When Sierra Leone’s Monty Jones won the 2004 World Food Prize for developing a “new rice for Africa” in the 1990s, all of Africa cheered. Jones, a graduate of the University of Sierra Leone, with a M.Sc. in plant genetic resources and a Ph.D. in plant biology from Britain’s University of Birmingham, is the first African laureate in the prize’s 18-year history. Twelve African diplomats based in Washington, D.C., and representing countries in north, south, east and west Africa, traveled to Des Moines, Iowa, to participate in the prize ceremonies. Their joint statement speaks volumes about the hope that resides in the work of the rice-breeding expert:
“Through this award Dr. Jones brings global recognition not only to his own efforts with the team at the West Africa Rice Development Association, but to the thousands of African scientists who are working hard to find breakthroughs to end hunger and poverty in Africa,” they said. “Dr. Jones’s achievements illustrate the great potential of Africa’s agriculture to feed hungry people, but the challenges are great.” Therein lie the reasons for Africa’s pride and exultation over Monty Jones.
NERICA, the acronym for “new rice for Africa,” is a technological breakthrough by an African at a research institute in Africa. Working with African and Asian strains, Jones discovered the genetic process by which NERICA could be created, producing a plant with higher yields, shorter growing cycles and more protein than either of its parents. With the ability to resist weeds, survive droughts and thrive on poor soils gained from its African parent and the trait of higher productivity from its Asian ancestor, NERICA is capable of increasing farmers’ harvests by up to 50 percent. According to press reports, this feat already is producing enhanced harvests for thousands of poor farmers, most of them women, with the potential to benefit 20 million farmers in west Africa alone.
Monty Jones’s rice could not have come at a more opportune time. A report published in June by the InterAcademy Council, an umbrella group for science academies worldwide, says that about a third of sub-Saharan Africa’s population is undernourished. The report, “Mobilizing Science and Technology to Realize the Potential of African Agriculture,” notes that “over 200 million Africans are chronically hungry.”
At the same time, Africa is beginning to see signs of “overnutrition,” a blight rampaging in America’s Black communities. “With increasing urbanization in Africa there is a food and nutritional transition under way leading to problems of overnutrition such as increased obesity, diabetes, hypertension and cardiovascular risks,” the InterAcademy Council says. “This is fuelled by supermarkets, new food processing technologies, increased private foreign investment, television and media penetration, and the increasing opportunity costs of time. This is likely to be a growing problem towards 2015,” it adds.
All this sounds like food terrorism to me.
The high-yield promise of NERICA does little to address overnutrition. At the ninth triennial symposium of the International Society for Tropical Roots Crops - Africa branch, African scientists berated the continent’s leaders for neglecting traditional crops like cassava, yams, sorghum and millet and emphasizing imported ones that grow only in selected climatic conditions.
K. I. Nwosu, a director of Nigeria’s National Root Crops Research Institute, was among the most outspoken on this issue. “The future of Africa relies on tubers and roots. This is an untapped gold mine which could turn around the current food situation on the continent if well utilized,” he told the November gathering in Mombasa, Kenya. Cassava, Nwosu noted, could be a good source of food because it can grow in almost all areas. Indeed, aside from their nutritional value—yams, for instance, protect bones, heart and arteries—most traditional crops are drought-resistant and have low production costs, tuber specialists argue.
Some leaders are taking their admonishment to heart. Cyrus Githunguri of the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute points out that Nigeria has banned the importation of wheat, and manufacturers use the local crop mixed with cassava to produce “wheat flour.” That’s a fighting stance. Counting on higher yields of rice and renewing emphasis on traditional crops in the interest of its food security, Africa could soon find itself doing battle with giant food companies hungry for markets in the developing world.
In a world where the new rules declare that any country that deems its security threatened has a right to protect itself, surely Africa can count on a solid coalition of support in the event of such a battle.
By Rosalind McLymont