Oniang’o Sees Urgent Need For Food Biotechnology In Africa

Twenty-five percent of the undernourished people in the developing world are located in sub-Saharan Africa; and according to FAO, approximately 35 percent of the population in 14 countries in this region are chronically undernourished. However, efforts to reduce hunger have been hampered by a shortage of arable land, inadequate rainfall, low soil fertility and the devastating effects of plant pests and diseases.

"I've been saddened. I've gotten frustrated at the levels of hunger, levels of food insecurity on this continent, food crises one after another," says The Honorable Ruth Oniang'o, a member of the Parliament of Kenya and Professor of Food Science and Nutrition at Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology. "We have not always been food insecure. I think what has happened is we have not kept up with the world events, with the technologies. ? And I don't know of any country, which developed without using science and technology."

Increasing or intensifying food production is key to reducing hunger in sub-Saharan Africa, where 50-75 percent of the population and labor force is engaged in agriculture. Most of the African people earn their living by producing food, which means a family's income-earning potential is closely linked to agricultural productivity. Increases in agricultural productivity also positively impact rural economies by increasing food availability, reducing food prices in local markets, and generating an increased demand for other products linked to agriculture.

"And so I believe that it is incumbent on our government and on our scientists ? to bring a technology, which can address a small-scale farmer," says Dr. Oniang'o, founder and executive director of Rural Outreach Program ? a not-for-profit organization that undertakes development activities aimed at improving the livelihoods of the rural poor in Kenya, more than 55 percent of whom live below the poverty line. "They need different kinds of information, and I believe that science has now come up with this technology ? biotechnology. I'm not saying it's going to be a magic bullet, but surely it should be one of the major approaches to use."

Using food biotechnology, researchers can provide protection against plant pests and diseases through the seed, requiring small-scale farmers to use few ? if any ? additional inputs or machinery. Modern food biotechnology has been identified as the most potent technology for rescuing Africa from the effects of food shortages, just as the Green Revolution did for the countries of Southeast Asia in the 1970s.

"And, we already have situations where we know this is working. In South Africa, I'm aware and I've been there ? it is working. You know, when we're hungry, we actually import maize from South Africa. So for us to sit here telling ourselves ? oh, we don't want biotech food, and ? we can't bring this to our farmers ? it is not right," continues Oniang'o, who has influenced research, development and discourse on food security and nutrition in Africa, as well as globally.

Biotech varieties of cotton, corn and soy are approved for commercial planting in South Africa and account for approximately 92 percent of cotton, 29 percent of corn and 59 percent of soybeans grown in the country. While South Africa is currently the only country with commercial plantings of food biotechnology crops, nine countries have conducted field trials in Africa including Burkina Faso, Egypt, Kenya, Morocco, Senegal, South Africa, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe. An additional 11 countries are engaged in food biotechnology research and development.

"What I would like is to see a situation where families can feed themselves," says Oniang'o. "I believe we should start now. We can't say we shall start in a decade, or next year. No, no, no. We need to start now."

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