In Conversation

Florence Wambugu on Agriculture and Food Security in Africa

Florence Wambugu grew up in the foothills of Mount Kenya in the 1950s and 1960s. Food was scarce. The local staple crop, the sweet potato, was frequently ravaged by blight. Wambugu resolved to do something about it. She became a plant pathologist. She studied at the University of Nairobi and went to work for the Kenyan Agricultural Research Institute. She concurrently obtained a master’s degree at North Dakota State University, and earned a PhD at the University of Bath, in England. In 2002, she founded Africa Harvest Biotech Foundation International, an organization devoted to technological and economic progress in all of the continent’s diverse regions. Here Wambugu talks with LSF’s Brian Dick about opportunities and challenges related to the adoption of agricultural biotechnologies in Africa.

BD: Dr. Wambugu, you are an advocate for the use of agricultural biotechnologies to increase food production in Africa. What led you to this pursuit?

FW: Food security is a serious problem in Africa. The genetic modification of plants can help to solve it. As a PhD student, my thesis research focused on controlling the sweet potato virus that was limiting yields. Viral diseases often devastate African crops. There’s no winter to break the disease cycle so the incidence of infection is very high. Plant diseases are also spread by cultural practices that farmers are reluctant to give up, such as sharing seeds and cuttings. Genetic modification (GM) technology could potentially confer resistance to viral infection and increase yields, allowing farmers to continue sharing seeds. That’s what originally attracted me to genetic engineering. After a brief period of postdoctoral work in the United States, I came back to Africa.

BD: Please tell us about Africa Harvest. What are the organization’s goals and current projects?

FW: Our mission is to improve food security and the welfare of African populations by using the tools of agronomy and agricultural biotechnology. We are working to build healthy communities and help smallholder farmers produce plentiful, nutritious food supplies. We must support producers. We are not disseminating information and deploying technologies simply to get better field results. We are working to create sustainable agricultural systems.

We bring a comprehensive value-chain approach that provides farmers with access to high quality seed, information, and material resources — through microcredit programs, for example. We must fight poverty as well as insects, plant blight, and environmental problems. It is absolutely crucial that smallholder farmers have access to functional markets. They have to be able to sell their goods. Toward this end, Africa Harvest conducts economic research, lobbies for constructive policy change, and identifies opportunities for establishing produce market centers. We know that technology uptake is high when there are robust markets in place.

BD: You’re describing a holistic approach.

FW: Yes, we work on natural resource management, for instance. Africa is dealing with many different kinds of environmental problems — desertification, water pollution, loss of biodiversity, and the effects of climate change, for example. All present major challenges, especially to poor rural people who depend on natural resources for their livelihoods. Africa Harvest engages with communities to improve the quality of water and soils, conserve forests and biodiversity, and implement climate change mitigation strategies.

Incidentally, Africa Harvest has yet to deploy GM technology. So far, the products are cultivars improved by conventional means, such as disease-free, high-yielding tissue-culture banana plantlets. Sixty percent of Africa Harvest’s work is doing the legwork to increase farmers’ access to hybrid seeds and plants. There is still significant resistance in Africa to the introduction of GM crops.

Our communications programs are focused on disseminating accurate, reliable information about GM technologies in order to counter the influence of anti-GM scare campaigns, and to dispel public confusion. At the same time, we are working to develop partnerships with farmers’ associations, governments, and food aid organizations. Africa is a big continent. If we can effectively share with others what we’ve learned, we will make an impact.

Africa Harvest uses tissue culture technologies to improve banana yields

BD: In what specific areas can biotechnologies be brought to bear on economic and food supply problems?

FW: There are many. GM cotton represents a big economic opportunity for Africa. Kenya’s once-flourishing cotton industry has been decimated by the high cost of pesticides, most of which are imported. Farmers ended up spending most of their income on chemicals. In India and South Africa where GM cotton is approved for planting, small-scale farmers are benefitting much more than large-scale farmers because the new technology allows them to use much less pesticide on their cotton crops.

