A possible cure for food insecurity in Africa

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The challenges of food insecurity

The Ghana Statistical Service (GSS) says Ghana spent GH¢11.3 billion to import food products to feed her citizens as against GH¢20.9 billion in the export of food products within the first half of 2023.    

The challenges of food insecurityMore than 50 per cent of the food imports fall into five distinct categories: cereals and grains, 22.8 per cent; animal or vegetable fats and oils, 12.7 per cent; meat, 9.5 per cent; and sugar products, 8.6 per cent; while over half of all food exports are cocoa products, representing 64.9 per cent.

The import and export trade dynamics of Ghana might not be different from those of other African countries that are also import-dependent.

Threat to Food Security    

The food products trade dynamics of Ghana pose food and nutrition security threats to the country, and for that matter, some African countries that also depend on food products import.

The Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) has estimated a 60 per cent need increase in agricultural output driven by population growth in the Lower- and Middle-Income Countries (LMICs).

This calls for more efforts by African countries, particularly Ghana, to increase their food production to become food secure and boost the nutritional situation of the country, saving pregnant women and children from malnutrition.

The Sustainable Development Goals (SGDs)   

The United Nations (UN) 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), among other things, enjoin signatory countries to “end poverty in all its forms everywhere” and “achieve zero hunger” for their citizens by 2030.

Target 1.1 of the SDGs seeks to “By 2030, eradicate extreme poverty for all people everywhere, currently measured as people living on less than $1.25 a day.”

Also, target 2.4 of the Agenda 2030 seeks to “By 2030, ensure sustainable food production systems and implement resilient agricultural practices that increase productivity and production. It also seeks to maintain ecosystems, which strengthen capacity for adaptation to climate change, extreme weather, drought, flooding, and other disasters and progressively improve land and soil quality.

It, therefore, behooves the leaders of the member states to formulate and implement policies to boost agriculture for sustainable food production and enhanced nutrition situations.

Promoting sustainable agricultural production through improved technology would not only lead to food security but also poverty reduction through sale or export of the surplus food produced.

Improving Agricultural Production  

Increasing climate change and its attendant unfavourable variability in recent times have posed a serious threat to sustainable agricultural production.

Farmers do not only grapple with erratic rainfall patterns and pests’ infestation but also have to deal with increasing depletion of soil nutrients suitable for crop production, owing partly to excessive fertilizer and agrochemical use.

These impediments result in escalating cost of production, which force the farmer to reduce the farm size for easy management, taking into consideration fertilizer and agrochemical usage to control disease and pests infestation.

This, in practical terms, can affect the realisation of the SDG targets on achieving food and nutrition security and poverty reduction, and by extension hamper the achievement of other targets due to the interconnectivity of the Goals.

For instance, increased agricultural production would mean increased income for farmers who form about 70 per cent of Ghana’s population, and increase the nutritional status of the population, especially women and children.

Increased income for farmers would also translate into reducing gender inequalities since many vulnerable groups, such as women, are active players in the agricultural value chain from the rural levels to the urban centres.

Also, increasing the income of actors in the agricultural value chain would enable them to cater for their children’s education and training, which would also contribute to bridging the gender inequality gap.

Improving agriculture through technology    

Science and technology have a direct correlation with improvement in every aspect of human life.

Similarly, science and technology have a direct impact on improving agricultural production of both animals and crops.

One such technology is Genome Editing (GEd), which is the ability to make specific genetic changes within a genome for a specific benefit.

Scientists say GEd has numerous benefits for the farmer, consumers and the nation as a whole.

The technology could lead to increased crop yield, disease resistance, drought resistance and general crop maturity time among others, which had the potential to increase the farmers’ income status.

Also, GEd could produce crop varieties that are suitable for increased industrial production such as increasing or reducing the starch and sugar content of the crop to achieve a specific industrial processing trait as well as increase or reduce the biomass of the crop to achieve a particular purpose.

To the consumers, GEd could help reduce the toxin content of the crop, increase its nutritional value, and reduce allergens, which are necessary for healthy growth.

Farmers’ adoption of improved crop varieties birthed from GEd would lead to sustainable nutrient-efficient food production, resulting in food security in Ghana.

It is, therefore, imperative for the Government to provide adequate funding to researchers to produce Genetically Engineered (GE) food crops to increase production and reduce the importation of food products.

