JUMA: New revolution knocking at Africa’s door

Saturday June 30 2012

By CALESTOUS JUMA

Kenya is celebrated as the birthplace of mobile money revolution. Motorola’s first cell phone released in 1983 cost $4,000 (or $9,500 at current costs – Sh798,000).

It weighed two kilos. Subsequent generations were viewed as toys for the elite with no practical relevance to developing countries. Today Kenya is ahead of the curve.

The mobile revolution had its detractors. The incumbent landline industry stood in the way. There were scare campaigns that using mobile phones could cause job losses and brain cancer.

The dramatic benefits from mobile phones were foreseen only by a handful of people but driven by dedicated policy makers and entrepreneurs.

Today a new revolution is knocking at Africa’s door — agricultural biotechnology. It promises to do for agriculture what mobile technology has done for communication.

I wrote my second book, The Gene Hunters, in 1989 on the technology. It was seven years ahead of the first commercial release of biotechnology crops in the United States.

There were concerns from the outset akin to those raised about mobile phones.

It was claimed that biotechnology would only benefit rich farmers, destroy the environment and undermine food security. But evidence is stacking up against these earlier doomsday claims. The current adoption rate of biotechnology crops is 11 per cent

in developing countries compared to five per cent in industrialised countries.Of the 16.7 million people who grew biotechnology crops in 2011, 15 million or 90 per cent were small resource-poor farmers in developing countries.

Over the 1996-2010 period, the global farm income gain was $78.4 billion, half of which went to developing countries. In 2010 alone, the net farm level economic gain was $14 billion, equal to an average rise in income of $100 per hectare.

There are concerns that the costs of accessing biotechnology are prohibitive to farmers in developing countries. Farmers in developing countries spent about 17 per cent of their total technology gains on accessing the technology, compared to 37 per cent in developed nations.

The cost of access to technology should be measured against productivity increases.

When I helped to draft Kenya’s industrial property law in 1989, we envisaged a future in which access to new technology would help to boost economic productivity.

We also knew that when patents expire, the associated knowledge becomes freely available.

Kenyans are already using publicly available technology to conduct research on critical agricultural fields such as controlling pests, diseases and weeds; increasing nutritional content of local crops; and developing drought-tolerant crops.

The fruits of their labour will require international recognition and protection. Potential environmental impacts of biotechnology remain a controversial area.

No technology is risk-free. However, there is growing evidence that biotechnology crops are beneficial to the environment.

If biotechnology had not been used in 2010, the world would have required an additional 23 per cent of the arable land of Brazil to maintain the same level of soybean, maize and cotton output.

This is equivalent to 25 per cent of the total area under cereal production in the European Union or 8.6 per cent of US farmland.

It is estimated that the use of agricultural biotechnology over the 1996-2010 period reduced carbon dioxide emissions by 19.4 billion kilograms, equivalent to taking 8.6 million cars off the road for a year.

Over the same period, pesticide spraying went down by 438 million kilograms of active ingredient. The reduction has also had health benefits by minimising chemical poisoning among farmers.

There are also unintended benefits of agricultural biotechnology. Studies in the US and China have shown that conventional farmers report lower pest infestation if their neighbours grow pest-resistant crops.

These are the first studies that show positive area-wide impact of biotechnology crops. Kenya faces major challenges ahead which include a rising population, ecological degradation and climate change.

To address future challenges, Kenya needs to look ahead and start today to lay the foundations for tomorrow’s solutions. Those countries that adopt agricultural biotechnology today will be better prepared to use the same techniques to solve health, industrial and environmental problems.

The underlying knowledge of genomics is the same and is remarkably versatile. As an early adopter, Kenya is now applying mobile technology to other fields such as health and agriculture.

In fact, the next wave of many biotechnology products will piggyback on the mobile revolution. Kenya is ahead of the curve and has great potential to provide regional leaders in the field.

Calestous Juma, Professor of the Practice of International Development at Harvard University, received an honorary degree of doctor of science – agricultural technology – from JKUAT last Friday