The Star (Nairobi)

Kenya: Why Kenya Has to Adopt Biotechnology in Farming

opinion

I am very proud to receive an honorary degree from Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology (JKUAT). Being my first degree from a Kenyan university ever, I would like to dedicate the degree to my parents who seemed to have prepared me for JKUAT even though the university did not exist. My parents instilled in me at an early age the values of excellence, hard work, creativity and openness to new years. My late father, John Juma Kwada, introduced cassava in my community in the early 1960s. From him I learned about the value of adding something new to society. There were many local debates about the new crop. My mother, Clementina Nabwire Okhubedo, started to learn to speak Dholuo in her 40s so she could communicate with Luo traders. From her I picked up the value of life-long learning.

I can project these early experiences to today's Kenya and its future as a global player in technological innovation. Kenya is celebrated as the birthplace of mobile money revolution. Motorola's first cell phone released in 1983 cost $4,000 (or $9,500 are current costs). It weighed two kilos. Subsequent generations were viewed as toys for the elite with no practical relevance to developing countries. Today Kenya is ahead of the curve.

The mobile revolution had its detractors. The incumbent landline industry stood in the way. There were scare campaigns that using mobile phones could cause job loss and case brain cancer. The dramatic benefits mobile phones was foreseen only by a handful of people but driven by dedicated policy makers and entrepreneurs.

Today a new revolution is knocking at Africa's door-agricultural biotechnology. It promises to do for agriculture what mobile technology has done for communication. I wrote my second book, The Gene Hunters, in 1989 on the technology. It was seven years ahead the first commercial release of biotechnology crops in the United States. There were concerns from the outset akin to those raised about mobile phones.

It was claimed that biotechnology would only benefit rich farmers, destroy the environment and undermine food security. But evidence is stacking up against these earlier doomsday claims. The current adoption rate of biotechnology crops is 11% in developing countries compared to 5% in industrialized countries.

Of the 16.7 million people who grew biotechnology crops in 2011, 15 million or 90% were small resource-poor farmers in developing countries. Over the 1996-2010 period, the global farm income gain was $78.4 billion, half of which went developing countries. In 2010 alone, the net farm level economic gain was $14 billion, equal to an average rise in income of $100 per hectare.

There are concerns that the costs of accessing biotechnology are prohibitive to farmers in developing countries. Farmers in developing countries spent about 17% of their total technology gains on accessing the technology, compared to 37% in developed nations. The cost of access to technology should be measured against productivity increases.

When I helped to draft Kenya's industrial property law in 1989 we envisaged a future in which access to new technology would help to boost economic productivity. We also knew that when patents expire the associated knowledge becomes freely available. Kenyans are already using publicly-available technology to conduct research on critical agricultural such as controlling pests, diseases and weeds; increasing nutritional content of local crops; and developing drought-tolerant crops. The fruits of their labour will require international recognition and protection.

Potential environmental impacts of biotechnology remain a controversial area. No technology is risk-free. However, there is growing evidence that biotechnology crops are beneficial to the environment. If biotechnology had not been used in 2010, the world would have required an additional 23% of the arable land of Brazil to maintain the same level of soybean, maize and cotton output. This is equivalent to 25% of the total area cereal production in the European Union or 8.6% of US farmland.

It is estimated that the use of agricultural biotechnology over the 1996-2010 period reduced carbon dioxide emissions by 19.4 billion kilograms, equivalent to taking 8.6 million cars off the road for a year. Over the same period, pesticide spraying went down by 438 million kilograms of active ingredient. The reduction has also had health benefits by minimizing chemical poisoning among farmers.

There are also unintended benefits of agricultural biotechnology. Studies in the US and China have shown that conventional farmers report lower pest infestation if their neighbors grow pest-resistant crops. These are the first studies that show positive area-wide impact of biotechnology crops. Kenya faces major challenges ahead which include rising population, ecological degradation and climate change. To address future challenges Kenya needs to look ahead and start today to lay the foundations for tomorrow's solutions.

Those countries that adopt agricultural biotechnology today will be better prepared to use the same techniques to solve health, industrial and environmental problems. The underlying knowledge of genomics is the same and is remarkably versatile. As an early adopter, Kenya is now applying mobile technology to other fields such as health and agriculture.

A vision for biotechnology in Kenya will include meeting the needs of the very poor by developing cheaper products such as diagnostics for crop diseases. In fact, the next wave of many biotechnology products will piggyback on the mobile revolution. Kenya is ahead of the curve and has great potential to provide regional leaders in the field.

The focus on harnessing the power of mobile technology will lead to a new generation of actors who are guided by the principles of engineering, a field that is becoming increasingly important as illustrated by the creation of the Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering. The £1 million award seeks to do for engineering what the Nobel prizes do for science. Biotechnology applications benefit as much from advances in the sciences as they do from engineering.

Today only three African countries-South Africa, Burkina Faso and Egypt-grow biotechnology crops on a commercial scale. The challenge for Kenya and Africa is finding ways to harness the benefits of biotechnology while reducing their risks. There is no technology that is risk-free. There is urgent need for Kenya and other African countries to approve the commercial cultivation of available biotechnology crops as they continue to conduct research for future applications.

The use of herbicide resistant crops, for example, African women spend 200 hours a hectare a year weeding. Adopting herbicide-tolerant crops will have significant impacts on women's welfare and by extension will improve the living standards of farming households. Approving the commercial application of biotechnology will help motivate Kenyan universities to invest more in biotechnology research. Engaging university professors and students in biotechnology research will expand the base for discovery and international cooperation.

The entry barriers for biotechnology research are falling dramatically. It cost Craig Venter $100 million to sequence the human genome in 2001. By the end of this year the price of sequencing a genome will be down to $1,000. The challenge is understand the information in the sequences and putting to the service of humanity. This is provides African universities with a historical opportunity to leapfrog into genomics.

It will be much harder for Africa to leapfrog into the genomics revolution while dragging its feet on approving the use of available agricultural technologies. The road ahead for Africa's biotechnology revolution will be paved by dedicated government officials and enterprising youth. The Kenyan mobile revolution owes its success to courageous policy makers who created a supportive policy environment for the wide adoption of mobile technology. The innovation-friendly environment attracted private sector investment and further creatively among the youth.

I would like to call upon Kenya's youth, starting with my fellow 2012 graduates from JKAUT to dedicate their lives to making biotechnology promote economic inclusion in the same way that mobile technology has done for money transfer and banking. It is only by having that kind of leadership that we can inspire universities to rally the creativity of their faculty and students to bring new products to bear on economic transformation. Transformational leadership in government will enable biotechnology to do for agriculture what mobile technology has done for telecommunication. The time to make bold decisions is now.

Professor Calestous Juma is an internationally recognized authority on the application of science, technology and innovation to sustainable development. He is an accomplished scholar, writer, diplomat and an expert on policy matters. He was conferred with an honorary degree of Doctor of Science (Agricultural Biotechnology) by the Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology on June 22.

Ads by Google

Copyright © 2012 The Star. All rights reserved. Distributed by AllAfrica Global Media (allAfrica.com). To contact the copyright holder directly for corrections — or for permission to republish or make other authorized use of this material, click here.

AllAfrica publishes around 2,000 reports a day from more than 130 news organizations and over 200 other institutions and individuals, representing a diversity of positions on every topic. We publish news and views ranging from vigorous opponents of governments to government publications and spokespersons. Publishers named above each report are responsible for their own content, which AllAfrica does not have the legal right to edit or correct.

Articles and commentaries that identify allAfrica.com as the publisher are produced or commissioned by AllAfrica. To address comments or complaints, please Contact us.