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Is biotechnology the answer to Africa's food security?
by Abdul Milazi (Duty News Editor)
21-June-2011 Times Live
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Africa’s population is expected to triple before the end of the century, to 3.6 billion people. Feeding this population is a significant challenge as there are currently nearly one billion food insecure people in the world, says Willem Engelbrecht, South Africa manager of DuPont business Pioneer Hi-Bred.

He says of the world’s one billion food insecure people, about a quarter live in Africa. However, Africa’s favourable climatic conditions and natural agricultural resources are sufficient enough to address these challenges, if utilised correctly, says Engelbrecht.

He says the agriculture sector in Africa can flourish if key issues are addressed. “We need to produce more food and increase the nutritional value of food through scientific innovation, as well as empower farmers by ensuring that they have access to the tools they need”.

Engelbrecht says by improving agricultural products and practices to address natural resource needs, food accessibility in Africa can be significantly improved.

“To make food more accessible and affordable for everyone, issues such as food transportation costs, improved infrastructure and government policies also need to be addressed,” he says.

Engelbrecht believes that biotechnology is a viable solution to increasing food production in Africa. “We have seen enthusiastic growth of biotechnology in South Africa over the past 10 years. In some cases, biotechnology has increased larger local farmers’ yields by 20 – 30% per hectare and small-scale farmers’ yields by 30 – 40% per hectare.”

He says educating farmers about the value of biotechnology and how it can impact their bottom line positively has been one of DuPont’s key successes in South Africa. “The next step is creating an African platform where all farmers can achieve their full potential, provide for their community and contribute to the economic progression and sustainability of the continent.”

Engelbrecht says that besides creating platforms for economic growth through education, the symptoms of poverty can be reversed by empowering people and producing nutritional food cost effectively and by combining available resources with scientific intervention.

European environmental organisations have renewed their protest against genetically modified (GM) foods in the past months, after recent controversial studies revealed that genetically-modified maize pollen had adverse effects on monarch butterfly caterpillars in the US

According to the US Food and Drug Administration and that country’s department of agriculture, some of the more than 40 plants that have passed all federal requirements for commercialisation, include tomatoes, soybeans, sugarbeets, maize and cotton plants with increased resistance to insect pests. However, not all these products are available in supermarkets yet.

In 2000, 68% of all GM crops were grown by US farmers, with Argentina, Canada and China producing only 23%, 7% and 1% respectively. Other countries that growing commercial GM crops in 2000 include Australia, Bulgaria, France, Germany, Mexico, Romania, South Africa, Spain, and Uruguay.

Africa Harvest CEO Dr. Florence Wambugu, whose organization leads the Africa Biofortified Sorghum (ABS) Project says GM sorghum, which is a stable diet in most parts of Africa, is loaded with nutrients and were resistant to drought, water logging and can provide three harvests a year.

“Conventional methods could not achieve the levels of micronutrients required. However, once the final product is ready, the nutrition-enriched sorghum will be back-crossed into African sorghum varieties through the conventional breeding methods,” she says.

The Project is supported by he Howard Buffett Research Foundation through the Danforth Center.

Engelbrecht says: “Ultimately it’s about putting healthy food on the table as cheaply as possible”.

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