Realizing the Promise and Potential of African Agriculture

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.

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.

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  • Change in Agricultural Science

    The nature of agricultural science is changing in fundamental ways as genetic engineering developments and intellectual property rights (IPR) redefine the proprietary nature of many new technology options. Private research and seed firms are competing with - and in some cases displacing - some lines of public research, and IPR threatens to constrain access to improved genetic materials and research techniques for public research and development (R&D) agencies working on crop improvement and other problems of poor farmers. As the private sector increases its role in the traditional lines of genetic improvement for mainstream crops for commercial farms (small and large), the public sector can focus more sharply on the R&D problems of poor farmers, poor regions and natural ecosystem conservation and management - all of which are less likely to attract the private sector. The public sector also has important roles to play in conservation of African genetic resources, both in farmers' fields and in gene banks (especially for orphan and lost crops critical to food security) and in provision of safety nets for the poor and food insecure.

    There is also scope for more effective partnerships between public and private research organizations. Although some types of research are public goods that the private sector will not undertake, this does not always mean that the public sector is best placed to undertake that research. Even when the public sector must pay, it might still be better to contract out the research to private firms - or other specialized agencies - that have a stronger capacity for the particular kind of work.

    The IPR regimes (including patents, licenses, and breeders' rights) can encourage useful private sector investment in agricultural research and extension. But unless designed with care they can also lead to high social costs by restricting public access to new technology options and knowledge and to concentration in national seed markets (sometimes by multinational firms). This may deny farmers compensation for indigenous genetic materials that they have nurtured and husbanded over generations. Intellectual property rights not only benefit the private sector, but if managed properly, can be of benefit to the public sector. Unfortunately, most public sector institutions in Africa are ill equipped to effectively manage intellectual property and there is a need to strengthen their abilities in this respect.

    Although the World Trade Organization (WTO) Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) provides broad guidelines for wto member countries in writing IPR legislation, there is still much flexibility. The provisions of the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIP) and the International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants (UPOV) also require increased attention by African governments. Countries need to find the balance between private and public interests as well as national vs. regional research that is most appropriate for their needs. They also need to pursue access to technology through such institutions as the new African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF), which aims to provide private processes and materials protected by intellectual property rights, free of charge to public agricultural R&D institutions in Africa. The AATF is a good example of effective private-public partnerships.

    New technology in food and agriculture is increasingly politicized, fuelled by publicity of perceived risks and little confidence in its benefits. In many cases, especially those involving genetic engineering, consumer organizations and the media are playing an increasingly more important role than farmers, science, business and industry in public acceptance or rejection. In this changing environment, African public research institutions need to redefine their roles vis-a-vis private research firms, and governments must adopt national IPR regimes that comply with WTO/TRIPS, the Convention of Biological Diversity (CBD) and the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture. They must also develop and implement acceptable biosafety regulation systems that ensure food and environmental safety and build public confidence. With the large number of small countries in Africa it would seem that a regional approach to biosafety regimes should be encouraged. In this way the costs of establishing regulatory regimes for genetically modified organisms (GMOs) may be substantially reduced, even though of necessity it will be largely a national and local responsibility to set up and implement monitoring and evaluation processes.

    Persley (2003:5), in her synthesis of 50 science-based reviews of modern genetics and its applications in food and agriculture and the environment, indicates that 'The cost, complexity, and uncertainty of regulation in new genetics in food and agriculture make regulatory requirements a barrier to entry for public research institutes, poor countries, and small companies.' Public-good agricultural research in Africa will miss the opportunities of the new genetics without concerted regional efforts to economize on the requirements of establishing the regulatory regime.

    There is usually a trade-off between the cost and feasibility of a regulatory system and the level of biosafety achieved. Also, the lower the level of risk that is tolerated, the more likely there will be lengthy delays before release of new technology that could make important contributions to national economic growth, food security, poverty reduction and environmental sustainability. These trade-offs will vary with the capacity of a country to undertake effective biosafety regulation and with the type of technology to be evaluated.

    Countries will also place different social values on the trade-offs depending on their levels of wealth, the importance of the agricultural sector, and the degree of urgency in solving food and nutrition problems. Large countries like South Africa or Nigeria can afford more costly systems, and they have the capacity and trained people needed for implementation. But many smaller countries in Africa cannot afford the same degree of investment, nor do they have enough capacity and trained people to implement ambitious biosafety regulatory systems. Regional biosafety systems offer the best solution to this problem. These should be based on agreed objective risk assessment founded on sound scientific bases. Harmonization of biosafety standards and cooperation among countries can facilitate such regional approaches, with economic benefits to all. Risk assessment could be conducted in a few countries that typify the major agro-ecologies and farming systems and the results accepted by cooperating countries. This would obviate the necessity to duplicate risk assessments in every country with similar ecologies or systems. Of course the decision to release gmos would remain the sovereign right of each country. Current efforts by the Association for Strengthening Agricultural Research in Eastern and Central Africa (ASARECA) show a possible way to proceed in this respect.

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