Building Knowledge About Biotechnology in Africa

This is the first of a two-part series to Africa Harvest, in Johannesburg, South Africa.

In our Nourishing the Planet project we’re looking at how farmers and researchers all over the world are combining high-tech and low-tech agricultural practices to help alleviate hunger and poverty. One place they’re trying to do this is at Africa Harvest/Biotech Foundation International. The organization’s mission is “to use science and technology, especially biotechnology, to help the poor in Africa achieve food security, economic well-being and sustainable rural development.”

And while the biotechnology component of their mission may be controversial to some, Africa Harvest is determined that Africa will not be left behind when it comes to the development—and use— of the technology by African researchers and farmers. As a result, the organization is focusing on breeding African crops for Africans. “If you want to make a difference on this continent,” says Daniel Kamanga, communications director for Africa Harvest, “you have to look at African crops.” These include staples such as banana, cassava, and sorghum, which are all important sources of nutrients for millions of Africans.

But these are also crops that are heavily impacted by diseases and pests. Bananas, for example, are susceptible to sigatoka virus, fusarium, weevils, nematodes, and others. To combat these problems, Florence Wambugu, the CEO of Africa Harvest and a scientist who formerly worked with Monsanto, helped develop Tissue Culture Banana (TC banana). Banana diseases are often spread through “unclean” planting material. But TC banana technology allows scientists to use biotechnology for the “rapid and large scale multiplication” of disease free bananas—a single shoot can produce 2,000 individual banana plantlets.

Africa Harvest is also working on biofortifying sorghum with Vitamin A, creating “golden sorghum.” 

“But of course, there remains the thorny issue of control—among the biggest stumbling blocks for sharing any technology across countries and regions. Biotechnology has so far been largely owned by the private sector.” So, in addition to researching crop production, Africa Harvest is also working to improve capacity building for scientists all over Africa. “If we’re going to have GMOs on the continent,” says Kamanga, “we want scientists who know how to do it.” Along with that, Africa Harvest is working to strengthen regulatory systems for biotechnology.

And how does Africa Harvest respond to criticism about the development and use of biotechnology in agriculture? According to Kamanga, it’s an “old debate” and one that takes place in 5-star hotels, not in farmers’ fields. The issue now, he says, is how we make the best use of this technology.

Filling a Need for African-Based Reporting on Agriculture

I've been trying to read as many African newspapers as I can while traveling. In Ethiopia I read the The Herald, in Kenya, the Daily Nation, in Tanzania, The Guardian, and here in Uganda, I'm reading the Uganda Record. One thing that I've noticed in all these papers are the large number of articles on agriculture, hunger, climate change, poverty, HIV/AIDS, malaria, and water and sanitation. It's not surprising--all of these issues impact sub-Saharan Africa in a big way.

What is surprising, however, is the lack of African journalists writing these articles. Most are pulled from newswires, like Reuters and AP, or from the International Herald Tribune and UK-based papers. That means there's not only very little on-the-ground reporting from the continent, but also that the people who know best about what's really happening here aren't the ones writing about the issues.

But there are efforts underway to increase reporting about Africa from Africans. The International Center for Journalists received a $2 million grant, three-year grant in 2008 from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to improve coverage of agriculture and health. They're placing journalists from the U.S. in four key African countries--Ghana, Malawi, Tanzania, and Senegal-- where they will lead projects with African journalists, helping them improve not only coverage, but the quality of the articles they're writing. The project will also help train "citizen journalist" stringers who can relay information from the village level via cellphones.

And earlier this year, the Gates Foundation also awarded a two-year grant to the Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism to develop an intensive training program for African journalists to promote high-quality coverage of agricultural issues.

These projects could be at least partly inspired by grants the Soros Foundation and the Open Society Institute have been giving for training journalists in the former Soviet Republics and in Eastern Europe. The Independent Journalism Institute provides similar programs for journalists in Eastern Europe and Southeast Asia.

These types of grants--and hopefully future funding from other donors--are an important way of not only generating news stories, but informing African people about what's taking place on a daily basis in their own country.

There's more...

Toothless: The Watchdog Press That Became the Government's Lapdog (Part 2: Lapdogs Get Some Teeth)

In Part 1, award-winning journalist Walter Brasch looked at the press that had abdicated their role as watchdogs upon the government during the Bush-Cheney Administration. In Part 2, he looks at some of the media that tried to restore the dignity and the role of the mass media to question authority.

There's more...

Paparazzi, on their way to harass Lohan, stalk the Obamas.

I'm not giving the AP the satisfaction of linking to the story here. What happened was a "normally unflappable" Obama and his two young daughters were harassed by the press on their way to celebrate Halloween.

Fellow parents and former children (but apparently not members of Obama's press pool) all understand that this is not ground any self-respecting journalist should tread on, especially if you consider how little time Obama has had for his family the past TWO YEARS. His daughters had already given up trick or treating to protect their neighbors from the media mob.

Appropriately, Obama was irritated by the encounter, and he and his daughters had to run for cover from the gathering mass of press breathing down their necks.

There's more...

MSNBC/AP bury story re: Todd Palin's Troopergate testimony

Yesterday, we took a peek at MSNBC's failure to properly report data about Joe Biden beating Sarah Palin by 26 points in favorability ratings after Thursday's debate.  Today, MSNBC continues to mislead by posting an AP article with the headline:
Todd Palin will talk to Troopergate investigator
Probe examining whether Alaska governor improperly fired commissioner
Sadly, a more accurate headline would read:
Todd Palin still refuses to testify in Troopergate probe
Will only speak to second probe run by political appointees answering to Gov. Sarah Palin

There's more...

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