Scientifically improved crops: Expediting Africa’s war against poverty


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The popular mainstream media hardly captures the struggle for development in Africa. Apart the usual anecdotes on poverty, we are seldom showcased the actual interventions needed in the continent.

According to latest estimates, about 490 million people in Africa are living in extreme poverty. That is more than the population of entire U.S. and many of them do not have access to electricity, running water, nutritious food, or proper livelihood.

Among the immediate priorities in the country, is the need for food security. If one does not eat, there is no life beyond that. To solve this, many African countries are beginning to comprehend the importance of modern agricultural solutions including the adoption of Genetically Modified (GM) crops.

Ethiopia’s GMO Embrace: A Roadmap for others

Ethiopia was the second-poorest country in the world (2000). But today it is not! World Bank data shows us that Ethiopia was the third fastest growing country (GDP per capita) in the years between 2000 and 2018.

The country’s progressive agricultural policy is one among the many reasons that made the country defeat poverty. The last two decades has seen significant investment in the agricultural sector. Two-thirds of Ethiopia’s entire labor force work in agricultural and allied fields. The country is now aiming to produce surplus for export.

Scientifically improved crops: Expediting Africa’s war against poverty

Agricultural production, Ethiopia, 1961–2018, in ‘000 quintals.

Source: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/jid.3523

Having tasted the fruits of a progressive agricultural policy, the country also decided to allow the use of Genetically Modified (GM) crops in the country. Ethiopia, once infamous for its role as the leading anti-GMO country in Africa, made legal changes that allowed GM crop to be used from 2015. The country approves each crop on its merit and safety. Bt-cotton, a GM variant has yielded great profits globally, was allowed in the country since 2018.

The United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Foreign Agricultural Service has applauded Ethiopia’s progressive stance: “approval of commercial cultivation of genetically modified (GM) insect-resistant cotton (Bt-cotton) and confined field trail on GM maize can be taken as an effort to improve agricultural productivity using modern agricultural tools………adoption of Bt-cotton not only has [high] economic importance but [is] also expected to have [a] positive influence on the acceptance of this technology in the region.”

Data indicates that investment in scientifically superior seed varieties are critical for progress in the continent. Sub-saharan Africa for example needs at least 6 times increase in the hybridization of crops to utilize its potential. Ethiopia for example has hybridized 40% of its maize cultivation and has been a main reason for its agricultural success.

Holistic Approach to Expedite Agricultural Progress

Besides approving GMO, the nation states in Africa must also embrace advanced agricultural technology and policy measures that can address multiple developmental goals.

The transition to hybrid and GMO seeds must be accompanied by investments in fertilizer production, irrigation facilities, crop storage systems, and transport. Ethiopia, the leader in agriculture, uses 58 kilograms of fertilizer per hectare. In comparison, Nigeria and Tanzania use only 14 and 10 kilogram of fertilizer per hectare respectively.

More nations can make use of the digital technology and satellite imagery, promoted by UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), to tackle problems like advancement of desertification, changes in water resource availability, locust invasion and other problems.

The FAO has also promoted the involvement of women as active players in the agricultural supply chain. During the last decade, horticultural producers in Ethiopia, dairy producers in Kenya and Rwanda benefited from the inclusion of female actors in rural small-scale value chains.

The continent’s willingness to adopt emerging agricultural technology and scientifically advanced crop varieties could very well be the difference between death and life for millions of Africans.

It is estimated that more than 22% of all consumer spending growth in Africa between 2015 and 2025 will be on food and beverage. It is the right time for the countries in Africa to adopt GM crops and progressive agricultural policies that can make its small-scale farmers climb out of poverty.

Economist Akinwumi Adesina, the President of the African Development Bank (AfDB), has stressed upon the same: “Agriculture cannot afford to remain an old traditional subsistence activity. It must become the next big investment magnet, a package of bankable projects that will turn some of our youths into millionaires through their innovation and enterprise”.

But to realize these dreams, African nations must wholeheartedly embrace GMO and free-market policies. Without large scale investments in modernization of crop varieties, the country will risk of staying in persistent poverty.

  • "Vijay Jayaraj (M.Sc., Environmental Science, University of East Anglia, England), is an Environmental Researcher based in New Delhi, India. He served as a Graduate Research Assistant at the University of British Columbia, Canada and has worked in the fields of Conservation, Climate change and Energy."

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