Dr Sanjaya Rajaram is an Indian-born Mexican scientist and winner of the 2014 World Food Prize for his scientific research in developing over 480 wheat varieties that have been released in 51 countries. In this exclusive chat with NKECHI ISAAC, at the sidelines of the first International Wheat Congress in Saskatoon, Canada, he explains that Africa has good prospects of feeding its populace and becoming food secured in the coming years if the various governments come up with enabling policies for technologies that can boost farm production. The excerpts.
The projection is that by 2050 the world will be over 9 billion people with developing countries in Africa having sizeable population explosion. As an agriculturist, what do you think African nations should do to feed their citizens?
I am very optimistic in Africa. It has the natural resources, excess land with large strides of the Savannah. For instance, you have in northern Nigeria where you can be wheat self-sufficient, perhaps not because you are the largest population in Africa. You have the greatest leaders in Africa like Nelson Mandela, Kwame Nkrumah, but it goes back to the basis, we need the policy. We need the proper policy for the growth in agriculture, today you don’t have to repeat the mistakes of the green revolution 50 years ago where we were not actively involved.
We want to start harvesting the soils, we should work on the crops that are most productive, cassava, sorghum, millet, rice and all those crops people like. This is because the possibility of doubling, tripling these crops is in Africa. Coming to wheat there are areas in Africa that wheat can be grown like in Ethiopia, Sahelian parts of Nigeria like Kano, northern Nigeria. You can triple the yield of wheat in these areas. But I believe you’ll still need proper policy to grow.
Saying farmers don’t get support and other reasons cannot work. There are 55 ECOWAS member-states and all these can be done. There are huge possibilities in these regions. The possibility is huge but we need the policy which must be revised in such a way that it is supported locally. It must be done properly.
You have developed a lot of varieties of wheat. Currently, Nigeria is spending about $4 million dollars annually importing wheat and there is the projection to cut down our wheat importation by 60 per cent by 2050. Do you think it is achievable and what will be your recommendations in achieving this feat?
Yes, it is achievable in the case of Nigeria, especially in the northern fringe of Nigeria. We can bring larger acreage there and ensure it is watered. If we can develop the northern region on wheat planting and maybe combine it with some other crops it would be successfully achieved. But it has to be looked at in a concerted way, embedded with the proper policy, research and development, farmers training all together it can be done.
You consult for a feed company currently; how important do you think accessing quality seeds is in the final output of farmers?
I know that if we produce quality seeds it invariably affects agricultural output positively or negatively depending on the seeds made available to farmers, quality seeds would produce good output but poor seeds would have the reverse. To achieve food security, you need a very large seed programme, extension programme, farmers training programme and marketing in place. It can be done.
How do you think the improved variety of wheat is helping in the fight against climate change?
If we establish some of these programmes and get a network to start working we have to put down the plants that we are working on, then there will be a gradual selection and adaptation to that climate, that’s why I believe we should make varieties in Africa that would adapt to the climate and help fight climate change.
Speaking earlier today, you said you’re pro-biotechnology and in Africa today we have the issue of food insecurity. Do you think this technology is useful in helping developing countries in Africa achieve food security?
If you accept genetically modified organism (GMO) crops it would do tremendously to you in the maize production, perhaps we can insert the drought tolerance for less irrigation but that’s a very long shot because Africa is more polarized on GMOs. When we talk about biotechnology let’s talk about the GMO because the message doesn’t go clearly to the people who make the decisions, they think molecular makers’ selections are going to solve our issues, no, we also need GMO. This is the ability to take the genes from somewhere else and put in the crops where it will go, it doesn’t have to be done in all the crops but in those areas where we have the problem and if there is a regulatory commission established and honest people regulating that then why not?
The perception is that Africa is not ready for GMOs, is this true?
I disagree 100 per cent. We have massive land in Africa but without the right technology we are not going to benefit. Africa is completely ready to utilize this technology to feed its growing population and without it I don’t think they’ll be able to produce enough food for their people.
What they need is the right policies to regulate the technology, a buy-in into the technology and develop the technology.
There is the phenomenon that GMO makes people sick and gives other ailments, is this true?
Why haven’t half of Americans died? Biotechnology is safe. If we release a genetically modified gene which is deleterious to human health then it is bad. Let’s say that we have biotech maize. It is a bacterial gene moved into a virus, good virus, herbicide resistance, then we transport it into the virus which gets imbedded into the chromosomes of the plant but if we can get CRISPER CASP technology then we will not get any undesirable gene but it is a long shot.
The benefits of GMOs are enormous, for instance, you can grow cotton and don’t have to apply chemicals 10 times. Do you know how many people die and get infected from these chemicals? There is a tremendous positive impact on the environment of these genes but we are not allowed to have it by our policy.
In Nigeria Bt cotton has just been released for commercial purposes and we have Bt cowpea going through the final process? Is it a good step for the country?
Congratulations to Nigeria because it is going to help its textile industry, the human health because the people spraying the fields without any protection are vulnerable to these chemicals, but Bt cotton cuts down the application of chemicals from 10 to 2 only and so it is a tremendous step for the social and economic development of the country but you need to have a strong biosafety agency to regulate the process.
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