Africa is rich in both natural and human resources, yet nearly 200 million of its people are undernourished because of inadequate food supplies. Comprehensive strategies are needed across the continent to harness the power of science and technology (S&T) in ways that boost agricultural productivity, profitability, and sustainability -- ultimately ensuring that all Africans have access to enough safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs. This report addresses the question of how science and technology can be mobilized to make that promise a reality.
Biotechnology, including applications like tissue culture, marker-assisted selection, as well as genetic modification involving recombinant DNA technology, has opened up uncommon opportunities for improving the productivity, quality and sustainability of crop and animal husbandry, fisheries and forestry. Conventional biotechnologies have been in use for a long time, while genetic modification technology is of more recent origin beginning with the discovery of the double helix structure of DNA by Watson and Crick in 1953.
Tissue culture makes use of the toti-potency of cells and has had an enormous impact on plant breeding over the last decades. Propagation of elite material, virus free meristeme cultures, somatic hybridization, dihaploid plants and hybrid breeding are amongst the most significant applications. Tissue culture has also opened the way for genetic transformation, leading to genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
Genetically modified organisms involve novel genetic combinations arising from the transfer of genes from unrelated species across sexual barriers. Thus it has become possible to introduce genes from a wide range of species and genera irrespective of their ability to undergo sexual hybridization. During the last 20 years numerous GMOs of great interest to agriculture and medicine have been developed. The science of genetic modification is making very rapid progress.
DNA technologies lead also to powerful non-GMO applications. New high-throughput technologies in the field of genomics, transcriptomics, micro-arrays, proteomics and metabolomics generate an enormous amount of data and, when interpreted correctly, lead to a profound knowledge of genome structure and functioning. This knowledge is already widely used by companies and research institutes for identifying target genes that can be isolated for use in genetic modification or followed in conventional breeding programs to increase the selection efficiency (marker-assisted selection).
The Green Revolution in cereals was essentially a product of public sector research. The gene revolution based on GMOs, in contrast, is being triggered by private sector industry. Since the choice of research problems by the private sector will be largely determined by commercial opportunities, there is need for a strong public sector commitment to harnessing biotechnology for addressing the problems of marginal rainfed areas and of resource poor farmers. For example, there is need for greater public investment in developing gmos possessing tolerance to drought, salinity, other forms of abiotic stresses, as well as resistances to biotic stresses such as pests and pathogens (e.g. Kiome, 2004; Thomson 2002).
Due to the fact that much of the GMO research is done in the private sector, technologies are very often subjected to intellectual property rights. These may hamper the application of technologies for African agriculture. This is acknowledged by leading biotechnology companies around the world. Box 4.10 describes a new institutional innovation aimed at facilitating public-private partnerships in biotechnology in Africa.
In the case of agricultural and food biotechnology there have been concerns about food and environmental safety. The Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety provides some internationally agreed guidelines for the safe and responsible use of biotechnology in crop improvement. There is need for regulatory mechanisms which can inspire public confidence with reference to benefit-risk assessment of GMOs.
African agriculture should derive maximum benefit from both classical plant breeding and biotechnology. It will be useful to set up advanced research centres to undertake basic research leading to the development and use of novel genetic resources. Such research centres could provide new genetic material and methods to national agricultural research systems for inclusion in their breeding programs, thereby leading to the development of location specific crop varieties. Some examples of prospective biotechnological processes and products are contained in Boxes 4.11 and 4.12.
Capacity building in the development and administration of biosafety procedures is urgently needed. This is being addressed by the United Nations Environmental Program and the linked Global Environment Facility. There is also need for a public genetic literacy campaign on the implications of GMOs for crop and food security.
In the choice of research tools, preference should be given to those tools that can help scientists to achieve their goals speedily, surely and economically. One should not worship a tool because it is new, nor should one discard a tool because it is old. What is important is the choice of a right mix of research tools and strategies that can help resource poor farm families to obtain higher yields at lower cost and with better quality.