18 September 2011

Gambia: Policymakers Brainstorm On Biotechnology

The US Embassy in Banjul on Thursday the 15th of September 2011 held a one day outreach seminar on Biotechnology for policymakers in the Gambia at the Kairaba Beach Hotel on the theme "Using Biotechnology to fight hunger and poverty in Africa".

The United States Department of State has arranged for an expert on biotechnology to visit a number of West African countries to speak to policymakers, farmers and members of the scientific community on the use of biotechnology to promote agricultural production and achieve food self sufficiency. The Gambia is one of the countries included in the tour.

Delivering the opening address, Cynthia Gregg Charge d' Affaires at the US Embassy said she is very excited to have Dr. Dodo in the Gambia because agricultural biotechnology has great potential in the process of addressing the challenges of food insecurity. Food production, she said must doubled by 2050 to meet the needs of a growing world and it must do so in a more sustainable manner. Biotechnology, she said, is one of many new technologies that have raised the efficiency and productivity of agricultural resources over the last decade. While not a cure, it is part of a package of new technologies that will increase agricultural production and result in poverty reduction.

She remarked, "In the last twelve years, more than 800 million hectares of biotechnology crops have been planted around the world," adding that in 2009, over two dozen countries grew biotechnology crops on their soil.

This, she said, is not just a technology for large agribusinesses. Gregg said in 2009, some 14 million small and resource-poor farmers in the developing world benefited from biotechnology crop, 90% of the world's farmers. Biotech, she revealed, offers the potential to help developing countries attack the cycle of poverty, addressing food security needs and improve farmers' lives and incomes.

"In India conservative estimates for small scale farmers indicate that use of biotech cotton has increased yield by 31%, decreased insecticide application by 39%, and increased profitability by 88%", said Gregg.

Biotech crops, she said, can play an important role through increasing productivity while decreasing costs of production by a reduced need for inputs and ploughing. In addition, she said, the adoption of biotech crops has significantly reduced insecticide use and has allowed many farmers to adopt farming practices that reduce soil erosion and consumption of energy and water.

Besides economic, food security and environmental benefits, agricultural biotechnology, she noted, can also play a role in climate change. Gregg said there are permanent savings in carbon dioxide (CO2) emission through reduced use of fossil-based fuels, associated with less insecticide, adding that in 2008, due to biotech savings, the world's air experienced the equivalent of removing approximately 7 million cars from the road.

The current famine in Somalia, she said, is a tragedy. According to her, Associated Press reports that 29,000 children have died since this famine started and the UN reports that another 400,000 people are at risk of death. She advised participants to make critical decisions about food security, environment and climate change.

In her statement, Ada Gaye, permanent secretary at the Ministry of Agriculture said agriculture in West Africa is still unable to meet the local food requirement, adding that nearly forty million people suffer from food insecurity everyday. Production growth, noted in most of the countries, she said, is due to an increase in acreages than yield increases. She said the lack of control over climate change, the land tenure insecurity, the lack of credit and agricultural inputs are all elements in the producer environment that slow down investment, modernization and intensification of the production.

"The ministerial conference of the ECOWAS countries on biotechnology held in Bamako in 2005 adopted a series of guidelines and recommendation for ECOWAS work out in consultation with CORAF/WECARD and CILSS and action plan for the development of biotechnologies, the adoption of regional approaches on bio-safety and the promotion of information with the stakeholders", she revealed. Biotechnology application, she said, can supplement more conventional agricultural practices and scientifically contribute to agricultural production increase in the developing countries. She said various studies undertaken in West Africa shows that the ECOWAS zone has a huge biodiversity potential, the basin necessary for a sustainable development of biotechnology. The region, she said, has a scientific and technical basin which is certainly insufficient, but can help initiate a development process of the sector at the country and sub-regional level. Modern technology, she said, still remains very timid, adding that there is a lot to do to be ale to make most of the benefits of biotechnology in particular what modern technology offers. The Ministry of Agriculture will intend its support and encouragement to any effort geared towards the effective implementation of a biotechnology programme in the Gambia.

The speaker for the outreach seminar is Dr.Hortense Dodo, professor and Fulbright scholar from Elizabeth city, North Carolina.Dr. Dodo is an Ivorian by birth who taught food biotechnology and molecular biology at Alabama A&M University. She is currently the president of a biotech startup company with a focus on R&D and commercialization of transgenic agricultural crops. She is brought by the Economic Bureau of the U.S. Department of State.

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