Africa, Philippines make major strides in crop biotechnology

By Gerald Andae

September 19, 2018

African countries and the Philippines have made significant progress in developing genetically modified (GMO) crops, adding impetus to the drive to adopt biotechnology as a tool for fighting food insecurity.

These international strides in conducting research and experimental field trials of GM crops emerged in the fourth week of the Global Leadership Fellowship Program at Cornell University during presentations on the status of biotech in participating countries.

The two-day exercise, which attracted scientists from different parts of the world who participated remotely via video link, highlighted major steps that countries have made in the last couple of years to enhance research in GMO.

Louis Baraka, an agriculture officer from the Kagera region in Tanzania and one of the 2018 Fellows, said there is an urgent need to create awareness of the improved crops among farmers as the various countries move through different stages of research in biotech.

“There is no doubt that there is a positive move towards adoption of biotech crops, not only in Tanzania but also other African nations,” Baraka said. “However, there is a need to incorporate farmers in every step of research so that they are not left behind.”

Tanzania is currently conducting confined field trials on drought-tolerant and insect-resistant maize. That process is expected to come to an end in the next two years, followed by applying for a National Performance Trials (NPTs) permit.

Food security in Africa is threatened by emergence of pests and diseases that have seen production of major staples dip significantly. As a result, scientists have been pushing for adoption of biotechnology to fight the challenges of declining yields.

Kenya has completed the confined trials for both maize and cotton. A major milestone was achieved recently after the government allowed the NPTs for cotton.

Scientists in Kenya had applied for permits in 2016 to be allowed to conduct field trials for cotton and maize but this was delayed by relevant authorities.

The National Biosafety Authority, the agency mandated with regulating biotech crops in Kenya, said commercialization of Bt cotton is likely to commence in March 2019 after the trials come to an end.

Nigeria has made huge steps in adopting GMO crops, with commercialization of cowpea expected to be effected next year. This will make the West African nation the second country in Africa to allow cultivation of a GMO food crop; South Africa has been cultivating GM crops for years.

Nigeria, unlike Kenya and a couple of other African states, has no restrictions on GMO imports.

GMO maize has been approved for cultivation in the Philippines, and research is under way on Bt cotton, Bt eggplant and vitamin A-enriched Golden Rice. Biotech supporters are seeking to streamline the regulatory approval process for GMO crops.

During the presentations, it emerged that politics are still playing a central role in preventing many of the countries from fully embracing biotech. In Uganda, for instance, the President has been talking at cross purposes in regard to GMOs, making it difficult to tell his stand even as confined trials proceed.

In Kenya, however, the Deputy President has been at the forefront of championing for the adoption of GMO crops in the country.

The Global Leadership Fellows Program, which is now training its third cohort, is aimed at creating a generation of leaders who are skilled at advocating for science-based communications and policies throughout the world.

Gerald Andae is a journalist with Nation Media Group in Nairobi, Kenya, and a 2018 Cornell Alliance for Science Global Leadership Fellow.