A Plea for Agricultural Innovation

| June 3, 2013

Honorary Degree Acceptance Speech, McGill University, Montreal, Canada, June 3, 2013

It is a great honor for me to return to Montreal 17 years since I arrived here to set up the permanent offices of the Secretariat of the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity.

My long association with Canada dates back to 1979 when I was recruited by the Nairobi-based Environment Liaison Centre (ELC) as a writer and founding editor of Ecoforum, a trilingual magazine on environment. My work was funded by the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA). The organization was headed by Gary Gallon, a Canadian. In 1982 I received a scholarship from the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) to study science and technology policy. There is no better testimony of the significance of Canada's commitment to international development cooperation than this honorary degree.

In his 1878 classic essay on electricity, A Plea for Gas Lamps, Robert Louis Stevenson wrote: "Cities given, the problem was to light them." Then he proceeded to demonize electricity, saying that the "urban star now shines out nightly, horrible, unearthly, obnoxious to the human eye; a lamp for a nightmare! Such a light as this should shine only on murders and public crime or along the corridors of lunatic asylums, a horror to heighten horror. To look at it only once is to fall in love with gas, which gives a warm domestic radiance fit to eat by."

Today we acknowledge that one major problem is how to feed an ever-growing human population. Opposition to new technologies, however, may cast a dark shadow over the prospects of feeding the world.

My arrival in Montreal in 1996 coincided with the first commercial release of transgenic crops in North America. Then, world opinion was divided between those who thought advances in agricultural biotechnology would have catastrophic consequences for the environment and those who argued that biotechnology would help to address global agricultural challenges and possibly help to reduce agriculture's ecological footprint. I had the pleasure of working with faculty at McGill University who shared this optimism, but their measured voices could not rise above the din of prejudice.

Critics argued that transgenic crops would only benefit industrialized countries and would have little to contribute to emerging nations. The overall assumption was that any unintended consequences were likely to be negative. This pessimistic worldview resulted in highly restrictive laws governing biotechnology as enshrined in the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety to the Convention on Biological Diversity.

Addressing today's agricultural challenges requires a more balanced view that must be guided by evidence. But more importantly, it requires an optimistic outlook that recognizes the power of human creativity in responding to global challenges.

It is now 17 years since the first commercial release of transgenic crops in North America. Evidence is stacking up against catastrophists and skeptics as emerging economies become major beneficiaries of the biotechnology revolution. According to the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA), from 1996 to 2011, transgenic crops added US$98.2 billion to the value of global agricultural output. In 2012, emerging countries reaped nearly $1 billion more than their industrial country counterparts. The use of transgenic crops saved nearly 473 million kg of active pesticide ingredients. It also reduced 23.1 billion kg or carbon dioxide, the equivalent of taking 10.2 million cars off the road. Without transgenic crops the world would have needed another 108.7 million hectares of land for the same level of output. The benefits to biological diversity from the technology have therefore been invaluable. On the economic front, nearly 15 million farmers and their families, estimated at 50 million people, have benefited from the adoption of transgenic crops.

But not all the regions of the world are reaping the full benefits of agricultural biotechnology.  Of the 28 countries growing transgenic crops, only four (South Africa, Burkina Faso, Egypt, and Sudan) are in Africa. Despite the challenges, the leapfrogging that occurred in mobile phones is on the verge of taking place in agricultural biotechnology.  This is because of the increasing capacity among African countries to absorb existing biotechnologies and use them to solve local problems.

Two examples illustrate this point. In Nigeria scientists have developed a pest-resistant variety of the blackeyed pea, a subspecies of the cowpea (Vigna unguiculata), to control the insect Maruca vitrata. The pest destroys nearly US$300 million worth of the crop annually. Pesticides worth US$500 million are imported annually to control the pest. Africa grows 96% of the 5.4 million tons consumed worldwide each year.

To solve the problem, scientists at the Institute for Agricultural Research at Nigeria's Ahmadu Bello University in Zaria have developed a transgenic blackeyed pea variety using insecticide genes from the Bacillus thuringiensis bacterium. This achievement illustrates the heroic ability of local scientists to use technologies developed for different purposes to solve unique African problems.

Another example is the spread of Xanthomonas wilt, a bacterial disease that attacks bananas. It is estimated that the disease costs the Great Lakes Region about US$500 million annually, predominantly in Uganda.

Ugandan researchers are working on a transgenic banana using genes extracted from sweet pepper (Capsicum annuum) to control Xanthomonas. The disease is also affecting Ethiopia's ensete banana (Ensete ventricosum). Ugandan and Kenyan scientists are also using biotechnology techniques to enhance the micronutrient content of staples such as bananas, sorghum, and cassava. Ugandan scientists, for example, have already developed Golden Bananas with enhanced Vitamin A content.

The techniques mastered in these proof-of-concept states can be extended to a wide range of indigenous African crops. This would not only help Africa broaden its food base by using improved indigenous crops, but it would have the potential to contribute to global nutritional requirements.

These important technological advances have yet to be subjected to the appropriate approval procedures that can determine whether they can be released for commercial use. The delays can be partly attributed to technological intolerance, much of which has been handed down by European anti-biotechnology activism. This opposition, however vexatious, amounts to petty political mischief. There is a larger concern: Africa's weak systems of agricultural innovation, which are characterized by separation of research, teaching, extension, and commercialization.

As the world's food challenges increase, so must humanity enlarge its toolbox to include genetic modification and other technologies such as satellites for monitoring land resources. But these techniques are not silver bullets. They must be part of a wider system of innovation that includes improving interactions between academia, government, business, and farmers.

There are two ways to help foster agricultural innovation. One is to add research functions to existing agricultural universities and strengthen their linkages to farming communities directly. Second, national agricultural research institutions (NARIs) already have research programs in place that could accommodate a teaching component centered on the study of full value chains of specific commodities. Connecting NARIs to farmers in the private sector through extension services and commercialization projects would result in agricultural entrepreneurship.

Little innovation occurs without committed champions. Ministers responsible for agricultural research must play a leading role in the effort to upgrade NARIs so that they can serve as new centers of agricultural innovation.  Such political leadership will make it possible for institutions such as McGill University to be part of new and vibrant opportunities to leverage the world's vast scientific and technical knowledge and put it to practical use in Africa. Technological opportunities such as online courses and broadband Internet make it easier to create new agricultural learning communities.

The future belongs to the optimist. In the words of Winston Churchill: "A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty." I want to invite you all to join me in searching for opportunity in every agricultural challenge Africa faces today. Sticking with tradition has its allure of comfort. But the dim light of doing nothing carries more risks that experimenting with new technologies. Let us act with courage and a sense of urgency. We cannot afford to be seduced by the dim light of technological stagnation.

@Calestous participated in a live Twitter chat at 2PM on Monday, June 3. http://www.theglobeandmail.com/commentary/live-at-2-pm-et-monday-how-africa-can-feed-the-world/article12276080/

For more information on this publication: Please contact the Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Juma, Calestous. “A Plea for Agricultural Innovation.” June 3, 2013.