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African agricultural biotechnology experts say involving farmers in the biotechnology debate will encourage them to make informed choices and give them an opportunity to assess the potential benefits of adopting genetically modified crops to help boost their crop yields. The experts, who met at the annual meeting of the Open Forum on Agricultural Biotechnology (OFAB) in Africa in Abuja, Nigeria, recently, resolved that strengthening grassroots engagement will offer farmers messages about new GM crops and weigh their role in efforts aimed at boosting agriculture’s contribution to the continent’s food security position.

AfricaBio chief executive Dr Nompumelelo Obokoh says engaging farmers is critical as it can assist them to gauge the potential benefits of GM crops to address problems such as insect resistance, herbicide tolerance or drought tolerance.

“It’s very important to reach out to farmers, to engage them and enable them to access biotechnology and improve their livelihoods,” she says.

“Farmers are looking for solutions to improve their yields. If we reach out to them, they can participate actively in the adoption of biotech crops.”

Dr Dennis Kyetere, head the African Agricultural Technology Foundation, says campaigns informing farmers about biotech crop development projects can encourage them to participate and make it is easier to adapt the technologies from an informed position.

“Let’s get to the farmers by all means. Let’s spread the message and promote the growth of biotechnology in Africa so that our farmers make decisions based on evidence and not on myths,” he says.

Other experts say using improved conventionally bred crops that farmers have adopted can pave way for the step-by-step introduction of biotech crops.

Some even went further to suggest that agricultural biotechnologists should have more trials on farms than in laboratories to help farmers appreciate the benefits that come with new crop technologies.

“Confined field trials are important for farmers to see some of the benefits but involving them in farm trials can boost their confidence in biotech crops even more,” says an expert from Ethiopia.

“We need more of on-farm trials so that they can see with their own eyes the potential of biotech crops in responding to some of the problems they face.”

Smallholder farmers often have no easy access to new crop technologies due to resistance to GM crops by African governments, poor grassroots campaigns by scientists as well as the fears peddled by anti-GM campaigners.

As a result, most rural farmers have lost out to some of the potential benefits of biotech crop technologies that can help them reduce costs, improve crop disease resistance and improve crop yields.

Mr Uzoma Nkem-Abonta, a Nigerian legislator, told agricultural biotechnology experts that engagement with farmers at the grassroots would help the farmers to see the benefits of biotech crops in terms of yields, reduced crop damage from weeds, diseases and insects.

“Agricultural biotechnology should be seen as a positive revolution in agriculture and affordable food production,” he says.

“As scientists you must share knowledge and awareness of modern agricultural biotechnology.

“While our people wallow in abject poverty and are dying daily of acute hunger, we cannot wait for opposing ideologies to dictate the pace of our agricultural biotechnology growth. We must act now and the time to act is now.”

Experts at the meeting discussed a number of issues that sought to find ways of promoting biotechnology and enhancing the collective power of smallholders to participate in biotechnology programmes.

“The best way to create the conditions for poor farmers to participate in biotech crop programmes is to support and work with them and their organisations,” says Prof Lucy Ogbadu, director-general of the National Biotechnology Development Agency of Nigeria.

Among other issues, the experts also urged African governments to invest in and support the development of laboratory infrastructure to promote agricultural research that addresses food security challenges facing the continent.

Prof Baba Yusuf Abubakar, executive secretary of the Agricultural Research Council of Nigeria, says African governments must seriously consider investing laboratory infrastructure to promote research and ensure that the continent realises its ambition to become an agricultural research hub.

“The most expedient way to achieving agricultural development in any nation is by embracing and investing in technology acquisition, development, adaptation and adoption for use by the farmers of such nations,” he says.

“African farmers face numerous challenges in their quest to increase productivity and investing in laboratory infrastructure can ensure that we can scale up research that responds effectively to some of their needs.”

National Biotechnology Authority of Zimbabwe chief executive and registrar Dr Jonathan Mufandaedza says improving laboratory infrastructure will help African countries to qualify and certify the status food consumed on the continent.

“We need to elaborate that issue (laboratory infrastructure development) further,” he says. “As we adopt agricultural biotechnology let’s also address infrastructural development and human capacity development issues.

“Our governments and our funding partners should assist us in this regard. We must take practical measures to ensure that Africa has a voice in setting the agricultural research agenda that addresses the needs and aspiration of our farmers.”

Debate on GM crops is still a fiercely contested terrain with anti-GMO campaigners raising religious and cultural concerns over how new technologies might affect traditional seed systems.

The pro-GMO side argues that myths and risks peddled by the anti-GMO groups have made it difficult for farmers to adopt GM crops.

The say understanding these concerns and addressing them through the provision of facts can help farmers accept the technology.

Some of the key resolutions recommended by the experts in Abuja include:

The need for the establishment of “Champions for Biotech” and work closely with national and regional academics, i.e. African Academy of Sciences

Extensive use of the social media platforms to promote biotechnology in Africa

Setting up of rapid response teams of scientists and media

The real need to engage grassroots networks via credible farmer organisations and take aantage of farmer field schools to disseminate biotech information to farmers

Use effectively local languages in communicating biotechnology issues

Establish an effective stakeholder net mapping

Embarking on aggressive science communication training to help scientists to speak effectively on biotech issues

The need to define impacts of all activities that can be measured

The need to focus on crops in communicating the potential benefits of biotechnology

To upscale efforts to promote the establishment of biosafety laws in African

Some analysts are cautious.

“Farmers are integral to the development of biotech crops.

“It is important to engage with them from the beginning of the process, and to recognise the value of their knowledge and aice,” says an analyst.

“But researchers should be careful to avoid making promises and raising expectations that may not be met.”

The agricultural technology experts also say that investing in agriculture is more effective in improving the standard of living of Africans given that the bulk of the poor are farmers whose means of livelihood centre around the cultivation of a small piece of land.

Engaging with farmers and collaborating in on-farm trials can help the continent to reduce food imports, dependency on aid and guarantee sustainable food security for people on the continent.

And, Dr Margaret Karembu aptly sums it up: “We cannot feed the world of tomorrow with yesterday’s technologies.”

Source : The Herald