The latest report on the global acquisition of biotechnology is out and reports a significant increase in the adoption of new technologies of agricultural output. Produced by the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA), the report shows that farmers in 24 countries grew 189.8 million hectares of biotech crops in 2017 – an increase of 4.7 million hectares, as compared to the previous year.
More importantly, perhaps are the other facts showing that farmers in those countries who have adopted the new technologies have seen an increase in productivity, healthier lives, reduction in costs and ultimately improved standards of living.
The report, produced annually for the past 22 years has recorded consecutive increases, except for 2015, reveals a significant increase in the productivity by farmers in countries that have adopted new and improved technologies particularly biotechnology. In addition, the new technologies have broadened the market options of farmers by enabling them to tap into niche or specialist markets such as supplying industries that need specific type of a commodity.
For example, the adoption of improved seeds coupled with conducive farming practices, has allowed farmers working in almost the same conditions as Uganda – minus the technologies, to get three times more yield per unit area, compared to what most ordinary small-holder farmers in Uganda can.
And although modern biotechnology has been around for more than two decades, only two African countries, South Africa and Sudan currently produce GM crops. Uganda is among 20 countries that have refused to graduate from research to commercialization of GM crops.
Data about maize yield from the Ministry of Agriculture shows that smallholder farmers in Uganda on average get one tone or 1000kgs per acre. In fact according to Emmanuel Okogbeni, the Technical Operations Director at AATF, the average yield of nearly all the crops grown in Africa in below the global average of the world.
Reports from the African Agriculture Technology Foundation (AATF) however show that some farmers in Africa can produce up to five tones per acre using new technologies coupled with good farming practices.
The persistent low productivity is cited as the number one reason why farming is a loss-making venture and the source of poverty for majority of the people on the continent. It is also one of the reasons why many young people have turned their backs on the sector.
Efforts by scientists to try to introduce and advocate for the adoption of proven technologies in Uganda have largely failed as seen from the flat yield curve for nearly all crops grown on the continent. Scientists are worried that the stalemate that continues to surround the passing of a law to regulate access to modern biotechnology products in Uganda, is one of the signs that government is not interested in providing the solutions.
In view of the current stalemate, scientists are throwing the ball towards farmers in an effort to encourage them to try to take care of their own interests by exacting pressure on the policy makers to make the needed policy changes.
At the launch of the report at Hotel Africana last week, a number of people urged the farmers to start to play a more, if not aggressive role of demanding changes.
Akile Sunday Igu, the Legal and Policy Programme Officer of the African Biosafety Network of Expertise (ABNE), challenged the leadership of the Uganda National Farmers Federation (UNFFE) the umbrella body of all farmers associations in Uganda, to get out of slumber and challenge politicians and civil society in driving the farming agenda. He argued that in most countries where biotechnology has been a success, it has come from farmers relentlessly pushing the government to make the necessary regulatory and other changes.
Some of the participants were tempted to remind the policy makers in Uganda that delays in enacting a systematic regulatory regime, could result into the complicated scenario where farmers resort to storming research stations to obtain the proven technologies.
But they were assured by Dr. Charles Mugoya, the Chairman of the National Biosafety Committee (NBC) that using a legal approach that weighs the risks and assesses the benefits of each technology is the safer option.
Jackson Jurua, the Vice President of Uganda National Farmers Federation (UNFFE) responded by telling the scientists that they acknowledge the impact of the delays in policy formulation. He said that they have started to mobilise and sensitize the farmers about the benefits of the technology as the foundation for galvanizing the needed support to trigger a revolution.
How to galvanize farmer support
A number of advocates of biotechnology believe that farmers are not adequately sensitized about the benefits of biotechnology. This is made even worse by the often poisonous campaigns of smear mostly propagated by civil society organisations that have painted biotechnology as dangerous.
Augustine Mwendya, the Executive Secretary of UNFFE noted that their major energies are going to be aimed at detoxifying the current atmosphere about biotechnology in Uganda.
These efforts are also likely to benefit from two other major projects, one that is championed by the ministry of agriculture on value chain development and another known as Technologies for African Agricultural Transformation (TAAT) that is championed by the African Development Bank (AfDB) with the help of the African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF).
TAAT seeks to increase productivity in nine major agricultural enterprises that include Maize, Rice, Wheat, Soybean, Pulses, Cassava, Dairy, Poultry and fish production. Set to be launched in 31 countries in Africa, AfDB hopes to trigger increased productivity by unlocking the market opportunities and getting every stakeholder to talk to each other.
During an event to kick-start the maize value chain (known as the Maize compact) in Kampala this week, Dr. Jonas Chianu, the AfDB TAAT Initiative Coordinator in Africa expressed enthusiasm in supporting cooperative organisations in not only collectively increasing output but also for looking for new markets.