Food Security in Africa: Is Genetically Modified Technology a Pathway? By Professor MK Othman

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BREAKTHROUGH

Food security issues in Africa are major concern to both people of Africa and the entire world when one ruminates on the enormity of the problems. Paraphrasing the issues raised in the first part of this article last week, it is pertinent to bring out major food insecurity indicators that comprehensively measured food security in the world. Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) of United Nations presented these indicators in a report, titled “ 2017 The Situation of Food Security and Nutrition in the World”. The report presents two major indicators “Prevalence of undernourishment (PoU) and Food insecurity experience scale (FIES)” for measuring “Prevalence of severe food insecurity”. While the average PoU of North America and European Union from the year 2000 to 2016 was 2.5 percentage of their population, Africa recorded 24.3 percent in the year 2000, which reduced to 17.8 percentage in 2013 and then increased to 20.1 percent in 2016. The report indicated an urgent situation in Eastern Africa, a sub-region with one – third of the population estimated to be undernourished. Comparatively, Africa was found to have the highest levels of severe food insecurity reaching an average of 27.4 percent of the population, which was almost four times compared with other regions/continents in 2016. Thus, food insecurity in Africa is quite worrisome and needs concerted strategy to address it as the World marches to 2050 when the population in Africa is projected to double the current population estimate of 1.3 billion people. This brings the question posed in my last article; can GMT be a pathway for ending hunger and achievement of food security in Africa?
As explained in this column, genetically modified technology (GMT) is advance level of the traditional breeding, which is fast gaining popularity and acceptance globally. The process of traditional breeding involves the use of germplasm from the pool of the ancestors with desirable traits of interest and crossing them with each other, to make the progenies output carry through heritability and have the favorable traits from both parents. Traditional breedingis a way of harnessing the genetic resources of an organism by selective breeding.With advent of Information and Communication Technology (ICT), advance knowledge of genome and gene, scientists have elevated the traditional breeding to GMT through an in-depth study of techniques of molecular biology. This cutting – edge technology allows scientists to silence genes in viruses, bacteria or pests, which attack plants or animals thereby retarding growth, productivity or event ultimately kill such organisms. How can GMT contribute to achieve food security in Africa?
GMT can contribute to achieve food security in Africa through increase productivity of agricultural land and yield increase. Although, Food production depends on many factors, such as the quantity, frequency and distribution of of rain on the cropping area, the quality of the soil, type and number of weedscompeting for soil nutrients and moisture and the number of pests militating against the crop growth. Each weed that grows in a field takes soil nutrients and moisture away from a food plant. The more resources that are used by weeds, the less food that can be produced. GMT can adequately address the issue of weeds and insects, which are major pests retarding the crops productivity and significantly reducing yields. In a 2014 analysis of 147 published articles, Klümper and Qaim estimated the yield of GM crops as 22 percent higher than the yield of conventional crops (https://gmoanswers.com/ask/how-can-gmos-increase-amount-food). A similar study conducted in Institute of Life Sciences in Italy led by Elisa Pellegrino, which involved meta-analysis of 6,006 peer-reviewed studies from 1996 to 2016 on genetically engineered maize. The results showed that genetically engineered (GE) maize produced a greater yield ranging from 5.6 to 24.5 percent compared to non-GE maize. It resulted in lower concentrations of mycotoxins (−28.8 percent), fumonisin (−30.6 percent), and thricotecens (−36.5 percent). The former is toxic and carcinogenic in humans and animals. There were also no significant differences in grain quality, such as proteins, lipids, and fiber.“The results support the cultivation of GE maize, mainly due to enhanced grain quality and reduction of human exposure to mycotoxins,” the team wrote in their paper. This high level study made 11,699 observations of production, grain quality, and more. These yield increases resulted from fewer weeds and insects contribute to increased food production. Data for this study came from GMO corn that had been planted in the United States, Europe, South America, Asia, Africa, and Australia.
From the foregoing discussion, I can use Graham Brookes statement to conclude on the benefits of GM crops. He said “Where farmers have been given the choice of growing GM crops, the economic benefits realized are clear and amounted to an average of over $100/hectare in 2014,Two-thirds of these benefits derive from higher yields and extra production, with farmers in developing countries seeing the highest gains. The environment is also benefiting as farmers increasingly adopt conservation tillage practices, build their weed management practices around more benign herbicides and replace insecticide use with insect resistant GM crops.” Graham Brookes is the Director of PG Economics, co-author of a reportGM Crops:“Global Socio-Economic and Environmental Impacts 1996-2014” released by PG Economics (https://www.bio.org/press).
In addition to yield increase and its environmental friendliness, GM crops could also be genetically engineered to mitigate natural challenges such as drought, flood, shorter production period and infuse specific vitamins or micro- nutritional values to crops for enhancing human/animal body growth and development.However, there are many fears – hiccups associated with the products of biotechnology; some of these fears constitute serious impediment to the use and acceptability of such products especially those developed using genetic engineering to produce genetically modified organisms popularly called GMO. What are the fears?
The first fear among people is the “unnatural way” the GMO are developed. It seems a little unnatural, and there’s a psychological tendency to desire among people for naturalness in food and avoid some forms of innovation in food. “It’s just not natural to take the gene from one species and put it in another. It’s just not natural!” This statement causes fear to some people. The second and most deadly fear is claim that GM crop causes cancer. Cancer is the most dreadful and most fearful ailment in the history of mankind, a mere mention of this terminal disease keeps people off and away permanently. Another fear was caused by an allegation by some scientists of detecting multiple toxins from GMOs in Maternal and Fetal Blood.
All these fears concerning health are baseless as explained in this Column two years ago. The safety of GM crops has been a top agenda of international organizations such as United Nations, regional organizations, advanced countries and food safety authorities. They all vehemently gave GMO a clean bill of health for public consumption.  The World Health Organization (WHO) was reported of not finding any risks associated with the consumption of GMO foods.  According to WHO, GM foods currently on the international market have passed risk assessments and are not likely to present risks for human health. In addition, the general population in the countries where they have been approved has showed no effects on human health as a result of the consumption of such foods. Another refutable organization, Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) has stated categorically that no adverse impact on human health have been shown as a result of the consumption of GMO foods by the general population in the countries where they have been approved. In African continent, African Union (AU) and NEPAD have all nodded their agreements for the use of GMOs and adopted the biosafety measures to safeguard likely health risks to the people:A body known as African Biosafety Network of Expertise (ABNE) has been established under the AU-NEPAD to assist member countries to develop the right biosafety expertise to effectively carry out biosafety regulation. This is to balance the adoption of biotechnology as a tool to advance the Continent by AU. Working under the UN, 54 African nations signed the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, which requires countries to domesticate the Cartagena Protocol having their own respective Biosafety Laws. Authorities of many countries in Africa and other regions are strongly united to ensure safety and environmentally friendly of the GM crops. Still, GM technologies are not for grabbing easily without much sweat. Can Africa afford GMT? What is the viable strategy for Africa to benefit from cutting – edge technology?
Professor Othman is the Executive Director of National Agricultural Extension and Research Liaison Services (NAERLS), ABU Zaria.

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