The recent price hikes of food all around the world have created fear of increasing food insecurity in African countries. Much of the blame for the hikes has been put on speculations on the world markets. However, other factors have also contributed. Increased consumption of meat in growing economies has led to higher demands for grains on which the livestock feed. High oil prices, erratic and unreliable weather patterns (a possible symptom of the ongoing climate change), and increasing demand for biofuels, also play a role in changing the supply-demand relationship for food. What the African continent perhaps needs is to fully commit itself to endow in biotechnology.
African agriculture is in most parts extensive and subsistence. This means that few inputs such as fertilizers, agrochemicals and irrigation are used, and only the surplus is sold in markets. Such farming systems on their own cannot sustain the population of a country. Measures like increased soil productivity or increased crop productivity have to be undertaken. Soil productivity can be increased through organic manure, which may not be readily available, or inorganic fertilizers, which if not subsidized are usually unaffordable by farmers. Crop productivity can be increased through the use of pest resistant varieties, drought tolerant crops, high yielding varieties, all of which are good examples of biotechnological innovations.
Biotechnology is the purposeful and controlled manipulation of biological systems to manufacture or process useful products. Biotechnology has been successfully used to develop Bt corn, potatoes and cotton, which are pest resistant and so eliminates the need for expensive and toxic pesticides. Hybrid maize and pearl millet varieties that significantly increase maize and millet yields, disease-free cassava cultivars, disease resistant bananas; drought resistant soybeans are all part of the wider applications of biotechnology.
Theoretically, biotechnology has the potential to increase the supply of food and accordingly minimize price hikes. In practice however, other factors come into play. As mentioned above, demand for biofuels will divert cereals and other foods from consumption purposes to industrial purposes. High oil prices will have an effect on transport, processing and storage costs, which are factored into food prices. And unpredictable weather patterns may force farmers choosing crop varieties with lower, but more reliable, yields.
Adding to this is the fact that biotechnology is costly, and requires a large amount of investment in research and development. Well-trained extension officers are required to disseminate information to farmers. Knowledge and previous experience have to be channelled out of the universities and into the field. Furthermore, increased supply of food through biotechnology must go hand in hand with improved road networks to make markets accessible to farmers. Processing and storage facilities are required to maintain a constant supply of food in lean years and increase rural incomes through value-added products.
The success of biotechnology depends very much on collaboration between different government ministries, institutions of higher learning, NGOs and CBOs. It is not only about implementing the full use of this technique in agriculture in Africa, but equally important is to enforce it. Make it work, for now and for the future. This requires a committed government that views agriculture as an important vehicle to eradicate poverty and drive development.