Although biotechnology is most often seen as a tool to meet Africa’s food needs, it could also play a role in protecting the continent’s unique biodiversity.
Ugandan environmental activist, geneticist and conservation biologist Clet Wandui says biotechnology has actually helped preserve and protect Africa’s biodiversity, a term that refers to the number of different species present in a given location. , as well as the number of individuals in each species and the genetic variability within the species.
“In fact, biotechnology has come to save biodiversity,” Wandui told this writer. “If you look scientifically at the drivers of biodiversity loss, there’s nowhere biotechnology comes into play.”
He says that, overall, biotechnology has been instrumental in increasing yields, reducing pesticide applications and helping to breed higher quality crops and livestock. As a result, less new land needs to be brought into production, helping to preserve wild areas.
Field studies have led to the conclusion that growing Bt cotton, which is inherently resistant to some insect pests, has an overall beneficial effect on biodiversity compared to applying insecticides to the crop to control pests. pests.
Agricultural biotechnology includes a range of tools that alter or modify the genes or genomes of living organisms to introduce desirable traits, such as drought tolerance, resistance to disease and insect pests, improved nutrition and better nitrogen efficiency. An important aspect of modern biotechnology includes the use of the tool known as genome editing, or CRISPR.
Despite the proven success of agricultural biotechnology in Africa and elsewhere in the world, concerns have emerged about the technology’s interactions with native biodiversity on the continent. The debate is intensifying as more African countries embrace genetic engineering as a viable tool to increase food security and as farmers show greater willingness to adopt new genetically modified (GM) crops.
Concerns include fears that GM crops could invade the natural environment, interbreed or compete with native species, directly limit biodiversity or reduce genetic diversity within species, both wild and cultivated.
The African Union Development Agency-NEPAD (AUDA-NEPAD) allays these fears and others, saying the traits that have been altered in GM crops have not materially improved the ability of those crops to invade. unmanaged habitats and compete with wild species. In fact, gene editing has been used to prevent eucalyptus from becoming invasive. Additionally, GM crop approvals include a thorough assessment that determines any potential threats the new traits might pose to native species. They are also carefully assessed for potential unintended negative effects on other species, such as pollinators, soil organisms, and endangered plants and animals, among others.
“The risk assessment evaluates the potential impact of direct exposure to gene products and indirect exposure through feeding patterns and accumulation of gene products in air, soil or waste release environmental water,” notes AUDA-NEPAD. “Tiered approaches have been developed to assess these risks and help ensure that sufficient review is undertaken when potential risks are identified.” GM crops are also reviewed to ensure that their use will not result in practices that could negatively impact non-living components of the environment where they are grown.
“The people who really tried to partially solve the problem of biodiversity loss were those who started looking for technologies that could increase production per unit area,” says Wandui. “For example, in a country like Uganda, the average rice yield is 500 kg per acre. When you get hybrid rice combined with fertilizer and the use of pesticides, you increase the yield per acre of rice to 4,000 kg. For this rice farmer to get 4500 kg, it would have meant clearing nine acres of land. Thus, by saving eight acres, the farmer protects all the biodiversity that exists in these spaces.
To further amplify his point, Wandui focuses on neighboring Kenya, where he points to the large number of cattle herded by pastoral communities. Livestock roam the countryside in search of pasture, a movement that leads to soil erosion. This is in contrast to the highly specialized dairy farming in some parts of the country, which involves raising top quality animals, especially in the areas around the capital Nairobi.
“These cattle on dairy farms eat napier grass, which is very nutritious. A Friesian cow on such a farm could feed on an acre of land – or less – and produce quantities of milk equivalent or even greater than those of 10 cows from the breeders,” he notes.
Wandui further states that biotechnology – particularly genetic modification and gene editing – are relatively new innovations that have not had a negative effect on the continent’s biodiversity. He says biodiversity loss has been happening since humans started clearing the land and practicing agriculture.
“When man began to farm, he began to select the best performing crops and domesticate them. And as animal husbandry evolved, he relied on what the ancestors had selected, reducing the genetic basis by selecting the best performing individuals,” he explains.
For example, as people learned to raise dairy cows, there was a need for more nutritious grass, which meant that the original biodiversity in these places changed. “This loss has nothing to do with biotechnology,” says Wandui.
Biodiversity loss has also been driven by increasing urbanization. Citing the case of Nairobi, Wandui notes that the city’s famous national park saved the day, as human habitation would have led to a loss of biodiversity in the space covered by the park.
Natural disasters, such as forest fires, are another significant cause of biodiversity loss, with humans clearing forests for charcoal and cooking fuel. All of these factors contribute to the continuing severe damage to biodiversity across the continent. But the spotlight has been sensationally and overblown on biotechnology, with little scientific backing for the claims, Wandui says. The scale of biotechnology currently in place in Africa is simply too small to provoke the attendant criticism of anti-GMO activism.
“What people are misinforming the public about is that they look at a few areas under biotechnology and say, ‘You see, it’s destroying biodiversity. But look at Africa: where is biotechnology applied on the continent? Compared to the size of the land, there is almost nothing. The area in South Africa, for example, cannot total one million acres. Even the entire continent doesn’t have a million acres devoted to biotechnology.
There are no GMOs grown in countries like Uganda, other than that being researched, and that can’t mean much. So how could anyone say that biotechnology has destroyed biodiversity in a country like Uganda? »
Adaptation to a changing climate
Traditional farming practices have further harmed biodiversity, says Wandui. The search for fertile land would lead people to clear forests and drain swamps, which destroyed biodiversity in large tracts of land.
“Modern agriculture allows farmers to get more from the same acreage. By getting more than one acre, you save the other areas around it that would have been destroyed to grow the same crop,” he points out.
Biotechnology is being usefully deployed to protect some important crops of the continent that might otherwise be lost or perform sub-optimally in the face of adverse climatic changes, among other adverse dynamics. Researchers see genome editing as a tool to identify genes associated with stress tolerance traits in banana, which could be used for the improvement of banana for adaptation to climate change.
Scientists from the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) in Nairobi are also conducting research to introduce desirable traits such as heat tolerance and disease resistance in cattle and chickens, using the genetic editing. And scientists are also turning to gene editing to save Ghana’s cocoa in the face of adverse climate change that threatens to drive the current cocoa industry to extinction.
About the Author: Joseph Maina is a journalist based in Nairobi, Kenya.
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