With agricultural SDGs off track, African scientists advocate for biotechnology

By Joseph Opoku Gakpo

August 8, 2019

African scientists are advocating the adoption of new breeding technologies after a Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) report published last month revealed that the world is not on track to meet most of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) targets linked to hunger, food security and nutrition.

The FAO report warns hunger is on the rise globally and that targets to end hunger and improve the management of natural resources are not only off track but showing signs of regression.

Dr. Amos Mohammed Sagir, a senior research fellow at the Institute for Agricultural Research at the Ahmadu Bello University in Nigeria, told the Alliance for Science that the report should jumpstart efforts to bring genetically-modified crops into more widespread use throughout Africa.

“If we don’t develop a means of increasing production, how will we live up to these challenges? You have to develop varieties that will sustain production globally, including GMOs. There should be the regular testing and when it is shown to be safe, we can use GMOs,” Sagir said.

Peter Wamboga-Mugirya of the Science Foundation for Livelihoods and Development in Uganda added that genetic engineering and gene editing can make significant contributions toward hitting the 2030 target of ending hunger and malnutrition in all its forms.

“In breeding food crops, it has been proven comparatively over 20 years that genetic engineering brings forth varieties faster than conventional breeding. The world has a higher population growth rate than food production, and therefore requires newer crop breeding tools that speed up breeding to change the inverse status quo,” he explained. “It makes sense to give priority to what offers the world workable and effective mechanisms to deliver food.”

The FAO report says that between 2015 and 2018, the proportion of hungry people in the world rose from 10.6 to 10.8 percent and currently stands at 820 million people. That number has been rising for three years in a row and is now back to 2010/2011 levels.

The report adds that small-scale producers face disproportionate challenges in accessing inputs and services, and as a result, their incomes and productivity are systematically low.

“The little land that we have available must be put to productive use. We need to achieve higher productivity and one of the ways of doing this is to adopt biotechnology so that we are able to engineer crops to give us more yield,” said Dr. Richard Ampadu-Ameya, a research scientist at the Science and Technology Policy Research Institute of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research in Ghana.

The FAO report says promoting productivity growth and strengthening the resilience and adaptive capacity of small-scale food producers is critical to reversing the trend of rising hunger and reducing the number of people living in extreme poverty.

“Being off-track when it comes to reaching core pillars of the SDGs unquestionably puts at risk the achievement of the entire 2030 Agenda, and makes our overarching goal of ensuring an economically, socially and environmentally sustainable future for our planet and for present and future generations less attainable,” FAO Deputy Director- General for Climate and Natural Resources Maria Helena Semedo said in a news release accompanying the report.

Wamboga-Mugirya said that if the FAO is committed to stemming the retrogression, the organization should explicitly embrace technologies like genetic engineering and gene editing.

“If non-new breeding techniques [NBTs] do not adequately address challenges of pests, diseases and drought or even productivity of crops per unit area planted, then the FAO should recommend governments to recognize and adopt NBTs,” he said.

Ampadu-Ameyaw stressed the urgency of the situation.

“2030 is not far,” he said. “If we want to quicken the pace and the non-GM crops take a long time we should go for the quicker GM crops. If we want to arrest the situation, we can quickly go for a technology that can give us a higher yielding crop within the shortest possible time.”

When it comes to animal production, the FAO report warned that about 60 percent of at-risk local livestock breeds across the world could face extinction. It also says there has been “no progress in conserving animal genetic resources and notes that ongoing efforts to preserve these resources appear inadequate”.

The report additionally highlighted various environmental concerns. It pointed out that between 2000 and 2015, the world lost an area of forest the size of Madagascar, due mainly to the conversion of forestland for agricultural use. It also says water stress in various countries across the world is negatively impacting agriculture.

“We need to be very serious about this water issue. We need to develop or engineer crops that are able to withstand water stresses,” Ampadu-Ameyaw said. “If we also manage to increase productivity through biotechnology, it will save more land from farming.”

According to the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA), 17 million farmers in 24 countries had planted GMOs as of 2017. Since they were first commercialized in the mid-1990s, the penetration of GMOs has been slow as a result of complicated regulatory procedures and the activities of anti-GMO groups. Currently, trials are ongoing across 12 countries in Africa to allow for the introduction of GMOs. As of now, only two African nations plant GMO seeds.

Asked whether Africa is ready for the increased introduction of GMO technology to help deal with the challenges raised in the FAO report, Wamboga-Mugirya was unequivocal.

“Whoever asks such a question must think that Africa is destined to have failed crops due to drought, pests, diseases and malnutrition. These are the challenges to crops that genetic engineering seeks to address,” he said. “Inversely put: Is Africa ready and meant for drought, pests, diseases and malnutrition. Africa is as ready for GMOs as other continents are.”