Policy, propaganda against GMOs and youth apathy are major barriers to improving farming and food production in Africa, a panel of experts said Saturday at the AAAS annual meeting in Chicago.
“I can assure you that in Africa we have the political will,” said Diran Makinde, from the New Partnership for Africa’s Development in Burkina Faso. However, he said most African Union countries spend less than $250,000 a year on scientific research and development because it’s not a priority.
Makinde also said the precautionary principle of the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety is being used to block the production of genetically modified organisms. Intended to balance health concerns with economic promise, the principle has led to issues of ambiguity, arbitrary application and bias against new technologies.
Another problem is turnover in political leadership and therefore, policy.
“At elections, everything changes,” he said. “You start all over again.”
Daniel Otunge of the African Agricultural Technology Foundation in Nairobi, Kenya, said that the non-GMO voices, many from outside Africa, have become too loud to have a proper discussion about the technology.
The Open Forum on Agricultural Biotechnology in Africa is “trying to bring some level of sanity in terms of this debate on our continent so that people can understand,” he said. “There was no forum that was able to organize these voices so that people would be able to get a reasonable discussion about this technology.
Another setback is that young people do not see themselves as part of the food solution. Margaret Karembu, director of the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications in Nairobi, Kenya, said farming is portrayed as “punitive, inferior and non-profitable.”
“They look at grandparents…and see the kind of labor,” she said. “It’s more like punishment, working on a farm. Most of it is not mechanized.”
Karembu said bringing young people into farming involves “making it sexy.” New mechanical technology, social media communication and even celebrity promotion of farming can make it an appealing career option for Africa’s youth.
Despite the obstacles, the panel members remained optimistic that Africa can be a thriving farming continent.
“This is not a dream, it’s a reality,” Karembu said. “It can happen.”