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Food Security In Africa: Is genetically modified technology a pathway? II, by Prof MK Othman


Food Security In Africa: Is genetically modified technology a pathway? II, by Prof MK Othman

Deep Thoughts with Othman

This is a corollary to my article of 16th February 2023. The continuation of this article was disrupted by the topical issues of cashless policy implantation and the 2023 presidential election. Now, I am back to the topic. The enormity of food security issues in Africa is a major concern to both people of Africa and the entire world. It is pertinent to bring out major food insecurity indicators that comprehensively measured food security in the world. There are two major indicators “Prevalence of undernourishment (PoU) and Food insecurity experience scale (FIES)” for measuring the “Prevalence of severe food insecurity”. While the average PoU of North America and the European Union from the year 2000 to 2016 was 2.5 percent of their population, Africa recorded 24.3 percent in the year 2000, which reduced to 17.8 percent in 2013 and then increased to 20.1 percent in 2016. As of 2021, the prevalence of undernourishment in Africa stood at 20.2 percent. The levels of food insecurity and hunger on the continent overall increased from 2014 onwards.

Conflict, drought, and economic woes triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic are reversed years of progress in Africa. As of 2020, more than one-third of the continent’s population was undernourished. In the whole of Africa, 282 million people were experiencing hunger, more than double the proportion of any other region in the world. This brings up the question posed in my last article; can GMT be a pathway for ending hunger and achievement of food security in Africa?

READ ALSO: Food Security In Africa: Is genetically modified technology a pathway?, by Prof MK Othman

As explained in this column, genetically modified technology (GMT) is an advanced level of traditional breeding, which is fast gaining popularity and acceptance globally. The process of traditional breeding involves the use of germplasm from the pool of 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 breeding is a way of harnessing the genetic resources of an organism by selective breeding. With the advent of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) and advanced knowledge of genomes and genes, scientists have elevated 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, and productivity or even ultimately killing such organisms. How can GMT contribute to achieving food security in Africa?

GMT can contribute to achieving food security in Africa through an increase in the productivity of agricultural land and yield increase. Although, Food production depends on many factors, such as the quantity, frequency, and distribution of rain in the cropping area, the quality of the soil, the type, and several weeds competing 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 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 was conducted at the Institute of Life Sciences in Italy led by Elisa Pellegrino, which involved a 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 contributing 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’s 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, and co-author of a report GM Crops: “Global Socio-Economic and Environmental Impacts 1996-2014” released by PG Economics (https://www.bio.org/press).

In addition, to yield increase and environmental friendliness, GM crops could also be genetically engineered to mitigate natural challenges such as drought, flood, and shorter production periods and infuse specific vitamins or micro-nutritional values into 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 a serious impediment to the use and acceptability of such products especially those developed using genetic engineering to produce genetically modified organisms popularly called GMOs. What are the fears? Can Africa afford GMT? What is the viable strategy for Africa to benefit from cutting–edge technology?

(To be continued next week)

Professor Othman is the Executive Director of National Agricultural Extension and Research Liaison Services (NAERLS), ABU Zaria.

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