'Green revolution' needed to support African continent

African countries will rely on non-transgenic crop breeding to boost food output to feed its rapidly growing population in the coming decades, but will also need genetically modified products (GM), the head of a pan-African farm think tank said on Wednesday.

The world needs to boost cereals output by one billion tonnes and produce 200-million extra tonnes of livestock products a year by 2050 to feed a population projected to rise to nine-billion from about seven-billion now, the United Nations estimates.

Africa’s population is expected to double to about two-billion people by 2050 and the continent would need to double its food output by that time with some countries having to triple food production, Monty Jones, executive director of Forum for Agricultural Research in Africa (Fara), told Reuters.

“Our future growth is through conventional breeding approach and through the use of biotechnologies which come up with high yields but are not transgenic,” Jones said in an interview on the sidelines of an international food and nutrition forum.

“What we need in Africa is our own, unique ‘green revolution’ calling for interventions in several areas, in crops and livestock. We must learn from mistakes of India,” he said.

The so-called green revolution in the 1960s and 1970s in India and other developing countries boosted farm production yields through intensive practices and new seed varieties drawing praise for helping reduce the number of hungry people and criticism for making farmers dependent on GM seeds.

African countries should use the best results of conventional breeding and “modest”—or non-transgenic—biotechnologies to boost crop yields and make plants resistant to increasing heat and dryness as climate changes, Jones said.

Nerica (New Rice for Africa) rice, a non-GM cross between a high-yielding Asian variety and a hardy African variety has higher yields, shorter growth cycle and more protein content than its parents.

Farmers cultivating Nerica in West and East Africa in the past 10 years have doubled and even tripled their yields to up to four tonnes per hectare (ha), depending on efficiency of their farms, Jones said.

‘You can’t say no to GM crops’
Jones, who has worked in international agricultural research for the past 24 years, has stopped short of ruling out GM organisms (GMOs) as means to resolve Africa’s hunger and said their use would rise slightly in the coming decades there.

“I don’t think we should exclude genetically modified products. If they help to increase yields, have stable yields, why not ...
You cannot say ‘No, I don’t want GMOs’ while your people are dying,” he said.

Even if developing countries double food output by 2050, one person in 20, or about 370-million people, would still risk being undernourished, most of whom would be in Africa and Asia, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation estimates.

GM crops are widely used in major agricultural producers, such as the United States and Brazil, but face staunch opposition in Europe where they are largely seen as potentially risky for human health and environment.

Africans also worry about health problems that GM crops could trigger but so far there has been no evidence of such problems, Jones said.

The spread of GM products in Africa would remain limited in the near term because only six countries on the continent have passed regulations to allow their use and just three of them, Egypt, South Africa and Burkina Faso, commercialise GM crops, Jones said.

The global seed leader Monsanto is the main supplier of GM seeds to those countries but other biotech companies are also active there, he said.—Reuters

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