Biotechnology, research key to Africa food and energy solutions

By Connor Walters

Africa has massive untapped potential in food and energy production, a panel of experts said Saturday at the AAAS Annual Meeting at the Hyatt Regency Chicago.

 Cassava plants grown in Africa. Researchers said at the AAAS annual meeting in Chicago that genetically engineering crops like cassava could boost yield and improve disease resistance. Photo courtesy of Flickr/IITA
Cassava plants grown in Africa. Researchers said at the AAAS annual meeting in Chicago that genetically engineering crops like cassava could boost yield and improve disease resistance. Photo courtesy of Flickr/IITA

With its favorable climate and a bounty of arable land, the all-African panel said people on  the continent should explore biotechnology and expand the focus on scientific research.

“Africa has the greatest potential and greatest need for renewable energy,” said Mohamed Hassan, former president of the African Academy of Sciences in Nairobi, Kenya.

Although there are 325 days each year of bright sunshine in Africa, 90 percent of its small-scale farmers do not have access to renewable electricity. Additionally, Hassan said Africa as a whole contributed just 2 percent of the world’s scientific papers in 2013.

Andrew Kiggundu, from the National Agro-Biotechnology Center in Kawanda, Uganda, said that genetic engineering offers a viable way to improve the nutrition and growing capabilities of popular crops like bananas and cassava plants.

Specifically, new strains of both crops might boost Vitamin A content in bananas and block Brown Streak Disease in cassava.

“The farmers are really excited,” Kiggundu said. However, he said, “There has been a misconception that the normal improved hybrids that the industry has produced are genetically modified. We have to educate people that what we bring now [with genetically engineered crops] is different from the hybrids.

Part of the confusion is driven by the lack of local research, as well as misinformation introduced by outside groups. This has created skepticism that has limited the spread and use of genetically modified  crops.

Daniel Otunge said that Africans are often hesitant to embrace genetically engineered crops because of the influence of respected international figures, like Prince Charles seen in this slide. Connor Walters/MEDILL
Daniel Otunge said that Africans are often hesitant to embrace genetically engineered crops because of the influence of respected international figures, like Prince Charles seen in this slide. Connor Walters/MEDILL

“Africa stands to benefit most from this technology,” said Daniel Otunge from the African Agricultural Technology Foundation in Nairobi Kenya. “Yet only about four countries have accepted commercial biotech crops.”

Hassan said more research by independent African science academies and the sharing of reliable information about biotechnology is needed to address the problems the continent faces.

“Information and communication technologies are very important if we really want to have bioscience contribute to the economy of Africa,” he said.