IITA Launches Biotech Communications to Boost Africa’s Training Activities

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International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) says it has launched a Biotech Communications Capacity Building programme to implement Africa’s training activities in partnership with the Cornell Alliance for Science (AfS).

Launched last September, the four-year project plans to address misinformation around crop biotechnology, specifically genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and genome-edited products.

AfS seeks to promote access to scientific innovation as a means of enhancing food security, improving environmental sustainability, and raising the quality of life globally.

It is building a global network of science allies who share its commitment to solve complex global hunger issues by leveraging advances in agriculture, including biotechnology.

AfS trains with a purpose, empowering science champions around the world with the tools and skills needed to communicate effectively about science and promote evidence-based decision-making.

‘’We provide accurate information about agricultural biotechnology and share the stories of those who are engaged in its development and implementation through our photographs, videos, blog posts, fact sheets, and other multimedia resources’’, AfS says.

Using this three-pronged approach, the Cornell Alliance for Science works to ensure global access to life-improving agricultural innovations that can shrink farming’s footprint, deliver food security, reduce the drudgery of field work that often falls on women and children, provide rural families with sufficient income to educate their children, and inspire young people to pursue a career in agriculture and science

Another object is countering conspiracy theories and disinformation campaigns that hinder climate change, synthetic biology, and agricultural innovations.

The IITA component of the project will focus on leadership development and capacity building of effective science messengers. These messengers include but are not limited to scientists, media practitioners, farmers, and policymakers.

The learning programs will focus on the benefits of genome editing and GMOs and why it is important to regulate these products in a science-based and informed manner.

According to Patricia Nanteza, the IITA project manager, “African countries need to regulate the products of genome editing and GMOs based on science and evidence. In the past, there have policies that have been passed based on fear and popular opinion.

‘’These policies have succeeded in closing out agricultural innovation in Africa, yet the continent’s farmers need improved seed to fight the ever-evolving pests and diseases and unpredictable climate change.”

Patricia leads the Alliance for Science training programme, equipping farmers, journalists, and policy influencers with the skills necessary to speak up and demand policies that are science-based and pro-farmer. She is also a science writer for IITA in Nigeria and associate director of Science Stories Africa.

Patricia came to Cornell University in 2015 as part of the first cohort of the Alliance for Science Global Leadership Fellows. She helped develop a grassroots biotechnology sensitization strategy that was implemented upon her return to Uganda.

After country-wide grassroots training sessions, participating farmers realized the need for GM technology and gained confidence to speak up and demand access to these improved seeds. This movement, alongside the long-term efforts of several other partners in Uganda, led to the passing of the Biosafety Bill by Uganda’s parliament, which currently awaits presidential assent for it to become a functional law.

Patricia further explains that the project presents an opportunity to showcase the technology to stakeholders for what it is—a technology that offers the continent tools to produce better food quality and quantity for improved food security.

“We know that GMOs and genome editing are not a silver bullet that will solve Africa’s food insecurity problems, but we are aware that quality seed is ‘the most vital and crucial input for crop production’. It is one of the ways to increase productivity without increasing the acreage of land under cultivation,” she said.

She notes that despite Africa boasting vast arable land, wildlife, and the highest equatorial mountains and tropical rainforests globally, it still has the second-highest number of hungry people after Asia. “It is unfair that one in five African children is malnourished and goes to bed hungry. It is unfair that African farmers continue to lose their crops due to droughts or pests like fall armyworm or diseases like banana bacterial wilt when a solution is available in the form of genome-edited or genetically engineered crops. This project is here to appeal to minds through training stakeholders on the possibilities of new agricultural innovations.

“We look forward to countries regulating animal and crop products from GE technology based on scientific evidence. We are proud to be associated with IITA—Africa’s leading research partner that is already working on genome-edited products such as banana, resistant to brown streak virus,” Patricia said.

The project is funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and will work with other institutions, including, Open Forum on Agricultural Biotechnology in Africa (OFAB), African Biosafety Network of Expertise (ABNE), International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), BeCA, national research institutions, and farmer organizations.

The Alliance for Science is a global science communications initiative based at Cornell University in New York, USA.

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