Expert tasks African countries on agricultural biotechnology


African Science News Service
Written by Henry Neondo
Monday, 27 April 2009

An expert has called on African countries to adopt genetic modification of agricultural biotechnology to ensure high yield

Speaking at the launch of the Open Forum on Agricultural Biotechnology in Africa organised by the Nairobi-based Africa Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF) in Abuja, Nigeria, the Director-General of the National Biotechnology Development Agency (NBDA), Bamidele Solomon, said scientific facts were often mixed with social, ethical and political considerations, in the face of a rapidly growing population, declining agricultural productivity and reduced resources available for agricultural research.

He said that agricultural productivity could be increased in numerous ways by using inorganic and organic fertilizers, improved seedling, pest and weed control, soil and water conservation, using improved plant varieties.

These varieties, according to him, can be developed either traditionally or through agricultural biotechnology.

Also speaking, Muhammad Magaji, Director of Plant Resources Department, ARCN, said that biotech crops had improved the income and quality of life of small and poor farmers and their families and contributed to the reduction of poverty in countries such as India, china, South Africa and the Philippines.

Meanwhile, two centers supported by the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research, CGIAR— the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) and the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) have jointly intiated the Drought-Tolerant Maize for Africa aimed to protect Africa’s maize crop from drought and other threats.

Their combined efforts are vital for improving and stabilizing Africa’s maize production in an era of food price volatility and emerging climate change.

Drought, which is expected to become more frequent and severe with climate change, already reduces maize yields by an average of 15% annually, amounting to about US$200 million worth of lost grain. Recent droughts in eastern and southern Africa have been particularly disastrous.

“From a biological point of view, there is no limit to building even stronger drought tolerance into maize varieties that are well adapted to the conditions of Africa’s small farmers,” says Marianne Bänziger, the director of CIMMYT’s Global Maize Program.

“Moreover, a much larger number of farmers could benefit from the tolerant varieties already available if seed and information were made available to them.”For many years, CIMMYT and IITA tended to divide their responsibilities for maize research in Africa geographically, with CIMMYT working in eastern and southern Africa and IITA focusing on West Africa, explains Paula Bramel, IITA’s deputy director general in charge of research for development.

“The big advantage of the DTMA Initiative,” she says, “is that bringing together the complementary strengths and research products of the two centers, in an effort that spans the continent, enables national public and private partners to tap into and benefit from a much broader base of improved germplasm, knowledge and expertise.”

CIMMYT and IITA bring to the project considerable strengths derived from decades of maize research in diverse agroecologies. IITA has amassed a strong record of achievement in combating biotic constraints.

Starting in the 1970s, it successfully thwarted outbreaks of the maize streak virus in the moist savanna region of West Africa, an achievement for which it received the King Baudouin Award in 1986.

More recently, IITA researchers have registered important gains against parasitic weeds of the genus Striga, also called witchweed.

The single most important biotic constraint of cereal crops in Africa, Striga causes especially severe damage to maize yields in the savannas of coastal and central sub-Saharan Africa.

Maize is a highly diverse crop, ensuring ample scope for genetically enhancing its tolerance to drought through breeding techniques designed specifically for this purpose.

CIMMYT and IITA work with national partners to adapt and apply such techniques in Africa.

As a result, more than 50 new drought-tolerant varieties and hybrids have been developed and released for dissemination by private seed companies, national agencies and nongovernmental organizations.

African farmers now grow many of those varieties, which yield 20-50% more than others under drought, on hundreds of thousands of hectares.

To build on this success, CIMMYT and IITA now focus their collaborative efforts on the Drought-Tolerant Maize for Africa (DTMA) Initiative.

By significantly scaling up current efforts through more intensive collaboration, the DTMA Initiative expects to provide over the next decade 30-40 million farmers with improved maize varieties that will help to boost maize productivity on small farms by 20-30%.

It is working in 13 African countries where maize is particularly important, with support from Germany’s Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ, its acronym in German), Howard G. Buffett Foundation, Hermann Eiselen, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), Rockefeller Foundation, Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC), and US Agency for International Development (USAID).

Two newly released varieties — Sammaz 15 and 16, developed in collaboration with Nigeria’s Institute for Agricultural Research (IAR) — show high yields, with only minor losses to the weeds, even under extreme infestation.

CIMMYT has built up particular strength in coping with abiotic constraints through 30 years of research on drought tolerance in maize, work for which the Center received the King Baudouin Award in 2006.

CIMMYT safeguards the world’s largest collection of maize genetic resources, in which both IITA and CIMMYT scientists search for new sources of drought tolerance and other valuable traits.

Through the DTMA Initiative, CIMMYT and IITA have created a platform for working more efficiently on drought tolerance, as well as for collaborative research on other problems in maize production, such as Striga.

“How well we combine our strengths and play shared roles — in capacity strengthening, for example — is ultimately a question of our commitment to the partnership and to increasing development impact,” says Bramel.

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