Invest more in agricultural innovations to tackle food insecurity, experts urge

Joseph Opoku Gakpo

November 8, 2022

Governments have been urged to increase investment in research and technological innovations to help deal with food insecurity.

Speaking during a dialogue session at the World Food Prize event in Des Moines, Iowa – USA, Samantha Power, the United States  Agency for International Development (USAID) Administrator, said there is evidence that innovative technologies, like GMO technology, have helped improve agricultural production and latest innovations like CRISPR gene editing will do even more.

“Inserting new sequences into plant genomes – creating genetically modified organisms – is sometimes met with resistance, despite extensive evidence of safety. But, newer genomic techniques like CRISPR allow scientists to quickly and precisely introduce specific changes into a crop’s genome that don’t involve gene transfer,” Samantha  explained.

She noted that “For nations that choose to embrace genetic engineering – inserting new sequences into plant genomes – can quicken the pace (of crop improvement) even further. In Bangladesh, four varieties of genetically-engineered, insect-resistant eggplants, approved in 2013, have benefited more than 65,000 smallholder farmers by increasing yields and incomes, reducing pesticide use, and improving food safety.” .

The USAID administrator  expressed concern that smallholder farmers, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, don’t often benefit from new technologies since funding for its development comes mostly from private sector companies. Such private firms focus on making profits and thus may not breed improved seeds for rural smallholder communities.

“Homegrown innovation can address some of these barriers. In partnership with American universities, we’re investing in crop breeding innovation in partner countries. Innovation that tailors new seeds to their environments, and builds trust with local farmers by showing them that taking risks on agricultural innovation pays off,” she added.

The USAID administrator urged partners to support the vision for a sustainable and resilient agricultural future that is “designed not just to feed us today, but to protect our tomorrow.”

“I urge government partners to invest in research and development within their own borders, to partner with private companies and nonprofits to bring new seeds to environments too often overlooked, and to develop regulations and policies that encourage the development of safe, cutting-edge agricultural innovation,” she said.

Growing hunger

Power expressed concern that each night as many as 828 million people go to bed hungry worldwide. Forty million people face emergency levels of hunger, which means that such households have already seen family members die due to a lack of food. She mentioned the Horn of Africa, particularly Ethiopia and Somalia, as places that need urgent attention.

“Between 2008 and 2018, natural disasters alone cost developing countries more than $108 billion in crop damage and lost harvests. Already, in the Horn of Africa, millions of livestock have died, and the pastoralists who had tended to livestock over so many generations have lost their livelihoods and their source of meaning and identity,” she observes, adding: “an embrace of agricultural innovation, coupled with broad public and private agricultural investment, could dramatically reduce hunger.”

Speaking at a separate dialogue during the World Food Prize, Prof. Eric Danquah, the founding director of the West Africa Center for Crop Improvement (WACCI), also called on African governments to increase investment to enhance food security.

“Agribusiness cannot flourish when there is no innovation. Until we change the paradigm and make serious investments to create opportunities for women and the youth, there is no way forward,” he warns.

“If we don’t innovate in Africa for production and consumption, we will be hungry forever. It’s about research and development, and the delivery mechanisms that allow us to get to farmers in real time,” Prof. Danquah adds.

The Chief Executive Officer of Farming Future Bangladesh, Arif Hossain, concurs that innovation is the way out for developing countries. Speaking to the Alliance for Science, Des Moines, Iowa, he gave the success story of the Bt eggplant in Bangladesh.

He disclosed that “Genetically modified Bt eggplant allows farmers to have six-fold increased income, reduce pesticide use by 35 to 40%, and promotes sustainable agriculture.”

“If the farmer wants the Bt eggplant, they grow it. If they don’t want it, they don’t grow it. And it’s an open variety. So, farmers literally can save seeds, multiply them, and give them to the next farmer. Bt eggplant is a proven technology,” he noted.

Previously, Bangladeshi people were confused about GM crops, but since 2014, more farmers are benefiting from the technology. There is evidence that the eggplant is working, Hossain added.

He urged governments across the developing world to invest in GMOs because they benefit smallholder farmers.