By Abdallah el-Kurebe 

Journalists, farmers, scientists, biosafety regulators and agribusiness companies from Argentina, Burkina Faso, Kenya, Mozambique, Nigeria, Uganda and the US gathered in Brazil between March 16th and 20th 2015 for the Biotechnology and Science Communication Confidence Building Project.  

This meeting was meant to enable African countries learn about and improve on their food security strategies through confidence building in modern biotechnology as well as optimizing best communication practices and policies to guide in the deployment of biotech/GM crops in Africa.

The choice of Brazil for the meeting was the country’s rating by the International Service for the Acquisition of Agricultural Applications (ISAAA) that it has continued to maintain second position in the adaptation of agricultural biotechnology.

According to 2014 report of ISAAA, Brazil cultivated 42.2 million hectares (ha) of soybean, maize and cotton, next to US, which cultivated 73.1 million ha of Maize, soybean, cotton, canola, sugarbeet, alfalfa, papaya and squash.

One of the lessons learned from the Brazilian study tour is that smallholder farmers in Brazil are those that cultivate between 50 and 100 hectares (ha). These are big-time farmers in Nigeria and elsewhere in Africa. 

More so, farmers in Brazil belong to cooperatives and 100 percent of Brazilian cooperative farmers plant GM crops. In fact, these cooperatives have been influential in promoting the adopting of agricultural biotechnology. in Brazil, agriculture is a private sector business.

Marcelo Vevancio is a 36 year-old farmer who alone cultivates 262 ha of farmland. He chooses to use GM soybean because of easy management of such crops. “I changed from conventional to transgenic methods of farming because it is easier to manage. It also provides high yields with less cost of production and less stress.”

One of the agro-companies the team visited was Cocamar. It cultivates 500,000 ha of soybean during summer. It also produces 744,000 bottles of soy oil per day (271,560,000 bottles per year), among other food products.   

Renato Hobold Watanabe, an Agronomist and Technical Coordinator of Cocamar, says that the company succeeded through cooperative farming (made up of smallholder farmers) with over 12,000 associate farmers. “Bt crops provide better yields and help in reducing pesticides use. We feel we are eating safer food that contains fewer chemicals,” he said while answering a question on how Brazilians feel when they eat GM foods. 

On the other hand, Mr. Ricardo Bergmann of the Argentine Soybean Chain Association (ACSOJA) says that the country is a leading exporter of soybean, cultivating 32 million ha and producing 100 million metric tonnes per year.
According to him, “In Argentina, 100 percent of the surface of soybean and cotton was planted with GM varieties while GM maize accounted for 95 percent of the crop in 2013/14.”

Argentina understands modern biotechnology as an important tool for increasing productivity of its agricultural sector. More so, there is the presence of biotechnology in different productive chains, which plays important role in the country’s agriculture development.

ISAAA reports that Argentina retained third place in the world, with 24.3 million hectares of biotech crops in 2014.
A notable development is that commercial biotech crops so far approved there are soybean, maize and cotton. 100% of soybean and cotton was planted with Genetic Modified (GM) varieties, while GM maize accounted for 95% of the crop. These crops are herbicide tolerant and or insect pest resistance.

While Nigeria is still struggling to put regulatory frameworks in place, Argentina has continued to evolved “simultaneously with scientific development.” Its first commercial approval of glyphosate resistant soybean was in 1996.

Although both Nigeria and Argentina have land availability and climate variability to enable diversification of biotech crops, Argentine farmers, by far show a good reception to new technological developments and innovations. More so, the country is far ahead in the acquisition of mechanisms that promote science and technology, including research, investment and promotion of technology applied to production. In Nigeria, traditional methods of farming still accounts to about 80% of means of food production.

Argentina hopes to develop biotech crops that would solve gaps or problems of national productive chains as well as enhance society awareness of biotechnology and biosafety issues through education.

Moses Limo, a professor of Biochemistry and Biotechnology from Egerton University, Kenya observed that agriculture in Brazil was technology-driven as against other countries, especially in Africa where it is political-driven. “As a scientist, I am now more confident to tell my people that, in practical terms, biotech is working for Brazil and could work for Kenya.” 

Among the 19 biotech mega-countries, three are in Africa. South Africa is ninth and therefore maintains the lead with 2.7 million ha of Maize, soybean, cotton; Burkina Faso is 14th with 0.5 million ha for cotton and Sudan is 19th with 0.1 million ha for cotton. 

“Cameroon, Egypt, Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, Nigeria, and Uganda have conducted field trials on the following broad range of staple and orphan crops: rice, maize, wheat, sorghum, bananas, cassava, and sweet potato,” stated the report. While Kenya has banned the importation and use of biotech crops, Uganda, Mozambique and Tanzania, are pursuing their regulatory approval.

Margaret Karembu, Executive Director of ISAAA said that of the 28 biotech countries, 20 were developing and only South Africa, Burkina Faso and Sudan have adopted the commercialization of biotech crops in Africa. Other countries like Cameroon, Kenya, Ghana, Egypt, Uganda and Nigeria were conducting trials on various crops. 

Karembu posits that Africa’s population would boost from 1.1 billion to four billion in a continent which 65% of her labour workforce is in agriculture. This percentage is declining as a result of aging farmers. But still, “Biotechnology has remained more of a political issue than scientific.” 

The major issues that have continued to evolve around the influence of the adoption and commercialization of biotech crops in Africa include health and environment. It is therefore important for African countries to consider putting in place regulatory frameworks that would allow safety use of the technological advances and developments on agricultural biotechnology.

This will not only ensure that crop species that relate to GM are safe both as food, feed and agro-ecosystem.

African governments are not adequately funding research and therefore the private sector should take ownership of research and development in all research institutions. And, in the best interest of African farmers, the Public Private Peasant Partnership (PPPP) approach should be introduced instead of the PPP which leaves out the farmer from research process.

It is important to note that farmers in all African countries have shown good reception, even without the products, to the new technological developments and innovations. What remains is for governments to see to the need for legal frameworks in order to allow farmers the usage of the products. 

Nigeria’s President should hasten to assent to the Biosafety Bill recently passed by the National Assembly. The Kenyan government should lift the ban on the importation and commercialization of GM crops. The Ugandan parliament should roll up the Bill from the Order Paper and pass it immediately and other African countries should queue in to the agricultural biotechnology.