On Saturday 15 February, B4FA held a panel discussion in Chicago at the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The session focused on agriculture, plant science and Africa, ranging from presentations on youth and agriculture to the regulatory challenges for GM crops in Africa. It was one of the first-ever panels at AAAS with only African speakers.
Panel members included: Margaret Karembu, ISAAA ; Prof. Mohamed H.A. Hassan, Co Chair, InterAcademy Panel ( IAP ) ; Prof. Diran Makinde, NEPAD; Dr. Andrew Kiggundu, Ugandan National Agricultural Research Organisation (NARO); Daniel Otunge, Open Forum on Agricultural Biotechnology (OFAB). Dr. Walter A. Al-Hassan of FARA was unable to attend due to weather conditions, but his presentation was given by Sir Brian Heap of B4FA who chaired the session. Dr. David Bennett organised the session.
In addition, four B4FA Media Fellows had the opportunity to attend the conference and B4FA panel session: Abdallah el-Kurebe and Akinwunmi Kole-Dawodu (Nigeria), Adelaide Arthur (Ghana) and Polycarp Machira (Tanzania).
Prof. Hassan focused on “two interconnected questions: how to develop and maintain the problem-solving capacities of African scientists and institutions in life sciences? and: How to harness the best of S&T, especially biosciences, to improve agricultural productivity, food security, disease control and access to clean water in the continent.”
Dr. Andrew Kiggundu discussed crops that are essential to food security in Uganda and beyond – banana and cassava. From his research experience, he offered insight into the challenges of breeding these crops with conventional methods and made the case for utilising biotechnology to develop virus= and bacteria-resistant crops. His discussion of the ‘golden banana’ that is enriched with beta carotene to prevent childhood blindness was shared extensively on Twitter during the session.
On GM crops and regulation, Prof. Diran Makinde highlighted that the ‘precautionary principle’ is frequently mis-applied and he set out the necessary elements to a workable regulatory system for GM crops. He emphasised that regulatory systems are still ‘under construction’ in many African countries, and the absence of a functional regulatory system for GM crops is one of the core challenges to the adoption of GM crops in Africa.
Daniel Otunge focused on the communications challenges to agricultural biotechnology, including the impact of anti-science and anti-biotech activism in Europe and its effects in Africa. Otunge stated that it was ‘immoral’ for African leaders to be guided by anti-biotech leaders from Europe, as Africa has very different needs. Lastly, he discussed the importance of reaching smallholder farmers with accurate information about agricultural biotechnology so that they can make an informed decision.
Margaret Karembu of ISAAA zoomed in on the importance of making agriculture ‘sexy’ to young people. Recounting a conversation with her son, Karembu said that her son does not want to become a farmer – yet he says that if more celebrities promoted farming, he would perhaps change his mind. In agriculture, “we need business UNusual rather than business as usual.” Karembu discussed the fact that many young people are farming Bt cotton successfully in India – thanks to less spraying the workload is lighter and they are able to earn good incomes.
Prof. Walter A. Al-Hassan’s presentation focused on “a project [that] was introduced to train African scientists and farmers on product stewardship even after meeting safety concerns. This was the project on ‘Strengthening capacity for safe biotechnology management in sub-Sahara Africa (SABIMA)’.”
“This project ensured regulatory compliance and the assurance of product integrity over the entire product cycle from research to the farmer level. It teaches practitioners to analyse activities at each product level, identify what is likely to go wrong and to take pre-emptive action so that in the end only wholesome product with integrity reaches the consumer thereby reducing the level of trade disputes from poor quality crops sold. At least 1,000 African practitioners handling biotechnology crops have benefitted from the stewardship training and are using the knowledge acquired routinely.”