Pest-resistant maize variety opens way for technological advancement

Kenya is on the cusp of becoming a regional leader in crop biotech.

Thursday September 10 2015

Prof Calestous Juma. Photo/FILE
By CALESTOUS JUMA
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Agricultural biotechnology critics are right to question the potential negative impact of the global dominance of the technology.

However, they are wrong to assume that all the biotechnology introduced in emerging nations is driven by the interests of foreign firms.

Kenya is on the cusp of becoming a regional leader in crop biotech.

Led by a team largely made of local scientists, the country is about to introduce a new pest-resistant maize variety.

It is estimated that the spotted stem borer and the African stem borer reduce Kenya’s maize crop by 13 per cent or 400,000 tonnes annually.

Controlling the pest using biotechnology will not only reduce Kenya’s food imports, it will also equip the country with new techniques that can be redeployed for other sectors such as drug and vaccine development.

APPLIED FOR PERMISSION

The Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organisation (KALRO) and the African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AAFT) have applied to the National Biosafety Authority (NBA) for permission to release the variety in farms.

A positive verdict from the NBA would position Kenya as a regional leader in agricultural biotechnology while a negative outcome would provide vital feedback to the scientists on how to improve their research to meet the safety requirements of the regulators.

As argued in the second edition of The New Harvest: Agricultural Innovation in Africa, the continent has the capacity to leapfrog in a wide range of emerging technologies.

The agenda should be guided by local needs and driven by local scientists and entrepreneurs.

One of the key features of technological leapfrogging is the ability to use local priorities to shape international partnerships.

Much of today’s scientific knowledge is distributed across global knowledge value chains that include universities, research institutes, private companies, and foundations.

The project under review is funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Howard G. Buffett Foundation, and the US Agency for International Development.

NO ROYALTY PAYMENTS

The Monsanto Corporation has licensed the Bt trait to AATF royalty-free.

Therefore, if approved, the variety will be sold at market rate without the burden of further royalty payments.

The arrangement addresses the concern that intellectual property protection could increase seed prices and make them inaccessible to poor farmers. Waiving the need for royalty payment is only one measure.

Other long-term strategies should include providing farmers with credit in the same way firms using patented technology for manufacturing are supported by a variety of credit systems.

As a latecomer in transgenic crops, Kenya has immense possibilities for technological leapfrogging. It also can learn from the extensive knowledge accumulated by the frontrunners.

According to the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications, biotechnology crops covered 181.5 million hectares worldwide in 2014, up from 1.7 million in 1996.

The rate of adoption of biotech crops in Africa, however, is not in line with other developing countries.

Of the 181.5 million global hectares of biotech crops, 96 million hectares were grown in 19 developing countries.

However, just three African countries — Burkina Faso, South Africa, and Sudan — planted biotech crops on only 3.3 million hectares, with South Africa accounting for 2.7 million hectares.

TRANSFER OF GENES

The first generation of biotech crops involved the transfer of genes across different species, which generated considerable concern over the safety of these crops.

The next generation of biotech crops will involve gene editing techniques that do not use traits transferred from other species.

The migration to gene editing in particular and synthetic biology in general will favour nations that have the courage to define their priorities, build international partnerships, and create credible regulatory authorities.

This is not about being for or against biotech crops.

It is about putting dogma aside and being pragmatic.

It is about giving reason a chance.

To reject emerging technology without the benefit of evidence-based procedures is like throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

The writer is Professor of the Practice of International Development at Harvard Kennedy School. He directs the School’s projects on agricultural and health innovation policy in Africa funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Twitter @Calestous

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