africa cannot afford to be excluded or to miss another major global 'technological revolution'. It must join the biotechnology endeavour. Transgenic food production increased from 4 million to 70 million acres worldwide from 1996 to 1998 with measurable economic gains and with sustainable agricultural production2. It would be a much higher risk for Africa to ignore agricultural biotechnology. Africa's crop production per unit area of land is the lowest in the world. For example the production of sweet potato, a staple crop, is 6 tonnes per hectare compared to the global average of 14 tonnes per hectare. China produces on average 18 tonnes per hectare, three times the African average. There is the potential to double African production if viral diseases are controlled using transgenic technology.

The African continent imports at least 25 per cent of its grain. The use of biotechnology to increase local grain production is far preferable to this dependence on other countries, particularly as the population growth rate exceeds food production. The inability to produce adequate food forces Africa to rely on food aid from industrialized nations when mass starvation occurs. Although biotechnology is not the only answer to this problem, Africa should certainly benefit in many ways from its use, for example in improved seed quality and resistance to pests and diseases.

The average maize yield in Africa is about 1.7 tonnes per hectare compared to a global average of 4 tonnes per hectare. Some biotechnology applications can be used to reduce this gap, for example in the case of the maize streak virus (MSV), which causes losses of 100 per cent of the crop in many parts of the continent. A biotechnology-transfer project is under way to develop MSV-resistant varieties. The project is brokered by the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA), and involves the collaboration of the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI), the University of Cape Town, the International Centre for Insect Physiology and Ecology in Kenya, and the John Innes Centre in the United Kingdom. Funding is coming from the US Rockefeller Foundation, and Novartis in Europe has donated some technology to KARI.

Researchers at KARI are studying the mechanism of MSV resistance and trying to map the genes responsible. Advanced biotechnology skills, including the use of advanced agroinoculation techniques and molecular markers, is at the core of this effort. A priority in Kenya is also to produce high-yielding, drought-tolerant crop varieties to boost food production in the 71 per cent of the country that is arid or semi-arid.

Africa needs biotechnology to solve its environmental problems, and there is unlimited public demand for agricultural biotechnology products and services. In Kenya, the demand for tree seedlings reaches 14 million per year, whereas the country can only supply 3 million, a clear indication of the need for tissue-culture and cloning techniques to curb deforestation and boost reforestation using indigenous species threatened with extinction. These technologies are being successfully used in South Africa, and ISAAA has facilitated a project for application in Kenya. There are issues of intellectual property rights and patents that require hard work to develop or acquire, and advanced agricultural biotechnology skills will be needed. There may also be a need to work out collaboration agreements with the private sector or with companies that already have patents.

Biotechnology in Africa is needs-based. After working at KARI for nearly a decade to help improve sweet-potato production using traditional breeding and agronomy methods, I made no progress. An opportunity to work in the private biotechnology sector abroad resulted in the development of a transgenic variety that is resistant to sweet-potato feathery mottle virus, which can reduce yields by 20-80 per cent. Control of this disease will improve household food security for millions. This project involved collaboration between KARI, a project called Agricultural Biotechnology for Sustainable Productivity, funded by the US Agency for International Development, and Monsanto. The work by Kenyan scientists focuses on local varieties, and there will be a smooth and sustainable transfer of the technology, which will be shared with neighbouring countries. Kenyan scientists have been trained in gene technology techniques. ISAAA has been asked to help with the transfer and licensing agreement. Similar projects are under way for bananas, sugar cane and tropical fruits.

Remaining problems Needless to say, Africa has many problems - a shortage of skilled people (especially in biotechnology), poor funding of research, lack of appropriate policies and civil strife. Nevertheless, countries such as South Africa, Egypt, Zimbabwe and Kenya are taking practical steps to ensure that they can use biotechnology for sustainable development.

African countries need to avoid exploitation and to participate as stakeholders in the transgenic biotechnology business. They need the right policies and agencies, such as operational biosafety regulatory agencies, breeders' rights and an effective local public and private sector, to interface with multinational companies that already have the technologies. Consumers need to be informed of the pros and cons of various agricultural biotechnology packages, the dangers of using unsuitable foreign germplasm, and how to avoid the loss of local germplasm and to maintain local diversity. Other checks and balances are required to avoid patenting local germplasm and innovations by multinationals; to ensure policies on intellectual property rights and to avoid unfair competition; to prevent the monopoly buying of local seed companies; and to prevent the exploitation of local consumers and companies by foreign multinationals. Field trials need to be done locally, in Africa, to establish environmental safety under tropical conditions.

The main goal is to find a balanced formula for how local institutions can participate in transgenic product development and share the benefits, risks and profits of the technology, as they own the local germplasm needed by the multinationals for sustainable commercialization. New varieties must not simply replace local ones. The removal of genes that were in the public domain into the private sector raises concern in Africa.

All these issues mean that Africa must strengthen its capacity to deal with various aspects of biotechnology, including issues of biosafety, creating and sustaining gene banks, and encouraging the emergence of a local biotechnology private sector. The great potential of biotechnology to increase agriculture in Africa lies in its 'packaged technology in the seed', which ensures technology benefits without changing local cultural practices. In the past, many foreign donors funded high-input projects, which have failed to be sustainable because they have failed to address social and economic issues such as changes in cultural practice. The criticism of agribiotech products in Europe is based on socioeconomic issues and not food safety issues, and no evidence so far justifies the opinion of some in Europe that Africa should be excluded from transgenic crops. Africans can speak for themselves.

The ISAAA receives about 60% of its funding from philanthropic foundations such as Rockefeller, McKnight and Hitachi; 30% from bilateral agencies such as Danida (Denmark), BMZ (Germany) and USAID; and 10% from biotech companies such as Novartis, Agrevo, Pioneer and Monsanto. The views expressed here are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of ISAAA.

Florence Wambugu is director of the International Service for the Acquisition of Agribiotech Applications (ISAAA AfriCenter), Regional African Office, PO Box 25171, Nairobi, Kenya. e-mail: f.wambugu@cgiar.org


1. www.fsai.ie

2. James, C. Global Review of Commercialized Transgenic Crops ISAAA Brief No. 8 (ISAAA, 1998).

3. Food and Agriculture Organization Biotechnology and Food Safety Food and Nutrition Paper No. 61 (FAO, Rome, 1996).

4. Genetically Engineered Food Production Gathers Pace CSIRO Media Release 99/117 (CSIRO, Guelph, Canada, 1999).

5. Loder, N. Nature 399, 188 (1999).

6. Christian Aid and other groups in GM-FREE: Keeping your Life and Environment Free of Genetically Modified Food Vol. 1, No. 2 (KHI, Skelmersdale, June/July 1999). Links

7. Nuffield Council on Bioethics Genetically Modified Crops, www.nuffield.org/bioethics/publication/modifiedcrops/index.html

C. S. Prakash
Tuskegee University
Center for Plant Biotechnology Research
Tuskegee, AL 36088, USA


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