Africa is probably the world’s most fertile land for agriculture (except for the arid northern parts of course). However, African farmers face a myriad of problems that limit their yields, economic growth potential and development.
IDRC partnered with The Globe and Mail on Monday to hold a Twitter live discussion with Calestous Juma, director of the Science, Technology and Globalization Project at Harvard’s Kennedy School, and Kevin Tiessen, a soil scientist with the Canadian International Food Security Research Fund, to discuss Africa’s agricultural future.
Several African science journalists, including myself, took part in the excellent discussion – which was also open to receiving questions from the public. The discussion was quite lively, with dozens of questions coming in and Juma covering several interesting topics on the potential of science to help in the development of Africa’s agricultural sector.
I’ll try to highlight below some of the points I found most interesting:
Genetically modified organisms: As expected, GMOs were quite a hot topic with many questions coming in to weight the pros and cons of adopting them for Africa. Juma made it obvious he is an advocate of GMOs, but stressed they were not the magic bullet that will solve all agricultural problems in Africa. Rather, he contends that GMOs should not be put off the table.
“I believe that Africa should leave all technological options open including genetically modified crops and organic farming. A larger toolbox is needed to respond to increased challenges such as climate change,” he said. “I would suggested first we focus on identifying the problem that needs solved and then picking the technology that is best suited to the task. I do not think we should take a dogmatic approach.”
Environmental sustainability: There’s always fear that increasing agriculture in Africa will come at the expense of local crops and forests. “The biggest threat to the conservation of species in Africa is destruction of ecosystems,” acknowledged Juma. However, he adds that the main problem is that African governments have little or no policies in place for conservation. Presidents and leaders will be the ones determining the future of agriculture in the continent and how it will affect biodiversity.
Additionally, technology will play a main role here. “Future agriculture will need to be knowledge intensive to be sustainable,” said Juma. “Innovation is the answer to sustainability, not technological stagnation.” An example he gave several times during the discussion was to train African farmers to use geospatial science to plan their farming cycles, to accelerate the drawing up of land borders and for informed decision-making.
Agricultural development: Juma discussed what African governments should be doing to promote agriculture and make it more economically viable. Highest on his agenda was for African presidents to take charge of agricultural policy making and coordination. “This is because agricultural transformation will require the participation of many other arms of government including finance, transportation, irrigation, telecoms, commerce. If an African president is not coordinating agriculture, chances are he or she is not steering the economy as whole.”
Juma also called for more proper science-based decision-making. He suggested African scientists should be spearheading these efforts since African presidents would be more likely to listen to them. Finally, he called for governments to make significant investments in the infrastructure of rural areas, by providing energy, transportation and telecommunication facilities. In most places across the continent, rural communities have very poor access to modern technology or facilities which limits their effectiveness in the national and international economies. “Some countries are already mobilizing their armies to help bridge the infrastructure gap. This is being done with direct supervision by presidents.”
You can read the full discussion on The Globe and Mail’s archive page of the event.