Proper policy key to Africa’s agricultural growth, says World Food Prize winner

By Nkechi Isaac

August 2, 2019

Dr. Sanjaya Rajaram is an Indian-born Mexican scientist who was awarded the 2014 World Food Prize for his scientific research in developing over 480 wheat varieties that have been released in 51 countries. Nkechi Isaac, our Nigeria correspondent, caught up with him on the sidelines of the first International Wheat Congress in Saskatoon, Canada, where Rajaram was mentoring scientists.

Isaac: 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?

Rajaram: I am very optimistic in Africa. It has the natural resources and excess land. You have the greatest leaders in Africa like Nelson Mandela, Kwame Nkrumah, but it goes back to the basics: 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 so we should work on the crops that are most productive — cassava, sorghum, millet, rice and all those crops people like. There is the possibility of doubling, tripling these crops in Africa. There are areas in Africa where wheat can be grown, like in Ethiopia, Sahelian, northern Nigeria. You can triple the yield of wheat in these areas. The possibility is huge, but I believe you’ll still need proper policy to grow. The policy must be revised in such a way that it is supported locally. It must be done properly.

Isaac: 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?

Rajaram: Yes, it is achievable in the case of Nigeria, especially in the northern fringe of Nigeria. We can [cultivate] 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 and farmers’ training.

Isaac: You consult for a seed company currently; how important do you think accessing quality seeds is in the final output of farmers?

Rajaram: I know that if we produce quality seeds it invariably affects agricultural output. Quality seeds would produce good output but poor seeds would have the reverse. To achieve food security, you need a very large seed program, extension program, farmers’ training program and marketing in place. It can be done.

Isaac: How do you think the improved variety of wheat is helping in the fight against climate change?

Rajaram: If we establish some of these programs and start putting in 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.

Isaac: In one of your speeches, you said you are pro-biotechnology. The perception is that Africa is not ready for GMOs. Is this true?

Rajaram: I disagree 100 percent. 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 to develop the technology.

Isaac: There is the claim that GMOs make people sick and cause other ailments. Is this true?

Rajaram: Why haven’t half of Americans [who have eaten GMO food for decades] died? Biotechnology is safe. The benefits of GMOs are enormous. For instance, you can grow cotton and don’t have to apply chemicals [pesticides] 10 times. Do you know how many people die from these chemicals? There is a tremendous positive impact on the environment of these [GMO crops] but we are not allowed to have it by our policy.

Isaac: 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?

Rajaram: Congratulations to Nigeria because it is going to help its textile industry and human health because the people spraying the fields without any protection are vulnerable to these chemicals.  Bt cotton cuts down the application of chemicals from 10 to two [in a growing season] 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.