Biotechnology potential for sustainable agriculture in Africa

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Advancements in digital technology are beginning to reshape agriculture.

The right combination of technology and processes allow farmers to apply only the water or fertilizer needed as its needed, monitor conditions more effectively, and harness data to drive further gains.

Connected sensors, smart tractors, drones, machine learning (ML), artificial intelligence (AI), farm management software and smartphone apps are quietly reshaping the agricultural. These systems are reducing water usage, fuel consumption, the use of fertilizers and, ultimately, carbon output.

  • Biotechnology is widely used in agriculture to improve plant growth and yields, increase resistance to pests and diseases, and enhance nutritional content.
  • Biotechnology provides a path for developing environmentally robust and climate-resistant crops that will help to safeguard Africa’s food basket.
  • The GMO market in Africa was predicted to be worth US$615.4 million in 2018, with a projected five per cent increase to US$871 million by 2025.

However, biotechnology could also play a key role in establishing a more sustainable framework for agriculture. Over the last few decades, more resilient seeds and plants have become common place through genetic engineering.

Drought, heavy rainfall, and other environmental conditions substantially impact African agricultural production. Biotechnology provides a path for developing environmentally robust and climate-resistant crops that will help to safeguard Africa’s food basket.

Experts have extensively researched developing GM crops with faster maturity periods and higher quality. As a result, GMOs provide a means for Africa to obtain higher agricultural yields and shorter harvest times, ensuring greater food security.

In this post, we’ll discuss some of the most common examples of how biotechnology is being used in the agricultural sector in Africa as well as the advantages of biotechnology.

Genetically Modified Crops

Genetically modified crops are created by inserting genes from different organisms into the DNA sequence of specific crop varieties. This produces traits that would not occur naturally, such as resistance to pests or environmental conditions like drought. The GMO industry has evolved over the years, with progress being made in developing crops that are tolerant to herbicides, resistant to disease, and insect-resistant.

GMOs are said to offer several advantages such as higher yields and resistance to droughts and pests. Growing plants that are more resistant to diseases spread by insects or viruses will likely result in higher yields for farmers and a more attractive product. All these factors contribute to lower costs for the consumer and can ensure that more people have access to quality food.

Kenya approved the commercialization of Bt cotton in December 2019, as it sought to revitalize the underperforming cotton sub-sector. The government is now banking on GM crops as part of its broader plans to revamp agriculture and improve food security in the face of drought and other effects of climate change.

Just recently, newly elected Kenyan President William Ruto’s government, through a Cabinet decision, lifted the ban to allow the adoption of approved biotech crops and importation of GM foods. By lifting the ban, the Cabinet further authorized open cultivation and importation of white GMO maize.

Read: Kenya becomes fifth country to allow GMOs. Will it last?

The GMO market in Africa was predicted to be worth US$615.4 million in 2018, with a projected five per cent increase to US$871 million by 2025.

A map showing where genetically engineered crops are approved, grown and commercialized. There are 22 crops in 41 countries but some cultivation has been suspended as highlighted in the grey areas. [Photo/ Genetic Literacy Project]
GMOs, with the correct strategy and framework, might help Africa tackle food insecurity, malnutrition, and hunger. Food spoilage and loss caused by pests and pathogenic microbes pose a significant threat to food security and safety in Africa.

Food loss decreases revenue by at least 15 per cent in developing economies. Pest infestation on crops before harvest decreases the value of the harvests and the volume and market quality of such items.

Improving Plant Seed Quality

We can’t mention examples of biotechnology in agriculture without noting the increased quality of seeds available to farmers. Biotechnology has allowed for more effective and efficient ways of improving the crops that feed our population, as well as ensuring high-quality seeds at harvest time. Seed quality has always been the basis for a good crop, and biotechnology has allowed seeds to be improved in several ways.

Heritage corn which is among that which is grown indigenously by farmers in Kenya. [Photo/ The Non-GMO Project]
Kenya has hybrid and heirloom seeds. Hybrid seeds are created when two different varieties of the same plant are cross-pollinated. While, Heirloom seeds are open-pollinated where insects, birds, wind, or other natural means have a critical role. A seed variety is regarded as an heirloom if it has existed for more than 50 years.

Through human intervention, GMO seeds have their genetic makeup altered. This is done by having genes from different species inserted into a plant to produce a desired set of characteristics.

Read: GMOs ban lifting: the future of Kenya’s indigenous seeds

Developing of Biofuels

Another great example of biotechnology in agriculture is the development of biofuels. Biofuels are types of fuel that are produced from feedstock that includes wood fuel, charcoal, lumber pellets, crops, forestry residue, and industrial and municipal waste. Biofuels such as green diesel, biogas, biodiesel, and ethanol, offer cost effect and low-carbon-emitting approaches to making energy more accessible to decentralized and low-income populations.

With commitments from the Government of Tanzania and support by the Norwegian Embassy, the Tanzania Domestic Biogas Program has seen the implementation of over 12,000 biodigesters in the East African country.

In February 2022, the Mozambique’s Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development and oil and gas supermajor, Eni, signed an agreement for the development of projects aimed at producing biofuels through agro-feedstock.

Ethiopia’s biofuel development serves as a top priority, falling under the government’s ambitious economic development strategy. In 2018, biomass, obtained primarily from charcoal, crop residues, and animal substrate, accounted for approximately 89 per cent of Ethiopia’s energy supply, with the country’s national annual biomass energy usage estimated at roughly 74 million tons.

With over 17,000 domestic biodigesters having been built across the country, Kenya’s Biogas Program – founded by the Africa Biogas Partnerships Program, a partnership developed between the Dutch Government, international cooperation organization, Hivos, and development organization, SNV Netherlands Development Organization – has served to develop a commercially viable biogas sector as a sustainable form of energy for the east African country.

Improving Plant Growth

Biotechnological advancements produce food crops more resistant to harm from several common food crop diseases and spoiling agents, lowering the need for costly and sometimes non-environmentally friendly chemical insecticides and pesticides.

Improving plant growth is another example of biotechnology in agriculture. Since the beginning of agriculture, farmers have been breeding plants to get more desirable traits such as larger fruits size, more robust plant growth, or improved flavour.

With the advent of biotechnology, sustainable plant growth can be achieved quickly and efficiently.

Read: Legalizing GMOs in Kenya: what’s ethical today?

Albert is a Chemical Technologist and Author. He is passionate about mining, stock market investing, Fintech and Edutech.

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