01 November 2023, Kenya: Panelists at the ongoing African Conference on Agricultural Technologies (ACAT) in Nairobi, Kenya, said that quality science communication is urgently needed to counter the barrage of misinformation militating against the effective adoption of technology in the African agricultural sector.
One of the panels, comprising reputable scientists, regulators, policymakers, and communication experts, believed that science communication needs to be strategically integrated into every phase of the biotechnology deployment process to ensure that anti-technology crusaders do not take advantage of the public, especially farmers.
Messages that carry the public along
Dr Sheila Ochugboju, Executive Director of the Alliance for Science, in a session themed Biotechnology Advances and Emerging Opportunities on Day Two of the five-day conference, noted that understanding science and communication was critical in driving biotechnology adoption.
“The fight against GMOs is like a tsunami anchored on misinformation,” she said. “Communication is a two-way thing, requiring the public to be adequately educated and informed because the introduction of biotechnology will most times affect people’s cherished ways of life and traditions, so we must focus and emphasize the need for people to listen while properly addressing their fears and more importantly come up with necessary messages that carry the public along.”
More science in politics than more politics in science
She encouraged scientists to neither underrate nor despise the public: “Don’t feel that as scientists you have superior knowledge.”
Dr Margret Karembu, Director of ISAAA-AfriCenter and a strong biotechnology advocate, said that Africa needs to quickly accelerate the enthronement of necessary political will to galvanize the adoption of biotechnology. “We need more science in politics than more politics in science. Our quest to feed the continent’s ever-growing population requires the injection of science and technology devoid of unnecessary political interference,” Dr Karembu said.
She believed that the best of science would not translate to any meaningful development until scientists had the necessary environment to practice their profession.
Need for functional biosafety regimes in Africa
Another panelist, Dr Nompumelelo Obokoh, the chief executive of the South African Council for Natural Scientific Professions, noted that while communication remained a cardinal point in facilitating biotechnology adoption, scientists must be prepared to ensure that they work within the approved regulatory framework, especially in undertaking confined and open field trials. “The credibility of scientists is key in propelling technological adoption, and the avenue for public engagement is compulsory if technologies and innovation must be deployed to farmers,” Dr Obokoh said.
Dr Silas Obukosia from the African Biosafety Network of Expertise emphasized the need for functional biosafety regimes in Africa if the innovations in biotechnology must work for the continent, adding that while communication is crucial, the products must first be available. He said it was regrettable that most African countries signed international treaties, including the Cartagena Protocol, without proper understanding and that such development is hampering the adoption of biotechnology due to the strict liability clauses that make the technology unattractive to the private sector.
Biotechnology is transforming African agriculture
Dr Agnes Asagbra, Director General of Nigeria’s National Biosafety Management Agency, said the provision of a conducive environment devoid of political interference was responsible for the big strides Nigeria has made in its one-decade journey in biotechnology deployment. “Today, Nigeria serves as a learning destination for many African countries due to our progress. We encourage other countries to emulate the conducive environment created in Nigeria that allows the technology to benefit farmers.”
The panel highlighted how biotechnology is transforming African agriculture for improved resilience to climate change and sustainable food systems to attain the Malabo Declaration, Agenda 2063 priorities, and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
Biotechnology complements other technologies and offers strong tools, strategies, and approaches that enhance the efficient development of compelling products that provide innovative solutions to farmers’ needs. Emerging technologies such as genome editing enable rapid and precise mutagenesis to unravel rare novel commercial traits critical to the industrial, agricultural, health, and nutrition sectors.
Innovative solutions that can enhance agricultural productivity
The participants discussed how the continent can further harness and scale these tools by creating an enabling environment that encourages investments and adoption.
The African Conference on Agricultural Technology, which is the first of its kind on the continent, is an initiative of the African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF) that aspires to bring together a dynamic community of agricultural researchers, policymakers, industry leaders, and innovators to exchange ideas, share best practices, and explore innovative solutions that can enhance agricultural productivity in Africa.
Themed Agricultural Resilience through Innovation, ACAT focuses on the centrality of science, technology, and innovation (STI) in fostering agricultural transformation in Africa. It will also provide an opportunity for in-depth discussions and consensus-building on the barriers to technology development and transfer. It will also generate higher policy-level interest at the continental level to resolve the identified challenges
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