The Government could also leverage GEd to increase its exportation of food products.

Dr Francis Djankpa, a Senior Lecturer, Molecular and Cellular Specialist, University of Cape Coast (UCC), believes that the GEd technology is potent enough to enable Africa to leapfrog in agricultural production to achieve food security and safety for her citizens.

Adopting and adequately funding the GEd technology, he said, could help reduce Africa’s imports of basic food products since the technology produced crop varieties for farmers to increase yield with less effort.

The technology enables scientists to edit the gene in the crop to enhance its traits including its pests’ resistance, adverse environmental conditions such as drought and pest infestation, Dr. Djankpa explained during a recent GEd training workshop for Science Communicators held in Accra.

The Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) organised the workshop in partnership with the AUDA-NEPAD to, among other things, train science communicators to champion the science of GEd.

Dr Djankpa said GEd could help solve some of the major challenges that farmers faced, including low crop yield and cost of excessive use of pesticides and fertilizers, as the technology could be applied to major staple food crops such as maize, rice and yam.

The Science of GEd vs GMO    

It is worth noting that GEd is not the same as Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO).

While GEd involves the modification of the molecular formula of a living organism such as crops through natural or artificial mutation, GMO involves the transfer of foreign genes into a living organism to achieve a particular outcome.

For instance, the modification of a white maize variety, which has low protein content to achieve a yellow maize variety with high protein content is GEd while the transfer of trait from an insect into a crop for the crop to resist the attack of that insect is termed as GMO.

An example of GMO crop is the Bt cowpea.    

Though GMO and GEd are both regulated by the Ghana National Biosafety Authority (NBA) under the Biosafety Act, 2011 (Act 831), the GMO technology and its products are strictly regulated.

However, the GEd technology and GEd products are regulated on a case-by-case basis.

Mr Eric Amaning Okoree, the Chief Executive Officer of the NBA, said: “Ghana recognises the immense potential that Genome Editing holds and the opportunities for agricultural innovation and medical advancements.”

“However, embracing this technology requires a balanced approach that prioritises safety, equity and ethical considerations.”

The African Union Development Agency-NEPAD (AUDA-NEPAD)   

This is an agency of the African Union mandated to coordinate and execute priority regional and continental projects to promote regional integration towards the accelerated realisation of Agenda 2063.

It has, as part of its responsibility, to incubate innovative programmes in various fields, including technology, research and development, knowledge management, and data analytics and assist Member States to strengthen capacity in key areas such as food and nutrition, energy and water among others.

Goal five of the “Africa We Want” by 2063 (Africa Agenda 2063) seeks to promote Modern Agriculture for increased productivity and production.

The AUDA-NEPAD is, therefore, providing technical backstopping to the GEd project, an initiative that is aimed to enhance agricultural productivity in Africa as part of efforts towards realising the Agenda 2063.

Mrs Florence Nazare, the Acting Director of Knowledge Management and Programme Evaluation at the AUDA-NEPAD, said Africa’s ability to embrace the GEd technology would facilitate rapid development of the continent.

The GE, she said, could help reduce the cost of agricultural production, support food systems, enhance the agricultural value chain, improve the livelihood of the people and propel Africa’s development agenda.

Recommendation  

It is worth noting that genetic improvement has resulted in faster, cheaper, healthier, and more efficient animal and crop production, with reduced impact on the environment.

Further, one did not need rocket science to know that GEd has the potential to transform the fortune of farmers with even a greater impact on the lives and livelihoods of peasant farmers and a generally secured food system for the country.

Unfortunately, however, this striking improvement is used only in developed countries.

It is, thus, extremely prudent for Ghana and the African continent in general to adopt the GEd technology and invest in it to improve yields.

Dr. Seth Manteaw, the Director of the Institute of Science, Technology, and Information, Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), in an interview, emphasized the importance for the Government to increase its investment in the technology to enable the country to reap the benefits therein.

The country had the capacity, in terms of human resources and facilities, to promote the technology but needed more funding to do so, he noted.

Dr Samuel Mahama, a Senior Research Scientist at the CSIR, noted that the adoption of GEd would help Ghana to become food-sufficient, particularly with its major staple food crops such as maize and rice.

The GEd crop varieties would help to protect the environment as well as save farmers from the challenge of spending more money to control pests and diseases as they would not have to apply many chemicals to achieve that goal.

A GNA feature by Philip Tengzu

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