Reality Check

“Is food security in Africa really a problem that needs to be tackled by science?”

So began today’s most provocative talk, given by Stellenbosch University geochemist Martin Fey. “The cynical answer is yes—if you want to attract research funds,” he continued. “But the real answer surely lies elsewhere. There are many constraints on food security in Africa, the least of these being scientific knowledge.”

Fey pointed out that Malawi’s remarkable turnaround came not by way of some new scientific discovery, product, or advance but simply by providing subsidized chemical fertilizers and good seeds. “I see too much of science being extended as the answer to Africa’s food security,” he added. “But I’m pretty sure that it’s not science we need.”

Later I asked Sospeter Muhongo, regional director of the International Council for Science here in Africa, what he had made of Fey’s argument. “We should not be questioning whether science is key to improving Africa’s food security,” he told me. “To restrict our tools to simple science is shortsighted. Considering our existing food shortages and growing population, we must look to modern and appropriate science and technology—for example, biotechnology—to increase our food supply in the future. There simply is no other way.”

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