“We will appreciate more support from the government; such support can come in form of putting in place the necessary resources or by simply engaging the research institutes through funding to encourage investment in agriculture.”
Above are the words of Dr. Robert Asiedu, the Director, Research for Development, for IITA-West Africa. He also leads the Institute’s work on Biotechnology and Crop Improvement.
Dr. Robert Asiedu holds a PhD degree in Agricultural Science from the University of Adelaide, Australia, and a BSc. Honors degree from the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology, Kumasi, Ghana. A Chartered Biologist, he is a member of the Society of Biology and the International Society for Tropical Root Crops.
He joined IITA in 1989 to work as a breeder of root and tuber crops, after a Postdoctoral Research Fellowship at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), Mexico, where he worked on the transfer of useful traits to wheat from its wild relatives. Dr. Asiedu has supervised or coordinated collaborative R4D projects with NARIs in Africa, published widely in international peer-reviewed journals, and contributed to the formal release of several high-yielding and pest-resistant yam varieties by national research partners in Nigeria and Ghana. Together with university lecturers, he also co-supervised the thesis research on root and tuber crops of many postgraduate students, mostly in Africa.
As our personality of the month, AgroBusiness Times had a chat with him at the IITA headquarters in Ibadan, Oyo State capital.
IITA, the journey so far
The journey has been great; we have made a lot of achievement working with major parties particularly in terms of crops improvement, to come up with range of new varieties for the six crops we work on in terms of breeding, namely, cassava, yam, maize, plantain, cowpea and soya beans. For all the crops aforementioned, we have worked together with some institutes in Nigeria to come up with variety that have superior attributes in terms of yield, resistance to pest and diseases and also adaptation to change in the environment.
What have been your challenges in advancing this business of research?
The usual challenges have been the resources to do work and the way we got around this; it is to make a case for why we need the resources and then we must also convince the donor community that we are capable of using the resources to do what we promised them we plan to do, in the interest of the public.
We will appreciate more support from the government; such support can come in form of putting in place the necessary resources or by simply engaging the research institutes through funding, to encourage investment in agriculture.
Almost every African government will tell you that agriculture is their highest priority, only very few of them actually prioritized agriculture during resource allocation, it makes things difficult to make progress. We have about 200 scientists working for the sub-Saharan Africa; this is just like a little drop in the ocean. So, the best we can do is to engage the national institutions and if they are not well supported, it makes it very difficult to move forward. I will say support from government to agricultural research is limited.
Public acceptance of GMO, how do you intend to surmount this challenge?
Through education and communication, I believe that those who are objective about it would be able to appreciate and understand that this is just additional tool we are using. Plants breeding have a very long history and farmers themselves have been selecting what they want overtime and they have also been relying on what nature creates while they do the selection out of what they have. With the advent of science, we work to understand how we can speed up the process creating new things to address the challenges and take advantage of the opportunities at hand.
As science advances, you discover that additional tools are needed because the tools that we depend on over the years cannot contain the expanding nature and new challenges we are now facing. We have to make new advancement to speed up the rate at which we come up with a solution to the challenges and also exploit the opportunities that we have. The techniques of creating new types of crops are numerous, so coming up with genetic modification of plants is another set of approach that we are using to be able to address situations where the conventional method cannot work.
For those who will listen properly, you have to ask them this question. If you have a disease devastating a large area when the other options are not going to work, you have the option of telling people in the area that you are sorry there is no solution.
You just have to live with it, if it means hunger, you live with it. Then the alternative is to say we do have new methods of addressing this and we are not going to deny the people solution that this method will bring simply because, some people are nervous about it. In essence, education and communication are key at this point. In Nigeria, we have tried that with the people in the legislative arm and the media explaining exactly what happens and we are open, we don’t cover up anything.
We can explain the processes in detail for anyone who wants to understand and will be convinced that it is just the advancement of science.