The population of our continent continues to grow, but our ability to produce food remains stuck in the past. Experts say that global food production has to double by 2050 to meet demand. Yet, here in Africa, the average yield of grain hasn’t increased since the 1960s.
There is no simple solution to Africa’s problems, and the causes involve everything from political instability to unrelenting poverty.
These challenges won’t vanish soon. Yet a few simple steps would make them appear less daunting. The nations of Africa should embrace agricultural biotechnology and also make sure farmers have ready access to fertiliser. We have nothing to lose by this, and everything to gain.
Genetically modified (GM) crops will guard against one of the most significant threats to farming in Africa — crop failure. Pest outbreaks can turn an excellent harvest into a rotten one, almost overnight.
Biotechnology, however, offers seeds that will grow into healthy plants that naturally fight off insect predators. These tools also can help farmers survive severe weather, by making crops more resistant to heat, frost, and drought.
Genetic modification of fruits and vegetables can prevent spoilage on the way to market. Success in this area could reduce wastage and expand trade.
Farmers around the world rely on exports, and there’s no reason why Africa can’t improve its export opportunities through science.
Biotechnology affords environmental benefits as well. Because GM crops boost yield, we will produce more food from less land. Farmers will preserve the wilderness, rather than turn forests and wetlands into acreage for crops.
We can even put damaged land back into life. Unsustainable irrigation practices have injected too much salinity into much of the African soil.
Biotechnology holds the key to growing salt-resistant crops — advances won’t come soon, but they’ll be essential for the continent’s long-term food security.
Biotech crops may also contribute to bioremediation — the restoration of nutrients and soil structure.
Throughout much of Africa, soil has been severely depleted. Fertilisers that would begin to restore them are prohibitively expensive. It costs a farmer in sub-Saharan Africa about twice as much as one in Europe to buy a bag of fertiliser.
Personally, I apply fertiliser on everything I grow, including at least 75kg of it per acre of maize. Every informed farmer should do the same.
It makes a tremendous difference. In my region, yield from unfertilised crops is less than a quarter of the yield from fertilised crops — even much less.
Yet fertiliser can be difficult to obtain. Bureaucratic delays are a major stumbling block. Obtaining subsidised fertiliser demands a complicated ritual of signatures from local agriculture officials, banking instructions, approvals from the National Cereals and Produce Board, and plenty of travel in between.
It’s a logistical nightmare. Even if it goes smoothly, there’s no guarantee that fertiliser will be available.
Just about everybody in farming appreciates the importance of fertiliser. Biotechnology is a different matter. Only three African countries — Burkina Faso, Egypt, and South Africa — have approved the technology that the United States and much of the rest of the developed take for granted.
Three other countries — Kenya, Nigeria, and Uganda — are dragging their feet, but at least they’re conducting trials that could lead to commercialisation. But at least they’re moving in the right direction. It looks like Malawi may join them soon.
Put together, that is a mere seven African nations. That leaves 47 sovereign states that aren’t giving nearly enough thought to this essential tool of food production.
We should aspire to the agricultural success of the developed world, rather than assume that we must remain forever behind in food production.
The biotechnology promise and the power of fertiliser, put together, hold the potential to turn Africa into a breadbasket.
The choice is ours. We can take advantage of these amazing opportunities or cling to the methods that have already failed us.
Mr Bor, a farmer, teaches at the Catholic University of Eastern Africa, Eldoret campus. He is a member of the Truth About Trade & Technology Global Farmer Network (email@example.com).