By Mary Hearty

With the emergence of agricultural biotechnology, farmers have been able to access crops that are insect resistant, herbicide tolerant, virus resistant as well as those with improved production and nutritional value.

However, the controversies on the benefits and risks of biotech crops still remains a major challenge as this stirs up confusion towards the development of agricultural biotechnology in Africa and the rest of the world, despite the efforts made by various governance systems to customize it through regulatory frameworks.

Speakers at the inaugural Open Forum on Agricultural Biotechnology (OFAB) Day organized by the African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF) identified communication as the crucial driver of adoption of agricultural biotechnology in Africa.

Dr. Canisius Kanangire, the AATF Executive Director noted that the communications and advocacy work of OFAB and its partners towards an Africa where farmers, especially women, men and youth have access to state-of-the-art agricultural technologies to help them achieve the much-desired agricultural transformation not only for food and nutrition security but also increased income is already making a difference on the continent.

“By sharing factual evidence-based information on agricultural biotechnology, the OFAB platform is helping bridge the information gap that is critical to decision making among farmers, scientists, the private sector, public and policymakers to name a few,” Dr Kanangire reaffirmed.

Dr Wilber Ottichilo, Governor, Vihiga County in Kenya commended OFAB for bringing in new technology, putting very complicated technology in a simpler language, acting as a mediator and being able to bring various stakeholders together to discuss and understand the importance and the risks of biotechnology in order to move forward.

With the help of OFAB, he explained, there is increasing awareness on the importance of Agricultural BioTech in the implementation of food security, environmental concerns and climate change as the future looks bright for the adoption of agricultural biotechnology in agricultural production and other processes.

To ensure the adoption of this new technology, Dr Ottichilo said that communication in the format that OFAB uses is extremely important to be able to have politicians and decision makers understand biotechnology.

“People are always reluctant to embrace new technologies. Therefore the need to provide simple information to the people particularly the decision makers is very crucial,” he observed.

Dr Ottichilo  also advised that the media need to be engaged more about the latest developments on agricultural biotechnology to inform the public, and other stakeholders in order to make informed-based decisions.

OFAB has been in the forefront of communicating technology in a simpler language, acting as a mediator and being able to bring various stakeholders together to discuss and understand the importance and the risks of biotechnology in order to move forward.

Since its inception, Dr Vitumbiko Chinoko, Project Manager of OFAB Africa said that the forum has been able to build the momentum of agriculture biotechnology by engaging decision makers through one-on-one meeting with policy makers; organized sensitization visits and workshops for farmers and community leaders as well as developed grassroots campaign networks, among others.

In terms of policy and regulatory achievements made by OFAB, Nigeria has passed the Biosafety Bill, released genetically modified (GM) Cotton and recently became the first country globally to release the first Pod Borer Resistant Cowpea for commercialization.

Kenya has released approval of the first Bt Maize and commercialization of Bt Cotton. Ghana passed the Biosafety Legislative Instrument in 2019; and Plant Variety Act in 2020.

On the other hand, Burkina Faso supported the creation of Africa Biotech Network to promote the safe use of biotechnology; and also achieved high level interest in return to Bt Cotton Planting.

In Tanzania, the Ministry of Agriculture formally requested the Ministry of Environment to review the Biosafety Regulations in order to allow for commercial release of locally developed biotech crops.

In addition to continuing its activities in the African countries, OFAB launched the Media Annual Awards in 2017 to recognize and award journalists across Africa for their excellence in biotechnology reporting that seeks to promote best practices in biotechnology reporting.

During the event, the OFAB Journalism Grants was also launched to recognize promising proposal to undertake factual and science-based reporting of agricultural biotechnology from across the OFAB Chapter countries of Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, Tanzania, and Uganda.

Noting the important role of OFAB, AATF management has decided to stretch its reach to Mozambique, Rwanda, and Malawi. The new chapters will be launched between end this year and 2022.

Among those who participated in the inaugural OFAB Day were Science and Technology Directorates, Government Representative, Directors-General, policymakers, farmers, scientists, agricultural economists, journalists, and communication practitioners.