African farmers yearn for biotechnology in the face of climate change

By Lenganji Sikapizye

June 19, 2020

Southern Africa is on the receiving end of the devastating impact of climate change, driving millions into hunger.

A record 45 million people — mostly women and children — in the 16-nation Southern African Development Community are gravely food insecure following repeated drought, widespread flooding and economic disarray, according to the WFP.

Countries like Zambia have been the hardest hit, with 2.3 million people affected as a result of the drought experienced during the 2018/19 growing season. Recently, some parts of the country experienced extensive flooding, which submerged agricultural land.

The magnitude of the problem in this part of the world has reached unprecedented levels, creating a threat to peace, security and stability. At the center of this catastrophe are the small-scale farmers.

Small-scale farmers in this part of the world are critical because they grow food for household consumption, as well as generate income for their local communities.

It is against this backdrop that agricultural biotechnology is gaining support from researchers and small-scale farmers who are struggling to recover from floods and droughts. The most significant advantages of genetically modified (GM) crops to small-scale farmers include environmental protection, boosting food production and sustaining rural livelihoods.

In a telephone interview, Sunday Chileya, a small-scale farmer based in the northern part of Zambia, expressed worry over food security as a result of the floods that have wiped out his entire field.

“I don’t know how I am going to feed my family because everything that I planted has gone,” Chileya said.

Chileya, who has some basic knowledge of agricultural biotechnology, said the adoption of the technology was the only solution, owing to recurring floods and droughts that have led to crop failure.

“I have an idea of what agricultural biotechnology is and the benefits, so why not promote it to help farmers like me?” he asked.

Chileya pointed out that there is a need to promote the adoption of the technology if small-scale farmers like him are to continue surviving

“The climate keeps changing and so should our ways of farming so that we can survive the effects of climate change,” Chileya said.

Experts such as Dr. Kalaluka Munyinda, a University of Zambia (UNZA) lecturer and researcher, say agricultural biotechnology is a significant technology that will help small-scale farmers who have been adversely affected by climate change.

“Agricultural biotechnology is safe,” he said. “We are now experiencing extreme events when it comes to the weather and we can use this technology to develop crop varieties that will withstand any weather pattern.”

In order to adapt to and mitigate the devastating impact of climate change, there is a need to encourage the use of agricultural biotechnology, Munyinda said.

“We are now experiencing situations where pests and diseases are appearing whether it’s warm or cold and they are spreading rapidly,” Munyinda said.

He emphasized that agricultural biotechnology has significant advantages, contrary to the fears that have been created around the technology.

“You see as a result of using this technology the use of pesticides harmful to our environment is reduced,” Munyinda said, noting that other biotech crops will reduce the use of nitrogen fertilizers that contribute to a rise in greenhouse gases.

He reiterated that small-scale farmers are on the receiving hand of climate change.

“Small-scale farmers feed us,” he said, adding that “90 percent of the maize we consume is grown by small-scale farmers. So if they get affected we won’t eat.”

He said the Department of Crop Science at the University of Zambia has been working on maize, finger millet, cowpea and beans using biotechnology and he is hopeful that these will benefit small-scale farmers.

Benedict Tembo, an environmental reporter and editor at the Zambia Daily Mail, said agricultural biotechnology has benefits, contrary to the conspiracies peddled by certain groups with unknown agendas.

“Fears that agricultural biotechnology is harmful are totally unfounded,” he said. “Right now, our region is facing the brunt of climate change and there is a need to utilize technology that will help our farmers.”

Tembo pointed out that Zambia and some other African countries are missing out on an opportunity to introduce pest-resistant Bt cotton, for example, to fight the pests and diseases that are prevalent in Zambia and other countries across the continent.

“Agricultural biotechnology increases productivity, which means small-scale farmers will be able to take care of their families and strengthen their financial capacity,” he said.

Tembo called on journalists, who are on the frontlines in disseminating information to people, to report accurately on the benefits of agricultural biotechnology.

“An enlightened journalist is an asset to society, which looks up to him/her for the provision of quality, accurate and timely information on the demystification of myths around biotechnology,” he said.

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