Science, technology and innovation for Africa with the EU-Africa High Level Policy Dialogue stakeholder panel

What does it mean to work towards Sustainable Development? Pat Heslop-Harrison, editor of Annals of Botany, has been discussing the issue in Brussels with European stakeholders.

Sustainable development is one of those phrases that everyone is happy to support, but what does it mean in practical terms? What are the goals? The first of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals #SDG is ‘No Poverty’. Why are farming families, the primary producers of our food, among the poorest groups in Africa, Asia, and South America? The second SDG is ‘Zero Hunger’. Why are farming families, the primary producers of our food, among the groups most affected by hunger and famine in Africa, Asia, and South America? The third SDG is ‘Good Health and Wellbeing’. You get the pattern now, but I again ask why do farming families, the primary producers of our food, and this time throughout the world from Europe to Australia, suffer poor health, dangers and accidents in their work, and low measures of well-being? The SDGs, following the Millennium Development Goals or MDGs, are 17 global goals set by the United Nations to transform our world by 2030.

Pat Heslop-Harrison and others discuss Sustainable Development Goals

I was a panelist last week in Brussels discussing the Africa‐EU Research and Innovation (R&I) Partnership on food and nutrition security and sustainable agriculture (FNSSA), including the programme InnovAfrica. I opened my remarks with these questions about farmers and the SDGs. Achieving the SDGs are strong motivators for the research and other work of many botanists, including myself. How can all of us help subsistence farmers and smallholders throughout the world to meet the challenges they face? We need innovations in agriculture, the topic of this meeting. I may not have noticed much poverty in my train trip across England, France, and Belgium to take part, but everyone needs innovation in agriculture. Over most of the last millennium, we have realized many times that our agricultural practices are not sustainable, but in the main, we have been able to catch our mistakes. The dust-bowls of the 1930s in the US were stopped, but still 10 tons of soil per second is washed away down the Mississippi River. Slash-and-burn, followed by a few seasons of bounty before yields dropped to nothing, has destroyed some tropical ecosystems, but others regenerated. The forests of the UK were replaced by grasslands, forever changing their diversity. We need to think urgently about what we need to do to ensure the continued sustainability of productive agriculture. As often the case, the mantra ‘think globally, act locally’ applies, and we can individually, as scientists, make a difference, and that effort can be magnified through the 17th and last of the SDGs: through “Partnerships for the Goals”. My project on Ensete, Abysinnian banana (with Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, and University of Addis Ababa) is an example of an action: how can we leverage our knowledge of banana to understand and use the diversity in Ensete to provide food security of this significant starch crop?

Technological Solutions for Sustainable Agriculture

The second part of my comments at the meeting focused on the messages from European Parliament report “Technological Solutions for Sustainable Agriculture”. This (the predecessor to legislation since the European Parliament is very unusual in that it cannot propose laws directly) was adopted by the EP and was led through the approval and votes by Member of the European Parliament, MEP, Anthea McIntyre. Written from a European perspective, almost all the sections actually apply in a global context and suggest many of the ways that Africa can be moving forward. The whole report including the European Commission’s response can be downloaded from the UK National Farmers Union site, NFU or in more variable formats and many languages from the EuroParl site.

Following sections of the report (bold here), I noted that Genetic diversity was critical to use in agriculture and that Precision breeding approaches must be enabled to develop improved lines to meet the challenges, whether from climate change, or for Soil, water and nutrient management, and we need science-based approval and regulation of Plant protection products. For both small and large farmers, and to increase sustainability and reliability, Precision farming technologies as well as better ways to analyse Big data and informatics, are needed. How will we achieve these aims? Research and funding priorities need to be right, something this panel is working towards, and Skill development and knowledge transfer gives people the capacity to contribute to the goals. One of the questioners at the meeting later picked me up for ‘hand-waving’, but in even a stretched 7-minute introduction before the panel discussion, it was impossible to give concrete examples. However, we do have many examples, including from projects showcased at this EU meeting by RINEA showing “Cooperation across continents: success stories from joint Africa-EU research funding – the ERAfrica partnership”.

Application of research is always a challenge, and we also discussed the need for integrating sustainable agricultural intensification systems, reducing land and water usage and including newly developed germplasm, with innovative institutional approaches (with novel extension and advisory services) to enhance the farms of smallholders in Sub-Saharan Africa. Collaboration at all levels is needed, from the political through academics, plant breeders to smallholders – a true Multi-Actor Platform, or MAP in the jargon, to improve smallholder income. Of course, worldwide collaboration is needed also for germplasm movement, although current rules are restrictive: where would Africa be without two major crops, cassava, and maize, from the New World? Where would the New World be without its major cereals of wheat and barley? I’ve also been making the point that it may be difficult to transfer germplasm of a single crop species, but we now know that the microbiota of the soil are critical to the performance of a crop. Will be we able to study and exploit the diversity of these organisms – an unknown number of species, some certainly undescribed?


In other sessions, a speaker asked a rhetorical question, showing a vast field, “… why does agriculture need to look like this?”. The speaker had earlier shown an African woman (one of the 80% of the population engaged in agriculture) bent double under the sun, weeding her small, but undoubtedly productive smallholding. My question in return was “Does she – and maybe more importantly, her children want to be working like that today, tomorrow, next Friday and the following week too?” I am certainly happy not to be toiling day-in, day-out, in fields like my great-great-great grandparents, so that is why agriculture has moved to larger plots. Still though, even in the US (with 2% of the population engaged in agriculture) and Europe, the family farm is the basis for food production. I made the point that with the technology of autonomous control of vehicles, robotics and image processing, we have perhaps reached the point that the approach of the African smallholder, with intensive cropping and individual tending of each plant, can now be applied in Europe. And the same technology can be adapted to the smallholder – we no longer will need combine-harvesters or tractor-equipment combinations costing upwards for €/$250,000, but can use small, intelligent machinery working whenever the weather is suitable. During the discussion, use of ‘proven’ or ‘low-tech’ agricultural solutions was brought up. But what is proven about the data revolution or mobile smartphone technology, now part of everyone’s life?

Of course, everyone at the discussion was united on the need for Africa‐EU research for food and nutrition security and sustainable agriculture. There are many unexpected questions though: why does Africa have the lowest fruit and vegetable consumption of any continent? Why is fuelwood still used by 2.4 billion people for cooking or heating with inefficient open fires: requiring hours of toil, devastating the environment, and through poor combustion leading to bad health? Using a stove gives instant relief from the drudgery of fuelwood collection and the rasping cough of respiratory irritation. Why do people turn to eating more meat as they become richer, with health and environmental consequences? Changing behavior takes a lot of effort, and one way to start is through education at all levels from the primary school to the MSc and PhD.

Women working

My Grandmother was named May, born in 1886 when the Crataegus (known as May in English) was in full bloom. The book by Roger Thurlow, “The Last Hunger Season”, describes names for children in Kenya: had she been born in Africa, her name may have been Wanjala, ‘Hunger’, being born in the gap after the plants have all been harvested and fodder has run out. Later in the year, her Kenyan name could have been Wanyonyi, ‘Weeding’. With science, research and education, combined with good policy in countries, global approaches and partnerships, and good governance, we can certainly see that innovation and technological solutions can lead to sustainable food and nutrition security and help us meet the Sustainable Development Goals.