LETTERS: Let’s trust African scientists in war on hunger

Genetically engineered maize. FILE PHOTO | NMG

What you need to know:

  • Let us consider how modern biotechnology can resolve food insecurity challenges.

In the West, daily, people are asking themselves, “What will I eat today?” But in my home, Africa, people daily are asking themselves a more challenging question: “Will I eat today?”

In reflecting on the second question, I have concluded that it is time for the public to put their trust in scientists about the role that genetically improved organisms can play in answering it.

Sadly, Africa continues to lag in the adoption of biotech crops 23 years after they were first commercialised, with only two of the continent’s 54 countries now growing them.

The delay is tragic since there is more than enough evidence that biotech crop adoption could address the challenges of hunger and malnutrition globally.

In Africa, it is time we focus on diligent and accelerated regulatory regimes, as well as decisions based on science and the benefits of agricultural biotechnology. It is time we focus on sustainable agricultural productivity.

Let us consider the millions of people who are hungry and impoverished in the continent and how modern biotechnology can resolve these food insecurity challenges, instead of focusing on perceived risks and concerns that have never been backed with any evidence.

Reluctance to adopt the technology is partly due to safety concerns, heightened activism propagated by Western countries that do not face the same challenges that we do.

In 2017, scientists in Italy published an analysis of the potential impacts of genetically modified (GM) maize on the environment, agriculture and toxicity.

The data generated over 20 years concluded that genetic engineering raised maize yields by 10 percent on average and reduced mycotoxins in maize.

This multiple data analysis provides very reliable evidence that GM maize can tackle a serious problem that has afflicted the continent for a long time — aflatoxin. Lower levels of natural mycotoxins, which are reported to be poisonous and carcinogenic to humans and livestock, were observed in GM maize compared to its conventional counterpart.

The study, like many before it, endorsed the safety of GMOs.

In 2016, the US National Academy of Science published a report on GMOs, which reinforced the scientific consensus that there is no substantial evidence that GM crops are less safe than their non-GM counterparts. The question that lingers on my mind is this: how many studies will it take for our leaders to trust scientists? What is the scientist supposed to do beyond providing evidence that the technology works?

There is evidence, too, that “stacking” several GM traits in one crop is beneficial, resulting in yield increases of over 25 percent. In the same vein, no significant impacts have been observed on non-target organisms and other beneficial organisms, including bees, ladybirds, beetles, lacewings and spiders.

Previous data analyses have documented that the adoption of GMOs reduces the use of chemical pesticides by about 37 percent compared to their conventional counterparts. Why then would our leaders want to get in the way of people enjoying such benefits, long after safety concerns have been put to bed?

Regardless of the scientific consensus and countless studies endorsing the safety of GM crops, there is a widespread public perception that they are not safe. Worse still, some African governments have even hampered their production, only to allow imports of food and feed resulting from or containing GM products. This only benefits farmers in countries that have adopted the technology, while indirectly affecting our research progress, further delaying our access to improved seeds.

This is a worrying trend in a continent viewed as the final frontier for agricultural transformation and bringing the massive numbers of unemployed youth into smart farming.

It is disheartening when those entrusted with the responsibility of making key decisions about this continent’s food and nutrition security continue to let half-truths impede them from taking decisive action.

They shy away from making evidence-based decisions and developing facilitative policies that can enable this viable technology to blossom. About two decades after the technology has proved itself both in terms of safety and delivery of socio-economic benefits, some of our leaders continue to hide behind precautionary measures and demand for “never-ending research.”

The narrative of “what will I eat today” versus “will I eat today?” cannot continue. It is time African governments took action. We need products in the farmers’ fields and food on the table, and the time is now.

The writer is a scientist and maize breeder.

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