Biotech holds seeds of hope for Africa


Atlanta Journal Constitution / News Services
By Robb Fraley
May 19, 2009

“The destiny of world civilization depends upon providing a decent standard of living for all mankind.”

—- Norman Borlaug, Nobel laureate and father of the green revolution

Borlaug’s words remind the 20,000 people in biotechnology visiting Atlanta this week of the progress made and work remaining.

Africa is an example, and I would argue, agriculture is at the intersection of both the progress and the long path forward.

Take the work to control the spread of HIV in sub-Saharan Africa. Years of research has yielded powerful drugs effective in suspending the progress of AIDS in patients after infection.

Work is also being done to develop novel, preventative drugs to stop new infections. Today, more women are newly infected with HIV than men in rural Africa.

What some may not know is the majority of newly infected women are farmers.

In fact, some estimates show that of the 50-plus percent of those working in agriculture in sub-Saharan Africa, more than 80 percent are women.

In areas of the world that rely on human labor to farm the land, sickness leaves fields untended and ultimately places less food on the table as a result.

Introduce a natural disaster, like drought, and the spiral downward for the farmer and her family accelerates.

Improving agriculture productivity in Africa is complex and there is no single solution.

But, as with health care, there are new technologies on the horizon that can help farmers lessen the impact of drought.

Through biotechnology, researchers at Monsanto are developing a drought-tolerant corn to reduce lost yields caused by drought. More than five years of research trials across the United States tell us corn plants with this technology yield between 6 to 10 percent more grain in the face of limited water, effectively sipping water rather than gulping it.

The technology has been submitted for regulatory review in the United States and we expect it to be a valuable tool in the Western corn belt in a few years.

But as with the latest medications, it is inconceivable that African farmers should have to wait longer for the technology.

As a result, last year Monsanto partnered with foundations such as the Bill and Melinda Gates, Howard Buffett, and the African Agricultural Technology, as well as with the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center, to license our drought technology —- royalty free —- to develop Water Efficient Maize for Africa.

The WEMA project is one piece of a larger commitment to sustainability in agriculture.

Monsanto has pledged to double crop yields in corn, soybean and cotton by 2030 in the United States, and do so using roughly a third fewer inputs like nitrogen and water, per unit produced.

The vision is lofty, but one I feel is not only possible but essential for the success of developing nations and the developed world.

As local experts forecast the number of people living in Atlanta to continue to swell, trends show the world’s population increasing from more than 6 billion today to 9.3 billion by 2050; roughly the population of three Chinas.

You don’t have to spend much time on a crowded freeway in Buckhead or Beijing to understand how increased population drives demand for everything, from transportation to food.

In fact, experts believe the world will need to produce as much food in the next four decades as has been produced in all of human history.

The challenge is daunting. Yet, biotechnology —- and specifically agricultural biotechnology —- has never had a better opportunity to help address some of the most pressing needs facing our world.

As with many large and complex issues the answers sometimes start small, like a powerful technology contained in a tiny seed.

Robb Fraley is chief technology officer for the Monsanto Company.

Leave a Reply