Africa: Unlocking the Economic Potential of Biotechnology

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By 2050 population growth is expected to translate into a 70 percent increase in global demand for food. Add the estimated 27 percent decline in global productivity expected due to climate change, and it is clear that the demand for food production will become more critical in the coming decades.

Countries that depend on rain-fed agriculture will be especially vulnerable. Crop models for Sub-Saharan Africa have indicated that in 2050, average rice, wheat, and maize yields will decline by up to 14 percent, 22 percent, and 5 percent, respectively.

But there are rays of hope as we go towards 2050. The potential for agriculture in Africa is great. African countries can use their own experiences, indigenous knowledge and traditional methods, as well as the many talents of their people to adopt and adapt the best of what science has to offer in new technologies.

An essential lever for raising agricultural productivity is increasing investments in science and technology. An important lesson of the 1960s “Green Revolution” was that agricultural research could contribute decisively to spurring agricultural growth. Countries that simultaneously adopted the technology and increased their investments in agricultural research have maintained and even accelerated their rate of productivity and growth. New technologies – like biotechnology, conservation tillage, drip irrigation, integrated pest management, and new multiple-cropping practices – have improved the efficiency and productivity of agricultural resources over the last decade. Around the world some 14 million small and resource poor farmers in the developing world have already benefited from biotechnology crops.

In a 2008 survey of the global impact of biotech crops, the global net economic benefits to biotech crop farmers was $9.2 billion dollars, divided roughly equally between developed and developing countries. In South Africa, for example, biotech maize, soybean, and cotton are estimated to have enhanced farm incomes by $383 million dollars. In other areas of the world, the technology has changed the lives of farmers and raised incomes in a matter of years. In India, conservative estimates for small-scale farmers have indicated that the use of biotech cotton has increased yield by 31 percent, decreased insecticide application by 39 percent, and increased profitability by 88 percent, equivalent to $250 U.S. dollars per hectare. With the advent of enhanced tools, such as drought-resistant corn and disease-resistant bananas, those who have paved the way for the technology will reap even further economic benefits.

African researchers are already working on the next generation of biotech crops that will have a wider array of benefits for farmers, like drought tolerance, nitrogen-use efficiency, and salt tolerance to help address shifting environments due to climate change. But second generation biotech crops will go beyond benefits to the farmer. Work is underway in crops, like cassava and rice, to increase their vitamin, mineral, and protein content, benefitting the consumer as well.

So we know what technology can do. The question is what has been keeping it out of the hands of those who could benefit from it? In many cases misinformation has made people fear a process and its products. However, the real obstacle is the lack of functioning regulatory systems that would allow countries to make their own decisions about the safety of these products. Biotechnology-produced crops have been assessed for safety in all regions of the world – from the European Union to Japan to Brazil to Burkina Faso. Not to adopt biotechnology because of unfounded claims after more than 15 years of safe use and proven benefits would be to unnecessarily narrow an African farmer’s agricultural potential. It is one of the tools, which, when paired with the right incentives, can enable Africa’s farmers and businesses to close the productivity gap.

But those incentives must have political will behind them. Technology alone is not the answer. To make use of the potential of biotechnology, science-based regulatory systems must be established. I call upon those who have the ability to do so to put in place such sound policies, based on science, and to take full advantage of what investment in agricultural science and technology can do for African farmers and economies.

Several African countries have already adopted the policies and regulatory frameworks needed to support the responsible and safe use of biotechnology. I applaud their courage and foresight to move forward. With increased political will, strong research support, and biosafety policies and regulations that empower the use of the technology, African countries can revolutionize their agricultural sector. What’s more, they can squarely look those in the eye who maintain that crop technology leads to lost markets, and ask them to explain why the expanding economies of the world are exactly those that are developing and using biotechnology.

To those who fear monopolies and multinational ownership of the food supply, I say promote competition, don’t stifle innovation. It is clear that economic growth will be achieved by those countries that are innovators in agriculture and that take the leap of faith needed to invest in their farmers, which is an investment in their future.

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