Oniang'o Sees Urgent Need for Food Biotechnology in Africa

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Twenty-five percent of the undernourished people in the developing world are located in sub-Saharan Africa; and according to FAO, approximately 35 percent of the population in 14 countries in the region are chronically undernourished. However, efforts to reduce hunger in this region have been hampered by a shortage of arable land, inadequate rainfall, low soil fertility and the devastating effects of plant pests and diseases.

We have not always been food insecure. I think what has happened is we have not kept up with the world events, with the technologies. … And I don't know of any country, which developed without using science and technology.

Twenty-five percent of the undernourished people in the developing world are located in sub-Saharan Africa; and according to FAO, approximately 35 percent of the population in 14 countries in the region are chronically undernourished. However, efforts to reduce hunger in this region have been hampered by a shortage of arable land, inadequate rainfall, low soil fertility and the devastating effects of plant pests and diseases.

"I've been saddened. I've gotten frustrated at the levels of hunger, levels of food insecurity on this continent, food crises one after another," says The Honorable Ruth Oniang'o - a member of the Parliament of Kenya and Professor of Food Science and Nutrition at Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology - in an exclusive video interview and podcast discussing the need for food biotechnology in Africa. "We have not always been food insecure. I think what has happened is we have not kept up with the world events, with the technologies. … And I don't know of any country, which developed without using science and technology."

Increasing or intensifying food production is key to reducing hunger in sub-Saharan Africa, where 50-75 percent of the population and labor force is engaged in agriculture. "And so I believe that it is incumbent on our government and on our scientists … to bring a technology, which can address a small-scale farmer," says Oniang'o, who is also founder and executive director of Rural Outreach Program - a not-for-profit organization that undertakes development activities aimed at improving the livelihoods of the rural poor in Kenya, more than 55 percent of whom live below the poverty line.

"They need different kinds of information, and I believe that science has now come up with this technology - biotechnology. I'm not saying it's going to be a magic bullet, but surely it should be one of the major approaches to use," Oniang'o continues.

Using food biotechnology, researchers can provide protection against plant pests and diseases through seed - requiring small-scale farmers to use few - if any - additional inputs or machinery. "And, we already have situations where we know this is working. In South Africa, I'm aware and I've been there - it is working," continues Oniang'o. "You know, when we're hungry, we actually import maize from South Africa. So for us to sit here telling ourselves - oh, we don't want biotech food, and … we can't bring this to our farmers - it is not right."

Biotech varieties of cotton, corn and soy are approved for commercial planting and account for approximately 92 percent of South Africa's cotton, 29 percent of corn and 59 percent of soybeans. While South Africa is currently the only country with commercial plantings of food biotechnology crops, nine countries have conducted field trials in Africa including Burkina Faso, Egypt, Kenya, Morocco, Senegal, South Africa, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe. An additional 11 countries are engaged in food biotechnology research and development.

"What I would like is to see a situation where families can feed themselves. … I believe we should start now. We can't say we shall start in a decade, or next year. No, no, no. We need to start now," explains Oniang'o.

In addition to this video with Dr. Oniang'o, visitors to the Conversations about Plant Biotechnology Web site can access comments from other renowned thought leaders including Nobel Peace Prize recipient and leader of the Green Revolution Dr. Norman Borlaug; Director of The Earth Institute and Director of the United Nations Millennium Project Dr. Jeffrey Sachs; 2001 World Food Prize Laureate Dr. Per Pinstrup-Andersen; as well as Chairman of the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA) Dr. Clive James. The personal experiences of farmers who grow crops developed through genetic engineering are also available - including conversations with African small-scale farmers from South Africa and Burkina Faso.
Conversations about Plant Biotechnology is designed to give a voice and a face to the farmers and families who grow GM crops and the experts who research and study the benefits of biotechnology in agriculture. The Web site contains nearly 60, two- to three-minute, extremely candid, straightforward and compelling video segments with the people who know the technology best. The Web site is hosted by Monsanto Company -- a leading global provider of technology-based solutions and agricultural products that improve farm productivity and food quality.

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