Improved seeds key to sustainable food security, African plant breeders say

By Abubakar Ibrahim

January 14, 2020

Strategies now being rolled out to ensure food security on the African continent are unsustainable, according to the African Plant Breeders Association (APBA).

Current efforts rely on resources that are becoming increasingly unavailable, according to the APBA. The association is calling for greater access to modern plant breeding techniques and improved seeds as a more sustainable way to address food insecurity challenges, especially since the number of undernourished people on the continent has increased over the last two decades

Africa is increasingly relying on the use of modern agriculture, including irrigation systems, chemical fertilizers, farm machinery and large-scale monoculture farms, to increase efficiency and yields and meet the rising demand for food. But this approach is proving to be unsustainable at the current scale, according to association leaders.

Many of the components of modern agriculture are heavily dependent on water, fossil fuels and phosphate rock (for phosphorus fertilizer) —resources that are finite and are becoming increasingly scarce or expensive.

“If Africa is to achieve the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 2, which is ending extreme poverty and hunger, it has to adopt a different strategy. The growth and expansion of the plant breeding profession provides an opportunity to deal with some of these big challenges faced by African countries to increase domestic supply,” the association noted in a statement.

The plant breeders are particularly worried about the impact of climate change on efforts to ensure food security. “Frequent droughts further constrain the amount of water available for cropping. Water scarcity is further aggravated by climate change. Climate change is having and will increasingly have more severe implications on food security in Africa,” they said.

“Climate change, which results from carbon emissions into the atmosphere, has resulted in an average increase in global temperatures which has several implications on food production. Crop productivity is expected to decrease in lower altitudes, especially in dry and tropical regions, and also decrease the area suitable for agriculture, and the length of the growing season particularly in arid and semi-arid areas. If this trend continues, wheat production is expected to disappear from Africa by the 2080s,” the statement noted.

“Plant breeding offers a huge opportunity for providing sustainable options to increasing the domestic supply of food and dietary diversity in Africa,” the APBA said. “Crop improvement through development of ‘smart’ and nutritious varieties that yield under diseases, pests, limited water and input conditions, provides an opportunity to increase crop productivity to meet the ever-rising food demand under the heavily constrained production factors such as water and land.”

But the association is concerned Africa still lags behind other continents in terms of knowledge about and access to modern breeding techniques to help deal with these challenges. There is also a general lack of awareness on the importance of plant breeders with regard to their capacity to drive innovations and technology adoption in the agricultural sector in Africa, hence the need for the association.

In an attempt to address these concerns, the APBA last year hosted its first conference at the West Africa Center for Crop Improvement (WACCI) at the University of Ghana.  It followed the theme “advances in classical breeding and application of modern breeding tools for food and nutrition security in Africa.”

The Alliance for Green Revolution (AGRA) is backing the association’s concerns. Dr. Rufaro Madakadze, who is the AGRA capacity building lead, told the conference that Africa is facing a strong climate emergency. As a result, we have seen higher cases of unprecedented droughts, floods, pest and diseases. The greatest risk posed by this emergency is that the gains we have worked so hard to make are getting eroded.

“For example, today, the number of people going hungry in Africa has grown to about 250 million since 2015,” Madakadze noted. “This represents a major reversal of the decline witnessed before 2015. While different measures have been put in place to address these challenges, breeding is the surest way of increasing farmers’ adaptation to climate change.”

Madakadze urged breeders not to breed for the sake of breeding. “We must ensure that these varieties get to the farmers. This will have to be done with urgency… every single day we delay in using science to improve food production, families will continue to face terrible choices,” she said.

Dr. Sagri Bambangi, Ghana’s Deputy Minister for Food and Agriculture, observed that plant breeding is widely recognized as one of the most important tools that exist to tackle problems of global food production, food security, new pests and diseases and climate change.

He noted that through the introduction of new varieties, plant breeders are able to deliver benefits to farmers, primary processors and other food value chain actors, as well as consumers.

He advised the APBA to use its platform to inform political debate on the importance of genetic crop improvement for environmental and socio-economic objectives through unbiased quantitative and qualitative data.

Bambangi added that such science-based information should be made widely available and be a starting point for a discussion on plant breeding in Africa.