Africa to push rapid adoption of biotechnology to transform food systems at historic UN Summit

By Joseph Opoku Gakpo

September 21, 2021

Africa will be pushing for a rapid adoption of biotechnology as one tool to help transform the world’s food systems at the historic United Nation’s Food Systems Summit (UNFSS) on Thursday.

The 2021 Africa Agriculture Status Report 2021, launched a few days ago by the Alliance for Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), discloses that the Africa Common Position (ACP) to the UNFSS underscores the urgent need for sustainability and resilience as a means of achieving food systems transformation.

“The common position paper proposes a number of game-changing solutions, including rapid adoption of biotechnology ranging from drought-tolerant seed varieties to biofortification of staple and other widely consumed foods, among other solutions,” the AGRA report notes.

The Economic Commission for Africa, the African Union Commission and the Africa Union Development Agency have for several months been spearheading several meetings across the continent aimed at ensuring developing African countries speak in one voice at the upcoming summit. Rwandan president Paul Kagame told a pre-summit meeting in July that Africa will have a common position when member countries speak at the summit but gave no details. The Africa Agricultural Status Report 2021 report is now shedding more light on that.

The Africa Common Position to the summit also proposes establishing an enabling regulatory and policy environment that creates more space for competitive entrepreneurship, according to the AGRA report. It also calls for setting high food standards that promote human and animal health, especially in informal food value chains, sustainable water and land use through sound agronomic practices that promote soil conservation and preservation of the environment.

The UN’s extraordinary global Food Systems Summit, which is set for Thursday, is charged with launching bold, new actions to help deliver progress on all 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), each of which relies to some degree on the goal of achieving zero hunger. The meeting was deemed necessary because the world currently is not on track to meet the zero-hunger target and other SDGs by 2030 unless drastic actions are taken.

Production driven by expanding crop land, not yield 

The report observes that sub-Saharan Africa has registered the most rapid rate of agricultural production growth since 2000 of any region of the world. However, three-quarters of this growth is driven by the expansion of crop land rather than yield increases. With Africa’s population expected to double to nearly 2.5 billion by 2050, now is the time for stakeholders to put the steps in place to increase production without compromising the continent’s natural resources, the report notes.

The report cites the threat of multiple crises, such as persistent droughts, famine, locusts, fall armyworm (FAW), civil conflicts and, more recently, the COVID-19 pandemic, impeding the continent’s progress in overcoming the challenges faced in meeting its goals. These ever-more frequent shocks underscore the importance of the continent creating more resilient food systems that can withstand multiple shocks. In this decade, Africa will need to chart clear pathways and identify concrete actions that can build sustainable and resilient food systems that can deliver sufficient and nutritious food to feed the 256 million food-insecure people on the continent, the report notes.

Dr. Agnes Kalibata, AGRA president and the UN Secretary General’s Special Envoy for the UN Food Systems Summit, says “the COVID-19 pandemic has shown that despite the progress we’ve made over the last decade, Africa’s food systems remain fragile to external shocks.”

“We must take the opportunity we have to rebuild from the pandemic, to make our food systems more resilient without putting further pressure on the environment,” Kalibata added.

No need to choose between technology and agroecology

Joachim von Braun, director of the Center for Development Research at the University of Bonn in Germany, wrote the foreword of the report . He observes that Africa does not need to choose between stereotyped approaches to food production such as “technological approaches” or “agro-ecology approaches.” But farmers and their partners in value chains can identify and develop “African approaches.” These will be based on locally adaptive agricultural research, new science, the creativity of farmers and extension, and will entail context-specific, climate-smart, sustainable, improved practices in the highly varied conditions of rural Africa.

von Braun, who is also president of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences at the Vatican, says there is the need for integrating modern science and local knowledge to promote the resilience and sustainability of food systems. Improved seed varieties generated by modern technology are absolutely essential for sustainable food systems in Africa. Africa’s own seed production systems must grow. So is increased use of fertilizers applied at the appropriate dose for the crops and contexts. Africa’s own fertilizer production and distribution systems must be strengthened, he observes.

Africa off-track on SDG zero-hunger goals

The report notes Africa remains food insecure, accounting for 256 million of the world’s 795 million people suffering from hunger. Africa is off-track from reaching its food security targets across all continental policy frameworks, as well as the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

The authors urge African governments to take charge of their destinies and influence how agricultural research and development are undertaken. Governments can take control and build resilience, sustainability, community empowermentand inclusiveness principles into the performance measures of national agricultural institutions and international research partners working in African countries, the report says.

The report urges governments on the continent to make food insecurity a national security issue. It urges governments to ensure that agricultural research, development and extension systems receive a significant share of total public expenditures on agriculture given their centrality to raising agricultural productivity.

Dr. Lawrence Haddad, executive director of the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN), spoke at a ceremony to launch the report and called for environmentally sound approaches to food production. He said food systems in Europe, Asia and America have done a lot of good with accompanying bad, but Africa seem to have the opportunity to turn the tide.

“There is an opportunity for African Food Systems to achieve the good without achieving much of the bad,” he said.

Photo: Shutterstock/Vincent van Oosten