By Mary Boote: Des Moines, Iowa
As the World Food Prize Celebration and Norman Borlaug Symposium unfold in Des Moines, Iowa, a farmer from sub-Saharan Africa was able to interact with a top American official.
"Farmers must participate in the global economy by embracing and using new technologies, including those concerned with seed development," said Gilbert Arap Bor, who traveled to Des Moines from his native Kenya. "Cultivating crops from seed that has been genetically modified is economically viable and more productive than all other forms of farming now practiced."
Gilbert took advantage of an opportunity and asked a question of Jose Fernandez, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for economic, energy, and business affairs: What can the United States do to help farmers in the developing world take advantage of agricultural biotechnology?
This is vintage Gilbert. He draws from personal experience, knowing what it’s like to make ends meet as a smallholder farmer in the developing world. He has seen first-hand and expressed the desire for access to modern technology, shared by so many of his fellow farmers. And finally, he isn’t afraid to speak up in a setting that would have intimidated others.
I first met Gilbert two years ago while visiting a Kenya Maize Development Program field demonstration near his home. I was on a fact-finding mission to learn more about African smallholder farming. He was involved in an agricultural project with ACDI/VOCA, a non-profit group, and working with a local community development group whose goal is to reduce poverty through sustainable economic development for the smallholder maize and livestock farmers of Kapseret Village.
In addition to learning more about the excellent yield improvements realized in this project (from 10-12 bags of maize per acre to 15-20 bags per acre), I was captivated by the youth enterprise development activity that had been started that year. Using football as the galvanizing activity, the youth were given 1 acre of maize to cultivate together. They proudly showed my group what they had learned and were able to report their own maize yield improvements! You could see how proud they were to participate in food production.
The experience brings to mind one of the late Norman Borlaug’s parting words of advice: "Take it to the farmers."
The next generation of farmers will have to grow more food than every generation before them, so Gilbert’s work with communities and youth is essential. Yet this is only one part of his portfolio in promoting global food security.
He’s also involved with establishing the Center for Food Security and Enterprise at the Catholic University of Eastern Africa. It’s dedicated to helping the subsistence farmers of Kenya become surplus farmers who not only feed themselves but also sell a portion of what they grow.
This is an essential goal. We’ve all heard how agricultural productivity must increase if we’re to feed the world’s soaring population by 2050. One of our best opportunities lies in helping African farmers grow more by gaining access to the same technologies that U.S. farmers enjoy.
Gilbert is a true leader in this field. He played a significant role in Kenya’s recent debate over biotechnology, writing editorials for national newspapers and speaking on behalf of developing-world farmers whose voice often goes unheard. It now appears that he’ll soon have the opportunity to do something he has wanted to do for years on his 25-acre farm: Plant genetically modified corn and benefit from its higher productivity.
Proof of Gilbert’s commitment and influence are evident in Des Moines this week, as he posed his question to Assistant Secretary Fernandez.
"As Gilbert has so eloquently stated, the potential of biotechnology is great," said Fernandez. "We know that farmers are driving the adoption of the technology. They see a clear benefit in using biotechnology and are adopting by the millions: 15.4 million, according to the latest numbers."
Then he paid tribute to Gilbert in particular: "We need more people like Mr. Gilbert Arap Bor who are willing to educate and speak out about their desire for access to the technology."
I’m honored to know Gilbert and delighted to see him receive the recognition he so clearly deserves.