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Biotechnology Increases Africa's Maize Production


Our series this week is on the effect of agriculture on African economies. Tonight we’re looking at efforts to improve maize production among small-scale farmers in East Africa. Biotechnology is being used for pest resistance, to increase the production of both maize and bananas.

Stephen Mugo is a plant breeder working with the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center in Nairobi, Kenya. He told VOA English to Africa reporter Cole Mallard that maize is a major crop in both east and central Africa and that people rely on it for energy and protein. The maize crop employs a lot of people in agriculture.

He says there is debate and controversy around biotechnology but it can be used to address problems such as the need to increase yield and eliminate pests.

There is ongoing discussion of genetic evaluation and the methods used in applying the technology. Mugo says biotechnology applied to seeds can enable farmers to deal more effectively with pest resistance. Mugo says to date there’s no data on applied biotechnology available to the east African farming community. He says the process is still in the testing stage: “One of the challenges is that this is new technology, and one that has received quite a bit of debate. A number of people hold different views on whether it should be…done or not. And therefore controversies stem from the potential risks…to human health…to the environment…and there may be also some issues of ethics.”

Mugo also says the public sector does not own the technology outright, a situation that raises questions on issues of propriety and intellectual property from larger companies that have vested interests in it.

He also says that because of potential complications, increased expense and certain safety concerns are becoming an issue: “For the first time, we cannot just walk to the field and start testing the technology, we have to go through a safety step.” Mugo says this requires countries involved in testing to develop a registration process to ensure safety amd the commercialization of the technology.

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