Africa 'missing out on biotech green revolution'

Farmer digs a whole in a cassava field (Getty Images) Biotechnology could help improve African agriculture's resilience to future climate changes

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Sub-Saharan Africa's agricultural sector needs to harvest the fruits of biotechnology in order to establish sustainable development, says a report.

A key challenge is to attract funding for biotechnology projects on staple crops, such as cassava, it added.

These crops were often ignored by commercial funders because they had a limited market, the authors suggested.

Africa missed out on the previous green revolution that boosted food output in many Asian and Latin American nations.

The report, On Trial: GM Crops in Africa, published by think tank Chatham House, said: "Increasing agricultural productivity and adapting farming to climate change are central to Africa's development prospects."

It added that there were opportunities to boost yields and increase resilience by improving existing crop varieties, and that "in some cases, biotechnology, and in particular genetic modification (GM), offers advantages over conventional plant-breeding approaches", such as drought, pest and disease resistance.

However, the continent was in danger of missing out on capitalising on innovations offered by the 21st Century green revolution, just as it had done in the previous century.

"If you look at what happened in Latin America and Asia in the second half of the 20th Century with the Green Revolution, there was a range of technologies, new high-yielding hybrid varieties of wheat, rice and maize, new irrigation platforms, etc," explained co-author Rob Bailey, research director for energy, environment and resources at Chatham House.

'Growth spurt'

He added that this acted as a "growth spurt for development" because it delivered a big increase in yields and agricultural productivity allowing food prices to fall, increased food security and a diversification in economic activity in other sectors.

Vegetable stall, India (Image: BBC) Crops that do not have a global market do not attract the same level of private sector R&D investment

"Now, we are in a situation where Africa needs this growth spark in its agricultural sector, because it is primarily where most of the poorest people are, and it makes up a significant share of African GDP," Mr Bailey said.

"But they are also in a race against time because climate change is gathering pace because the forecasts suggests that this is going to have a very profound impact on farm productivity."

He explained that the need to increase resilience to forecasts of a changing climate was likely to increase the importance and need for innovation and R&D offered by biotechnology projects.

"The key challenge that African agriculture faces is that a lot of food security and livelihoods are dependent on these so-called orphan crops, such as cassava and sorghum, which do not have large commercial markets in the way that maize or wheat do. Therefore they are not attractive to large private sector researchers," he told BBC News.

"So the first thing that Africa has to do is attract and mobilise public sector money to fund research into these sorts of technologies."

Mr Bailey explained that biotechnology offered a range of advantages over traditional breeding methods: "A lot of the staple crops that are grown in Africa have quite narrow gene pools. There are not huge seed banks, with lots of different varieties of cassava or sorghum, that can be tapped into. It is not like maize or wheat.

"Biotechnology can be useful there because it provides plant-breeders with the opportunity to introduce genes or traits from outside of the species' genomes.

"If you can identify a trait for pest resistance in another species and cannot find a trait like that within the cassava genome, then a conventional plant breeder is a bit [stuck].

"If you are using transgenics then you have the opportunity to bring that trait in from another species."

Growing support

But he added that this was easier said than done because many sub-Saharan governments had limited resources and scientific capacity, and there was a danger of simply adopting models developed for Western food crops.

Mr Bailey said: "The problem with these sorts of models is that they do not properly engage the farmers.

"They have to be careful to make sure they are working with farmers from the outset so then they can understand what are the farmers' needs, how they can be addressed and included in the technological process so they are more likely to use and adopt it when it is ready.

"A key message from the report is that you need to start with the farmers, understand their context and their market environments. This is the platform you use to judge whether or not you can develop a technology-based solution.

"If you come in and try to parachute something in from elsewhere because it has worked in Europe or North America then the risk of that technology failing or not being used are much higher."

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