Remarks on Biotechnology and Africa

Patricia M. Haslach
Acting Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Economic and Business Affairs
CSIS Roundtable on Agricultural Biotechnology in Africa
Washington, DC
April 6, 2017

As Prepared

At the State Department, we like to say that economic policy is foreign policy. Many of the most serious global challenges we face are economic in nature. That’s either because the original problem stems from economic issues such as poverty, income inequality or lack of opportunity; or because those challenges have devastating economic ramifications, such as famine.

Globally, 795 million people are food insecure with nearly 75 percent of poor people in developing countries living in rural areas. Growth in the agriculture sector has been found, on average, to be at least twice as effective in reducing poverty as growth in other sectors. The fundamental importance of agriculture cannot be overstated.

Previously, as the U.S. ambassador to Ethiopia, I witnessed the challenges that African farmers face first hand. In summer 2016, I helped manage the delivery of U.S. food aid during the worst drought in 50 years, which left an estimated 9.7 million people in Ethiopia and Southern Africa without food.

Improving food security and nutrition in the face of these challenges will require getting new technologies into the hands of farmers.

As Julie Borlaug, granddaughter of Nobel Laureate Norman Borlaug, has said, “you cannot be anti-hunger and anti-technology in the fight to end global food insecurity.”

Innovation is central to meeting the needs of a growing global population with limited natural resources; innovation makes agriculture more productive and more efficient.

Agricultural biotechnology has greatly improved crop efficiency and production in the United States and countries like Brazil and Argentina. On average, biotech crop adoption has:

  • increased crop yields by 22 percent,
  • reduced chemical pesticide use by 37 percent, and
  • increased farmer profits by 68 percent.

Biotechnology is not a new technology; it has been around for over 20 years. As a result, African scientists have the advantage of not starting from a baseline of zero, but rather can build off of the last 20 years of research.

New techniques like CRISPR give scientists precise tools to resolve difficult disease problems in important staple crops indigenous to Africa.

In some diseases, like cassava mosaic virus or cassava brown streak disease, there is no current conventional solution. Brown streak has devastated cassava, a primary source of calories for more than one-third of people living in sub-Saharan Africa.

Biotechnology also has the advantage of speed over conventional breeding, adding in desirable traits like disease resistance that could otherwise take years to develop. And we know these approaches can work for African farmers.

Karim Traore, a cotton farmer from Burkina Faso, can testify to the power of biotechnology. Using Bt cotton, engineered for pest resistance, Mr. Traore experiences nearly four times the yield and uses one-fourth the amount of pesticides during the growing season.

However, in order for biotechnology to be successful, farmers AND politicians must be open to trying innovative technologies. Science-based regulatory systems must be established so that new products and approaches can be evaluated.

Ultimately, because perception drives policy, we need accurate information on a global scale to reshape conversations about biotechnology to focus on the benefits to farmers.

For now, there are only three countries on the entire continent that produce biotech crops -- Burkina Faso, Sudan, and South Africa -- and the latter is the only one growing large acreage. But, the potential is there.

To make sure that farmers everywhere have the opportunity to benefit from powerful technologies, as policy makers, as scientist, as farmers, and as consumers we must seek to listen, explain, and build trust.