By Mary Hearty
With Africa facing a huge burden of food insecurity which has been exacerbated by climate change, the adoption of emerging agricultural technologies such as genetic modification has been flaunted as the way forward to improving the situation.
Speaking during a media briefing hosted by the Africa Science Media Centre, Dr. Sheila Ochugboju, Executive Director of the Alliance for Science (AFS) said: “We are not going to be able to grow as much food as we need using our current practices and even if we expand the land that we have, the yield gap will still remain high.”
According to Dr. Ochugboju, just like the hybrid seeds, genetically modified (GM) seeds are planted once because the technology occurs in nature. “To optimize the effectiveness of the seeds, a better variety is bought the next year because if you keep on using the same variety, it lowers its productivity,” she said.
Dr. Ochugboju noted that a hybrid variety is whereby breeding is done through traditional cross-breeding technologies but with GM, the crops are modified in the lab to speed up the process.
In addition, she explained: “With GM organisms, we know the trait that we want before we insert it, whereas with hybridization we generally do not know as it involves taking a bunch of traits and crossing it with another bunch of traits.”
Additionally, Dr. Ochugboju noted that just like the traditional seeds, GM seeds also need fertilizer because, at the moment, even the richest soils are facing a rapid depletion of nutrients as well as climate change.
“Our soils are not as nutrient-rich as they were before. Many countries in Africa struggle with very poor soil health. And so, we will have to increase our fertilizer inputs by eight times; and the hybridization of our seeds six times to achieve high productivity,” she stated.
Further, Dr. Ochugboju said that investment in irrigation is crucial due to the shortage of water for agriculture. This is because most farmers in Africa depend on rain-fed farming which has been greatly affected by climate change.
“Water also remains an issue as the continent requires up to 65 billion worth of investment in irrigation. We have very low productivity because of rain-fed farming. Without a strong basis of foundation, we cannot grow enough food to feed our continent in the long term,” Dr. Ochugboju stated, noting that the continent also needs storage as about 70% of crop produce especially grains are lost.
Dr. Andrew Kiggundu, a biotechnology expert also clarified that attaining initially acceptable traits of crops during conventional breeding has been one of the biggest failures of old breeding methods, hybrid seeds in particular.
However, with GM technology, mostly gene editing, they are revisiting those objectives and looking at some of the tasty cassava or banana that people still value, and are still susceptible to disease.