Agricultural technology grows food for Africa

By Time of article published Aug 22, 2012

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The introduction of biotechnology into African agriculture could have inadvertently triggered a trend forcing subsistence farming out of existence.

As the world embraces technological advancements in sectors such as manufacturing and mining, agriculture does not lag far behind.

It continues to be an industry driven by innovation, where the best commercial farmers experience greater yields as seeds acquired through genetic modification tend to be more efficient with a guaranteed supply from seed production companies.

In essence, biotechnology in agriculture appears to be a more direct approach than traditional breeding because it allows the incorporation of genetic material directly into the germplasm.

According to experts, this allows for the creation of plants with traits that would be difficult or almost impossible to achieve through breeding alone.

In addition, desirable crop characteristics are known as traits and one of the most important traits is yield. Improving crop yield can be accomplished through both breeding and biotechnology.

Biotechnology has been embraced with open arms in various countries in Africa. From a food security perspective, traditional farming may not provide the desired results, especially if climate factors are taken into consideration.

In South Africa, more than 70 percent of the maize crop consists of genetically modified produce. This is a clear indication that the technology provides benefits for farmers.

Looking at this trend, one must ask what it means for subsistence agriculture. If biotechnology’s claim to fame in Africa is the promise of greater yields, then one cannot help but envision a future where subsistence farming has been commercialised out of existence.

One of the reasons for this is that genetically modified seeds are not reusable after harvesting, which means that farmers need to go back to producers such as Pioneer Hi-Bred, Monsanto, Klein Karoo and Pannar Seed for more.

In Africa and other developing countries, biotechnology is used as one of many tools to address food security.

The use of hybrid seed and fertiliser may play a major role in higher agricultural productivity and food security.

Some key statistics show that the world population is set to increase by 150 000 people a day for the next 40 years. This means that global agricultural production will have to double in order to meet the demand of the 9 billion people expected to populate the planet by the year 2050.

According to industry insiders, technological advances in agriculture show what can be achieved in aiding farmers to grow more food with the added benefit of a smaller environmental footprint, and they can produce crops that use water more efficiently and can withstand heat and higher levels of salinity.

But that is looking at the issue from a commercial standpoint.

From a subsistence farming view, the contention here is that when people who grow food to feed themselves have to purchase the seeds they rely on, it means that they will end up producing a surplus that can be sold.

Agriculture Minister Tina Joemat-Pettersson delivered a similar message in the Eastern Cape last week, at the launch of one of the department’s Zero Hunger initiatives, in which more than R800 million is being provided for small-scale farmers to procure tractors and other tools that can assist with their crop production plans.

The government has pledged about R4 billion to assist the country’s 250 000 small-scale farmers, and this will undoubtedly also filter into the subsistence farming space.

The aim of various ongoing projects in Africa by biotechnologists is to curb vitamin deficiencies and address the gruelling challenge of food security, which will take some time to correct due to infrastructure impediments and policy issues.

Whether we like it or not, the use of biotechnology in agriculture is here to stay, the question is how it will be used by its advocates in their crusade towards creating a productive agricultural industry in Africa that could rival the likes of Brazil and even the US.

Sub-Saharan Africa is destined to be one of the key areas of food production, and with more technological advancements at the centre of the food security agenda, biotechnology may serve as the tool that eradicates the poverty datum line for Africans.

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