Biotech could spur Africa’s industrialisation

Cotton is at risk to pests especially the African bollworm which can cause losses of up to 100 percent

Cotton is at risk to pests especially the African bollworm which can cause losses of up to 100 percent

Sifelani Tsiko
An industrial development strategy could be built on the back of Africa’s agricultural sector underpinned by the adoption of new and emerging technologies such as biotechnology to support improved yields, value addition and services that feed into the whole agro-processing value chain, a top Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (Comesa) official says.

Getachew Belay, a senior biotechnology policy advisor told Zimpapers Syndication recently on the sidelines of a communication training workshop for journalists on biotechnology and biosafety, that the adoption of genetically modified cotton developed using a bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) which naturally produces a chemical harmful only to a small fraction of insects such as the bollworm, could increase yields and enhance competitiveness. He says cotton farmers in Africa suffer huge losses due to pest problems.

“The most destructive of pests is the African bollworm (Helicoverpa armigera), which can cause severe losses of up to 100 percent like we saw on some cotton fields in Salima here in Malawi,” the Comesa biotech policy advisor says.

“In unprotected fields pest damage can be very severe and when you look at Bt cotton crop on trial you can see hope that it’s possible for African farmers to increase their yields and competitiveness of their crop on the market.”

Using Bt cotton developed using bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis, which naturally produces a chemical harmful only to a small fraction of insects such as the bollworm, experts say reduction in pest infestations can increase yields and improve the livelihoods of cotton growers.

The Bt toxin is inserted into cotton, causing cotton, called Bt cotton, to produce this natural insecticide in its tissues. Biotechnology experts argue that cotton farmers in Zimbabwe, Malawi and most other African countries, can effectively reduce input costs and control damage from bollworms and other insects that frequently damage cotton by adopting Bt cotton. For several decades, has lagged behind in terms of the industrial dynamism required to boost farmer earnings, employment, economic growth and competitiveness on the global market.

But in recent years, there is a growing realisation of the importance of industrialisation. In 2016, the UN’s Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) published a major report on industrialization in Africa where it asserts that structural transformation in Africa’s economies remains the highest priority and industrialisation is the top strategy for achieving it in practice.

And, Mr Belay says, biotechnology is one of the major tools for achieving industrialisation. I’m convinced that biotechnology has many opportunities to drive Africa’s industrialisation,” he says. “We have Bt cotton, Bt maize and soya and biotechnology can enhance the competitiveness of our crops and agricultural products especially when it comes to value addition and beneficiation as it was stipulated in our African industrialisation agenda.

“Already we are seeing the benefits of adopting biotech crops in South Africa. Livestock feed sectors in Zambia and even Zimbabwe cannot compete with SA’s GM stock feed which is produced cheaply. We need to adopt this new technology to cut costs. Europe relies heavily on GM soya for its livestock feed industry and this has enhanced its competitiveness.”

Africa has a low uptake of biotech food crops due to lack of awareness and stiff resistance, scientists say. International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA) AfriCenter director Margaret Karembu told journalists at the workshop that adoption of agricultural biotechnology has lagged behind compared to the rapid rates seen in the medical and health sectors.

“Where are we as Africans? This is the question, we need to think seriously about the good work (on agricultural biotechnology) going on in our labs,” she said. “What is our place in the global biotechnology space? We need reclaim it and improve the livelihoods of our farmers across the continent.”

Ms Karembu said lack of awareness and a constrained regulatory environment had also slowed down the uptake of agricultural biotechnology. “Lack of awareness of the benefits and the regulatory framework has affected the tide towards the adoption of biotechnology. The victim mentality has been largely to blame for this. “We think of ourselves as victims of the technology. The fact is that our public institutions and universities have been doing research on biotech crops for years and this has not moved to the commercialisation stage,” she says.

She says Africa needs to diffuse myths and misconceptions around GMO crops. “The media has a big role to play in clearing some of the misconceptions about biotechnology and GMOs,” the ISAAA director says. “When media demonises the science, it becomes difficult to correct the mistakes. There is a lot of unfamiliarity with the technology and having fixed mind sets will not help our struggling farmers.

