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. My second book, The Gene Hunters, written in 1989 was seven years ahead of the first commercial release of biotechnology crops in the United States.
It was claimed then 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 per cent in developing countries compared to 5 per cent in industrialised countries.
Of the 16.7 million people who grew biotechnology crops in 2011, 15 million or 90 per cent 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 TO developing countries.
The costs of accessing biotechnology are prohibitive to farmers in developing countries who spent about 17 per cent of their total technology gains on accessing the technology, compared to 37 per cent in developed nations. The cost of access to technology should be measured against productivity increases. 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 per cent of the arable land of Brazil to maintain the same level of soybean, maize and cotton output. This is equivalent to 25 per cent of the total area cereal production in the European Union or 8.6 per cent of US farmland.
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.
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.
African women spend 200 hours a hectare a year weeding. Herbicide-tolerant crops will have significant impacts on their welfare and improve the living standards of farming households. Approving the commercial application of biotechnology will help motivate Kenyan universities to invest more in biotechnology research.
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 understanding the information in the sequences and putting it to the service of humanity. .
I would like to call upon Kenya’s youth, starting with my fellow 2012 graduates from JKUAT to dedicate their lives to making biotechnology promote economic inclusion in the same way that mobile technology has done for money transfer and banking.
The writer is director of the Science Technology and Globalisation project at Harvard Kennedy School in the US. This is an abridged version of a speech he delivered at Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology.