By Gilbert Arap Bor: Kapseret, Kenya
Africa’s farmers must do better.
The population of our continent continues to grow, but our ability to produce food remains stuck in the past. Experts say that global food production has to double by 2050 in order to meet demand--yet here in Africa, the average yield of grain crops hasn’t increased since the 1960s.
There’s no simple solution to Africa’s problems, and the root causes involve everything from political instability to unrelenting poverty. These challenges won’t vanish soon. Yet a few simple steps would make them appear less daunting: The nations of Africa should embrace agricultural biotechnology and also make sure farmers have ready access to fertilizer.
We have nothing to lose and everything to gain.
GM crops will guard against one of the most significant threats to farming in Africa: crop failure. Pest outbreaks can turn an excellent harvest into a rotten one, almost overnight. Biotechnology, however, offers seeds that will grow into healthy plants that naturally fight off insect predators. These tools also can help farmers survive severe weather, by making crops more resistant to heat, frost, and droughts.
The genetic modification of fruits and vegetables can prevent spoilage on the way to market. Success in this area could reduce wastage and expand trade opportunities. Farmers around the world rely on exports--and there’s no reason why Africa can’t improve its export opportunities through better science.
Biotechnology affords environmental benefits as well. Because GM crops boost yield, we’ll produce more food from less land. Farmers will preserve African wilderness, rather than turn forests and wetlands into acreage for crops.
We can even put damaged land back into circulation. Unsustainable irrigation practices have injected too much salinity into much of the African soil. Biotechnology holds the key to growing salt-resistant crops--advances won’t come soon, but they’ll be essential for my continent’s long-term food security.
Biotech crops also may contribute to bioremediation--the restoration of nutrients and soil structure. Throughout much of Africa, the soil has been severely depleted. Fertilizers that would begin to restore them are prohibitively expensive. It costs a farmer in sub-Saharan Africa about twice as much as a farmer in Europe to buy a bag of fertilizer.
Personally, I put fertilizer on everything I grow, including at least 75 kgs of per acre of maize. Every informed farmer should do the same. It makes a tremendous difference: In my region, yield from unfertilized crops is less than one-quarter of the yield from fertilized crops – even much less.
Yet fertilizer can be difficult to obtain. For the last month, Kenyan newspapers have been awash with stories of farmers who can’t get the fertilizer they require. Bureaucratic delays are a major stumbling block: Obtaining subsidized fertilizer demands a complicated ritual of signatures from local agriculture officials, banking instructions, approvals from the National Cereals and Produce Board, and plenty of travel in between. It’s a logistical nightmare. Even if it goes smoothly, there’s no guarantee that fertilizer will be available.
Some farmers go without fertilizer entirely. Others use a bit but not enough.
Just about everybody in farming appreciates the importance of fertilizer. Biotechnology is a different matter. Only three African countries--Burkina Faso, Egypt, and South Africa--have approved the technology that the United States and much of the rest of the developed world take for granted.
Three other countries--Kenya, Nigeria, and Uganda--are dragging their feet, but at least they’re conducting trials that could lead to commercialization. They’re moving too slowly, but at least they’re moving in the right direction. It looks like Malawi may join them soon.
Put together, that’s a mere seven African nations. That leaves 47 sovereign states in Africa that aren’t giving nearly enough thought to this essential tool of food production. We should aspire to the agricultural success of the developed world, rather than assume that we must remain forever behind in food production.
The promise of biotechnology and the power of fertilizer, put together, hold the potential to turn Africa into a breadbasket of food production.
The choice is ours: We can take advantage of these amazing opportunities or cling to the methods that already have failed us.
Gilbert Arap Bor grows maize, vegetables and dairy cows on a small-scale farm of 25 acres in Kapseret, near Eldoret, Kenya. He also teaches at the Catholic University of Eastern Africa, Eldoret campus. Mr. Bor is the 2011 Kleckner Trade & Technology Advancement Award recipient and a member of the Truth About Trade & Technology Global Farmer Network.
*Note - this commentary first appeared Apr. 10 in The Wall Street Journal, Opinion Europe.