Transforming Africa’s Agricultural Programs With Plant Biotech

Dr. Sylvester Oikeh, Project Manager – Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA) Project at the African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF)

WEMA Project Manager Dr. Sylvester Oikeh evaluates the performance of conventional, drought-tolerant maize (DroughtTEGO®) at a field demonstration plot in Embu, Kenya. The maize was grown under well-watered conditions. Photo credits: AATF

Modern agricultural biotechnology is a tool that has the potential to address food insecurity in Africa. Three countries — Kenya, Nigeria and Malawi — have recently joined the league of nations that have approved biotech crops for commercialization to enhance food security, and there is hope that others will follow their lead.

Serving as the project manager for the Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA) Project, I have seen firsthand how the technology can address food security challenges brought on by climate change. But, I also know that unless countries have an enabling policy environment in place, it can effectively block agricultural progress.

Established in 2008, WEMA is a public-private partnership that works to develop and deploy royalty-free, drought-tolerant and insect-pest protected (climate-smart) white maize varieties to African farmers. Through conventional breeding, marker-assisted breeding and genetic engineering, the project aims to increase yield stability, protect harvests and promote farmers’ investment by embracing best management practices. The project is coordinated by the African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF) in partnership with the National Agricultural Research Systems in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, South Africa and Mozambique; the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT); and Monsanto Company.

Among the project’s key achievements are the development of 94 conventional climate-smart DroughtTEGO® maize hybrids. Five of the Bt (TELA™) maize hybrids are available royalty-free to smallholder farmers in South Africa, which long ago created a positive policy environment that supports government research and commercialization of genetically engineered (GE) maize. These technologies have the potential to increase maize productivity and contribute to enhancing food security in Africa.

Progress to adopt the technology is also being made in a few other countries, including Ethiopia, Tanzania and Mozambique, where policymakers have realized the benefits of the technology and are working toward adopting enabling policy environments that allow for public research and testing.

For example, Ethiopia had strict laws prohibiting biotech crops, but the government made amendments to its laws and they are now trialing the Bt cotton technology.

 

Another good example is Mozambique, which changed its law in 2015 to allow research and commercialization of biotech products. In February 2017, Mozambique planted its first transgenic crop – maize with stacked of drought-tolerant (DT – CspB) + Bt traits — and the trials are now seeing impressive results.

Similarly, Tanzania reviewed its strict liability clause in 2015 to allow for transgenic crop trials. In 2016, WEMA planted its first biotech drought-tolerant maize, and the government officials, fascinated with the trial results, asked why the product was not available to farmers. They learned that the country’s strict liability clause imposed restrictions on the commercialization of transgenic products, and have since commenced a process to amend the law to allow for market placement of biotech crops.

Experience shows that the development of home-grown, compelling biotech products along with collaboration between the public-private sectors and political will is crucial in promoting biotechnology crops as a solution to Africa’s food insecurity challenge. I am optimistic that the WEMA maize will have a big impact in Africa’s agricultural sector. Once farmers start growing it, and there is improvement in productivity, I believe it can drive demand for future biotech adoption.

Let’s foster an enabling environment in Africa that allows farmers to be the judge on the technology they want to use on their farms to fit their needs.