With Africa being the most food insecure region with over 250 million people going hungry in 2018, compared to the world’s total 821 million hungry people, scientists in crops and food are advocating for leveraging science and technology to address this urgent issue.
One of the means they are encouraging is the genetically modified organism (GMO) technology, which refers to organism [in this case crop] whose gene has been engineered in the laboratory in order to favour the expression of desired physiological traits or the production of desired biological products.
Scientists argued while in Kigali during the Africa Food Security Leadership Dialogue that GMO technology can help in many ways, including developing crop varieties that are resistant to diseases, drought, predators or pests, a move that they say is primed to revolutionise food production in Africa and save its people from acute food shortage.
GMO crops are also called biotech or engineered crops.
Nina Fedoroff, a professor of molecular biology and genetics at Penn State University in Pennsylvania, USA, said the genetic modification or genetic engineering uses technology to improve the qualities of plants to make them more productive and more resilient.
For instance, she said, the banana Xanthomonas Wilt which is common in banana plantations in Africa, can be tackled by GMO disease-resistant banana varieties.
“We can go back to wild [plant] varieties that have desirable characteristics like soil tolerance, disease resistance, and then simultaneously edit those genes that support the plant’s ability to make big juicy fruits that we are so accustomed to,” she said.
She indicated that there are activists who have spent decades trying to convince everybody that GMOs are bad for them, which she said is not true.
Indeed, she said, results from some1,783 studies on the safety and environmental impact of biotech crops showed no health hazards connected to [the consumption of] such crops.
In 2014, she said, there were 18 million farmers growing GMO crops on almost 200 million hectares in 28 countries.
Experts warn that food insecurity is getting worse in many parts of the continent because of the negative effects of climate change on agricultural productivity, natural resources degradation, rapid population growth, increasing fragility and insecurity, and economic stagnation.
The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (UNFAO) projects that the continent will need to feed over two billion people by 2050. Currently, its population is estimated to over 1.2 billion.
Sir Richard J. Roberts, Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 1993, who is an English biochemist and molecular biologist, said that for developed countries food is really not a problem as they have food in abundance. But, he said, they try to convince people in developing countries – who lack food, that GMOs are dangerous.
A farmer displays some of the horticulture produce grown in Kajevuba Marshland in Gasabo District. Emmanuel Ntirenganya.
“GMOs are not dangerous. There has not been one single incidence of a problem so far,” he said referring to GMO food intake.
“If you don’t want to eat GMO food, don’t eat it, but don’t go around telling everybody that they [GMO foods] are dangerous,” he said pointing out that in rich countries there is plenty of choice, but people in poor countries have very little choice. He called for use of the technology to help them.
Scientists claimed that GMO adoption has faced political problems whereby people are forced to believe that they are harmful but without grounds.
Momodou Mbye Jabang, Permanent Secretary at the Ministry of Agriculture’s Agriculture Value Chain Development Project in the Republic of the Gambia, said New Rice Africa, which is a GMO rice crop, has proved to revolutionise rice production on the continent, but, it has been facing funding deficit for it to be scaled up so as to benefit many farmers.
What the scientists did, he said, was to cross the African rice variety resilient to pests and disease and it is adaptive to Africa, and the Asian variety which has higher yield but is prone to diseases.
In the process, he said, they were able to get the high yielding traits Asian variety into the resilience of the African variety.
“They produced the new variety called New Rice for Africa, which produces between four tonnes and five tonnes per hectare, or more than 200 percent the production of the African rice variety,” he said adding that it is resistant to diseases and pests,” he said
“The issue of GMOs is the question of life and death as far as Africa is concerned. Our food security situation states that we cannot afford to debate too much about GMOs anymore after the advocacy of those eminent scientists,” he said.
However, Tshibangu Kalala, Minister of Agriculture in the Democratic Republic of the Congo expressed scepticism about adopting GMO crops, pointing out that there is no longer consensus about GMOs.
“There is uncertainty about GMOs. They are those who claim that they are harmful to the environment and human life, while others argue that they are good for environment and human life. That is a controversy. So, we should apply precaution as long as there is uncertainty over GMOs. The use of GMOs should not be advised as long as they are controversial,” told The New Times.