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Biotech is urgently needed, economically and environmentally, in Africa

My Times column on the urgent need for biotechnology in African agriculture:

An even more dangerous foe than Robert Mugabe is stalking Africa. Early last year, a moth caterpillar called the fall armyworm, a native of the Americas, turned up in Nigeria. It has quickly spread across most of Africa. This is fairly terrifying news, threatening to undo some of the unprecedented improvements in African living standards of the past two decades. Many Africans depend on maize for food, and maize is the fall armyworm’s favourite diet.

Many Africans rely on maize but it is threatened by a rapidly spreading pest

Many Africans rely on maize but it is threatened by a rapidly spreading pestWAYNE HUTCHINSON/GETTY IMAGES

Fortunately, there is a defence to hand. Bt maize, grown throughout the Americas for many years, is resistant to insects. The initials stand for a bacterium that produces a protein toxic to insects but not to people. Organic farmers have been using the bacterium as a pesticide for more than five decades, but it is expensive. Bt maize has the protein inside the plant, thanks to genetic engineers, who took a gene from the bacterium and put it in the plant. 
Bt maize has largely saved Brazil’s maize crop from fall armyworms.

However, influenced by European environmentalists, most African countries forbid the growing of genetically modified crops. This is a pity, because unless they change their attitude fast, they will face the prospect of using far more pesticides, which small-scale farmers cannot afford, and which come with environmental and safety risks, or suffering famine, relieved by expensive imports of food.

Fortunately, inch by inch Africa is changing its mind on biotech crops, though only South Africa has approved Bt maize. Nigeria, Uganda, Ethiopia and Kenya are slowly changing their legislation. But bureaucrats with empires to build keep putting roadblocks in the way of change, and environmental pressure groups are campaigning to undermine the efforts.

Some years ago I spoke to the leaders of a large charity working with African farmers and asked them why they did not come out in support of biotechnology. They replied that they dared not do so for fear of retribution from the big environmental pressure groups, such as Greenpeace, for which opposition to biotechnology is a totemic issue when fundraising in Europe.

Money came before humanity, in other words. Greenpeace’s former director, Stephen Tindale, changed his mind about biotechnology and said two years ago, before his death: “I worry for Greenpeace and the other green groups because they could, by taking such a hard line . . . be seen to be putting ideology before the need for humanitarian action.”

Last year 129 winners of the Nobel prize signed a letter, saying: “We urge Greenpeace and its supporters to re-examine the experience of farmers and consumers worldwide with crops and foods improved through biotechnology.” Yet Greenpeace remains opposed to biotech crops. The European Parliament also voted to accept a Green Party report arguing against involvement in a new international agricultural technology initiative in Africa because of the involvement of biotech firms. A Kenyan farmer, Gilbert Arap Bor, wrote: “They want us to remain agricultural primitives, stuck with technologies that were antiquated even before we entered the 21st century.”

More than half of the two billion people who will be added to the world’s population by 2050 will be Africans. Yet feeding the continent’s growing population, largely from African farms, is possible. And, like Asia before it, Africa can initially prosper through agriculture more than any other industry, but only if there is a green revolution of farming modernisation comparable to what happened in Asia in the Sixties.

The average yield of an African maize crop is less than a quarter of that of a North American crop, even before the effect of the fall armyworm. This is largely down to a lack of fertilisers, pesticides, hybrid seeds and biotechnology, and frequent drought. Hybrid seeds alone, produced by conventional breeding, can deliver improvements in yield of 20 to 30 per cent, I’m told. Drought-resistant varieties, also conventionally produced, can double the yield. But neither helps against the fall armyworm.

The African Agricultural Technology Foundation is co-ordinating a public-private partnership called Water Efficient Maize for Africa (Wema). Its aim is to develop drought-tolerant and insect-protected maize using both biotechnology and modern techniques of conventional breeding. Its first product, a drought-tolerant, white maize hybrid seed, was delivered to farmers in Kenya four years ago. It resulted in a harvest of 4.5 tons per hectare, compared with 1.8 tons normally. The Wema project has the support of industry to make the varieties available royalty-free to smallholder farmers in sub-Saharan Africa through African seed companies. Monsanto, for example, is giving away its intellectual property in the region.

Ah, say its critics, but Monsanto is hoping that Africans will use its hybrids and thus become rich enough to buy more seeds from it one day. Yes, and what is wrong with that? Suppose Wema does result in many African smallholders earning enough money to buy a tractor, put a child through school and go into the market in search of the best seeds, as well as sufficient fertiliser? Where’s the problem? All right, say the critics, but resistance to the Bt toxin is already developing in fall armyworms in Brazil. True, but so is resistance to insecticides. Agriculture is an arms race against the other species, and newer techniques should keep us easily one step ahead, so long as we do not prevent them.

The next technology to help farming will be gene-editing, different from the transgenic technique that produced Bt maize, and involving the introduction of no foreign DNA, the thing that critics say they most object to. A tweak to the genes of maize can make it resistant to maize lethal necrosis, a viral disease hurting yields in parts of Africa. There is an opportunity for Britain here. Freed from Europe’s deadly precautionary principle, British plant scientists could be well placed to support their colleagues in Africa.

Those who think poverty a price worth paying for nostalgia say we should go back to traditional agriculture, in better harmony with the land. Not if we want wildlife. Globally, if we had the yields of 1960 we would need more than twice as much land to feed today’s population. In which case, you could kiss goodbye to all rainforests, nature reserves and national parks.

By Matt Ridley | Tagged:  rational-optimist  the-times