“The farmers you saw in Salima are poor and they are struggling. Why should we block them from accessing the Bt cotton varieties that can significantly boost their yields and income? Farming should not be for leisure, it’s a business and it should be there to improve the quality of livelihoods of the farmers.

“Biotechnology is one of the tools we can use to first of all improve crop yields and secondly to support Africa’s industrialisation goals for value addition and beneficiation.”

Ms Karembu urged the media to encourage dialogue and to correct misinformation. “The information we generate should be guided by credible scientific evidence and not unverified ‘Google’ information,” she says. “If you have a headache people just ‘Google’ and ‘Google’ has become the answer. “The world is polluted by a lot of unsubstantiated facts. We need to change the narrative and challenge the myth that Africa enjoys being poor – the romanticisation of poverty.”

Stringent and expensive regulatory process in Africa has slowed down uptake of biotechnology crops. Biotech experts say the regulatory process is burdensome and makes everything unpredictable while in some African countries there is fear of change and challenging of the status quo when it comes to biotechnology. According to ISAAA, the production of biotech crops increased 110-fold from 1996 with countries now growing the crops on 2,1 billion hectares worldwide. The global value of the biotech seed market alone was US$15,8 billion in 2016. A total of 26 countries, 19 developing and 7 industrial grew biotech crops.

By 2016, at least four countries in Africa had in the past placed a GM crop on the market. These included Egypt, South Africa, Burkina Faso and Sudan. But due to some temporary setback in Burkina Faso and Egypt, only South Africa and Sudan planted biotech crops on 2,8 million hectares South Africa is one of the top 10 countries planting more than one million hectares in 2016 and continued to lead the adoption of biotech crops on the African continent.

Kenya, Malawi and Nigeria have transitioned from research to granting environmental release approvals while six others – Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Ghana, Nigeria, Swaziland and Uganda made significant progress towards completion of multi-location trials in readiness for considering commercial approval, ISAAA reported. But the road to the adoption of Bt cotton technologies in Africa still faces stiff resistance.

Supporters of GM crops have to grapple with vocal anti-GMO activists, limited capacity to deal with the processing of GM research applications, bureaucratic delays in approving field trials, mistrust and resistance from key decision makers in Government and limited public awareness of the issues surrounding research and development of GM crops.

In addition, they have to contend with issues related to disease resistance, bottlenecks encountered when co-ordinating with other line ministries, trade-related restrictions, biosafety regulation and the overwhelming influence of multinational companies, Governments and their sidekicks – NGOs. And, despite the threats, biotechnology experts say benefits from the biotech agro-linked industrial development outweigh the threats.

Sadc drew up its Industrialisation Strategy and Roadmap which seeks to speed up industrialisation by strengthening the comparative and competitive advantages of the economies of the region. The strategy which covers the period 2015-2063 is anchored on three pillars – industrialisation, competitiveness and regional industrialisation.

The whole industrialisation agenda aims to help Sadc member states to achieve high levels of economic growth, competitiveness, incomes and employment. To access the funds, Sadc countries have set up committees made up of government and private sector players to identify priority areas for funding. At regional level, three areas have been prioritised, namely – agro processing, mining and downstream processing.

“For all this, biotechnology could be a useful tool to drive the region’s industrialisation agenda,” Belay says. “It’s not a silver bullet, but it’s one of the many tools we can use to drive the continent’s industrialisation strategy. Agriculture is fundamental to Comesa member states in terms of improving food and nutrition security, increasing rural income, employment and contributions to GDP and expert earnings. “We need to explore ways of enhancing the use of biotechnology to drive industrialisation and improved livelihoods for farmers in Africa.”

Analysts say Africa badly needs increased investment in infrastructure of all kinds – reliable clean energy and water systems, medical clinics, technical colleges, railways, roads, bridges, fibre optic networks, and factories of many kinds.

“Industrialisation can benefit the expansion of intra-African trade by supporting a more diversified export economy,” wrote an economic analyst. “In particular, the development of rural and food processing industries could help to lift significant numbers from poverty. But, to facilitate trade in goods and services, it is essential to reduce distribution costs by improving and expanding road, rail and other communication infrastructure.” – Zimpapers Syndication

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