The introduction of GM seeds could dramatically improve maize production in Africa. The average yield of maize in Africa is about two tons per hectare, one-fifth the average yield in North America. Many African farmers keep their seeds for replanting rather than buying them anew every season. This practice spreads disease, and accounts for a large percentage of yield loss. Insects are a major problem, too. They are vectors for transmitting diseases to plants. We could double yields by planting maize genetically modified to express the Bt trait for insect resistance. In addition, incorporating the technology into the seed simplifies the diffusion process. Farmers already know how to handle seeds, so they can readily benefit from the technology without radically altering their way of life.

BD: The development of a genetically modified sweet potato was your first project, but it failed in field trials in 2004. What are the prospects for reviving it?

FW: As I said, I focused on the sweet potato because it was heavily infected and because warm winters provided no way to break the infection cycle. We explored vaccinating against aphid-borne viruses so farmers could continue to share seeds. The first field trial failed to confer durable resistance because the virus infecting sweet potato plants in Africa was more virulent than the strain we used to modify the plant, which came from a clone being tested at the University of North Carolina. Unfortunately, we couldn’t continue the research because funding dried up. Research to develop an effective vaccine against the sweet potato virus continues in Uganda. It is related to my earlier work, but I’m not personally involved in the follow-up. In any case, the history of the sweet potato project illustrates some of the obstacles confronting African researchers.

BD: Are there points of light? Current projects with promise?

FW: There are. Africa Harvest is currently working with Pioneer, a DuPont company, on the biofortification of sorghum. It is similar to the Golden Rice project. We are trying to enhance nutritional value. We have genetically modified the plant to increase its vitamin A content. This is important because communities in the driest parts of Africa rely on sorghum as a staple crop since it is drought-resistant. But because sorghum lacks essential micronutrients, people in these communities can suffer from blindness caused by vitamin A deficiency, or anemia due to a lack of iron. There is a dedicated website for the Africa Biofortified Sorghum Project: biosorghum.org. The project was started with funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Further funding from the Howard G. Buffett Foundation supported advanced technology development.

Sorghum is an important African staple. Africa Harvest is developing a biofortified variety.

BD: Your book, Biotechnology in Africa, discusses the response of African governments to the potential uses of GM technology. What are some of the challenges and prospects?

FW: A lot of money is being poured into research in Africa, but disseminating that research to farmers is very poorly funded. African farming is small-scale. Growers need to be educated and nurtured. They need guidance. Without addressing these needs, it will be very hard to make improvements in African agriculture, no matter how much money is spent on research. This has been my main punch line for some time: we need to expand financial support for technology diffusion. We need to reach out effectively to farmers and local communities. From a distance it may seem otherwise, but most African countries have publicly funded biotechnology laboratories. The science is not the problem. Rather, it is a lack of investment, and more importantly, a lack of understanding regarding the complexity of getting GM products to market, mainly due to the high cost of the regulatory process. African universities are doing good work, but they are constrained by the great expense of compliance with national and international regulatory requirements.

Overcoming the pervasive influence of anti-GM activism is another big challenge. Anti-GM groups are hampering progress by propagating fear. They claim that GM seeds are instruments of imperialism and corporate control. They say that big multinational companies want to control the seed because it enables them to dominate Africa by economic and technological means. They also continue to recycle discredited studies that purport to show evidence of harm caused by genetically modified products — severe allergic reactions, cancers, and autoimmune disorders. Many politicians are captive to this kind of fear mongering. It is true here in Kenya. GM food imports have been banned in this country. This is unfortunate because government support is critical if the continent is to benefit from GM technology. Without political will, you can’t commercialize a product in Africa. GMOs are so highly politicized that the science or technology alone is not sufficient.

BD: You mentioned the high costs of regulatory approvals. Have they effectively barred public institutions from introducing beneficial technologies?

FW: Yes, but the door is not entirely closed. Four African countries have approved GM crops: Burkina Faso, Sudan, South Africa, and Egypt. Many others are putting reasonable regulatory frameworks in place. The Sudan, for instance, has gotten up to speed very quickly with GM technology from China. In addition, young Africans are gaining knowledge through the Internet. They are becoming more sophisticated. A critical mass is forming. I believe that the next generation of politicians assuming power in Africa will be more open to new technologies. So there’s hope for the future. African biotechnologies are coming of age. We’ve made a big investment, and I believe it will come to fruition.

BD: Thank you, Dr. Wambugu.

FW: My pleasure, Brian, thank you.

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