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sorghum field
Image credit: Mailson Pignata

Africa needs more ag biotech investment. Here’s why

June 20, 2023

Editor’s note: Dr. Jonathan Gressel is Professor Emeritus at the Department of Plant Sciences at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel and owner at Hi-Cap Formulations, which has developed a novel method for cultivating single-cell microalgae for aquaculture.

The views expressed in this guest article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of AFN.

With over half a century involvement in global agricultural research involving travel and projects with scientists throughout the globe wherever crops are cultivated, I was intrigued by a series of AgFunder reports about how private investment is being allocated outside the Americas, both by country and by market sector.

I had certain assumptions in my head that did not match the realities of where investors are placing their money.

  1. That it would be worthwhile to invest where one could have the greatest margin of profit;
  2. That in whichever sector of agricultural R&D they invested, investors would want to be assured that there would be a reliable supply chain to support the industry where the investment was made.

Oh, how wrong I was.

Africa has a huge population with by far the least sophisticated food production and processing systems. Any improvements would have the potential for the largest profit margins compared to other parts of the globe. Regardless of which agrifoodtech category investors back, there is a need for basic farm produce: the crop at the base of the supply chain.

The average yields of major African crops are both the lowest in the world and the most variable. And climate change is exacerbating this variability, making African supply chains the least assured.

The AgFunder investment category dealing with the initial part of the supply chain, crop productivity, including the seed sector, is ‘Agricultural Biotechnology’ (ag biotech). The seed industry is the sector that can best assist in steadying the supply chain. According to AgFunder, total investment in Africa’s agrifoodtech sector was just $482.3 million in 2021, and astoundingly there was zero investment in ag biotech innovations.

Why modern biotech could be so transformative in Africa

Elsewhere in the world, farmers plant hybrid corn, so why not in Africa?

Most farmers cannot afford high yielding hybrids; the cost for seed is not compensated by increased yield due to the susceptibility to some of the remaining constraints (weeds, fungal pathogens etc). If these constraints could be met with additional traits, farmers would not need to rely on expensive chemical inputs, which could transform subsistence farmers into profitable middle-class farmers, increasing the customer base for other types of innovations on the market.

Modern biotechnological solutions can and will have a major transformative and profitable impact on African agriculture, and it is far more worthwhile to invest in African crop productivity than in developed countries.

Africa’s low crop yields are due to a large number of biotic and abiotic stresses, including weeds (especially intractable parasitic weeds), various debilitating insect pests, fungal and viral pathogens (including pathogens that produce carcinogenic mycotoxins) as well as drought and inefficient fertilizer use.

Jonathan Gressel
Dr. Jonathan Gressel: ‘I can only hope that this opinion piece is a wakeup call to wise investors.’

Varieties bred to tackle single—rather than multiple stresses—have had ‘minimal effects’

Maize (corn) is the leading crop in Africa, so I will use this as my example, but the basic principles discussed also apply to other African crops.

Solutions have typically come from publicly-funded breeders in the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGGIAR) institutions, mainly the  International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) in western Africa, and the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) in eastern and southern Africa.

These institutions have supplied most of the recently bred material marketed by the small local seed companies that dot Africa; companies typically without much breeding capacity of their own. They have done an excellent job of breeding varieties, each dealing with a single constraint, each trait typically under complicated genetic control, rendering it complicated to transfer the single trait to locally adapted varieties and even more complicated to introduce more than one trait, let alone five or six needed traits.

Solving single problems has had minimal effects and the singly-improved maize varieties and hybrids do not perform as they should because of all the other limiting constraints. For example, breeding for resistance to the parasitic witchweeds—which on average halve yields—is of little avail as the crop will be attacked either by stem borers, and/or armyworms, and or mycotoxin producing fungi, and/or viruses.

This is why years of breeding resistant traits separately to address individual constraints has done little to increase maize yields per hectare in Africa.

Private sector investment is needed to provide basic breeding material dealing with multiple stressors at once

Total maize yields have increased in Africa, but this is due to bringing more land into cultivation. Many of the local seed companies prefer to market local landraces [domesticated, locally adapted, traditional crop varieties that have developed over time], as the genetic material supplied by these institutions does not deal with multiple constraints and is not as well adapted to local climatic conditions as their local landraces. Some of the constraints to production can be dealt with using insecticides or fungicides, but these are often too expensive for subsistence farmers.

That said, the few farmers dealing with single stressors can find ways to afford high-yielding hybrids. For example, introducing just two transgenes (one for herbicide resistance and one Bt gene for insect resistance) into South African maize increased yields of white maize by 0.60 Mt ha−1 (9.6 bu/acre) and yellow maize by 0.27 Mt ha−1 (4.3 bu/acre) over a large area, which well covered seed costs (Shew et al., 2021).

A wake up call to wise investors

Investment in genetic engineering biotechnology can provide a more holistic approach to many of the constraints by providing breeding material where a large number of needed traits are inherited together as a single dominant trait, and thus easily crossed into local landraces and hybrids, with a minimum knowledge of plant breeding.

And most of the genes needed are available and have gone through extensive regulatory procedures for consumption in much of the developed world.

Technologies are available and well documented for introducing a large number of genes as a group into a single site on a chromosome for easy transfer from variety to variety (Zhu et al., 2008).

Major African countries are now following the lead of South Africa in realizing that genetic engineering can deal successfully with many of the constraints to crop production, and are eager to have the required traits engineered into their crops.

All that is missing is the private sector investment to provide the basic breeding material dealing with multiple stresses, to vastly increase yields and steady the supply chains. I can only hope that this opinion piece is a wakeup call to wise investors.

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