Is biotechnology a panacea?

cover_photo1Biotechnology is often understood to mean a single technology. In reality it is a collection of technologies that can be applied to address many challenges in agriculture (crop and animal health, food production) pharmaceuticals, and medicine. Biotechnology is often seen as a panacea which is not the case; it is one more tool, albeit an important one, in the arsenal of tools used against the challenges humanity faces. In agriculture, the technology can help accelerate the development of crops resistant to insects and disease, the development of new uses for agricultural products, livestock vaccines, and improved food qualities. African institutions from Cairo to Cape Town, from Dakar to Dar-es-Salaam are using biotechnology in diverse ways.

IITA’s position on biotechnologies is similar to that on all other sciences. We think Africa, its ministries, universities, teaching hospitals, and other research institutions, should not be excluded from any science. Just the need to know, so as to advice governments on the usefulness of a technology to a country’s needs, requires their involvement and knowledge in that science. Whether a particular product of that technology, e.g., genetically modified crops, is adopted or not, is a decision made by governments and not by scientists.

A vibrant local market in Ibadan, Nigeria. Photo by IITA
A vibrant local market in Ibadan, Nigeria. Photo by IITA

Although many African governments are on the brink of embracing the promised benefits of biotechnology, they have not totally committed in terms of providing government funding for more research in agricultural and social/economic development, or policy support for science. What is needed is for R4D institutions, such as IITA and its partners to continue to provide knowledge about these important technologies and their possible impact on sub-Saharan Africa.

This issue highlights some of the cutting-edge work that IITA and its partners (AATF, NARS, donors, NGOs) are doing to help find solutions to problems in tropical agriculture, and thus provide more food and improved livelihoods for the millions of people depending on agriculture. The R4D Review welcomes feedback and comment about any of the information and work featured in this issue. We encourage you to visit the online R4D Review at

“IITA does not and has not approved or disapproved the use of GM crops in any country. IITA uses all available scientific tools and approaches in its attempt to address hunger and poverty, but the decision to reject or approve and adopt any GM products is the domain and responsibility of the respective national governments. IITA, and rightly so, has no say in such a decison. Any comments to the contrary misrepresent the facts.” —Hartmann, IITA Director General [updated from print version on 25/03/09 ED]

Please participate

Although the initial posts of R4D Review are done by IITA we really want to change our role to being facilitators of research for development ideas, initiatives, collaborations, projects, highlights and critical reviews. Your participation is essential to make this a R4D knowledge resource. In addition to posting comments on the articles we are looking for new sources of solid, useful ideas that can improve research-for-development practice. Please submit your contributions to

Prospective authors can also send submissions, communications, comments, and suggestions to

The Editor, R4D Review.

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R4D Review launched

For more than four decades, IITA and partners have been developing award-winning solutions to the severe and complex problems that plague agricultural systems in Africa. Our science is based on cutting-edge, authoritative thinking anchored on development needs of the hungry and poor. We focus on research for development (R4D) that reduces producer and consumer risks, improves productivity and production, and generates wealth.

Bustling market. Photo IITA

Many promising solutions remain on shelves because participation in their development and access to such knowledge have been limited. We launch this 6-monthly R4D Review in print and interactive online versions based upon open source principles. The free flow of information and participation in knowledge development with partners, investors, beneficiaries, and others help to accelerate the development, dissemination, and continuous improvement of innovative solutions.

We encourage you to visit and participate in the online R4D Review at, which provides the essential interactive and collaborative environment to share views, ideas, and innovations. The print version does not help with dialogue as the online version does, but it provides access to some of the solutions which otherwise may be impossible to obtain online. We would like to encourage you to share your copy of the print version with others and try to give us feedback through other means, such as a letter to the editor or email

Each R4D Review will have general information and a more particular focus. This maiden issue focuses on bananas, highlighting the important work done by our scientists and partners to address problems in banana growing and development. We also forward a perspective on how the current food crisis provides Africa with opportunities to turn agriculture around, and achieve food security and economic development. We present insider and outsider views about our R4D work and partnerships, and emphasize the breadth and depth of R4D work in developing solutions and its impact on natural resource management and sustainability, producer communities, and markets.

The R4D Review is looking for new sources of solid, useful ideas that can improve research-for-development practice. Please submit your contributions or participate in the R4D Review interactive site at The general guidelines for contributions are also available at this site. Prospective authors can also send submissions, communications, comments, and suggestions to: The Editor, R4D Review. The quickest is to email

Banana and Plantain Systems

Bananas drawg
Grown by smallholder farmers, bananas and plantains are major food staples and two of the leading cash crops, both in the East African Great Lakes zone and the West African humid lowlands. Diverse banana cultivars are grown for a number of uses, including brewing (juice bananas), cooking and roasting, as well as sweet dessert bananas. Banana starch, flour, and chips are processed banana products whose markets are yet to be fully developed. Because of its cash crop status, farmers are more likely to adopt high-level management technologies in order to intensify production and yet sustain the natural resource base in the systems. Clearly, much progress can be realized with more profitable and sustainable banana systems.

Since the 1970s, reports of low and declining banana yields have been widespread. Some have attributed this phenomenon to constraints such as soil degradation, pests, poor crop husbandry, and drought. In this project, the hypothesis is that these constraints are, to a large extent, interlinked. Although each constraint can, on its own, potentially cause serious yield decline, the complex interactions between a number of them compound yield losses.

The overall purpose of the banana and plantain project is to enhance the performance of banana and plantain systems within smallholder farms in sub-Saharan Africa.

The main project objectives are:

  • To increase knowledge on ecosystems, social systems, and commodity chains related to banana and plantain production in
  • To research ways to improve profitability of banana and plantain systems in Africa
  • To improve the quality of banana- and plantain-based food products