[For further information on the Electronic Forum on Biotechnology in Food and Agriculture see the Forum website.
Note, participants are assumed to be speaking on their own behalf, unless they state otherwise.]

-----Original Message-----
From: Biotech-Mod4
Sent: 01 July 2009 09:20
To: 'biotech-room4@mailserv.fao.org'
Subject: 79: Success/failure of agricultural biotechnology - Nigeria - fermentation

My name is Mojisola O. Edema, Senior Lecturer in Food Microbiology and Biotechnology, University of Agriculture, Abeokuta, Nigeria.

I will like to contribute to the current e-mail conference on "Learning from the past: Successes and failures with agricultural biotechnologies in developing countries over the last 20 years". My focus will be on section 2.10 of the Background Document, that is Fermentation, which is one of my specific areas of research. I have been involved in research focused on fermentation of locally available substrates (indigenous cereals, tubers and other substrates) with autochthonous starter cultures.

May I start my contribution with some definitions?

1. Success is the achievement of an intention, that is, something planned or attempted which turns out well.

2. Failure on the other hand, is a lack of success in or at something. It could connote something that falls short of what is required or expected, breakdown or decline in the performance of something, or lack of development, production or growth.

With those definitions, I will like to submit that fermentation as an agricultural biotechnology has succeeded in developing countries with Nigeria as a point of reference. There is virtually no household in Nigeria that does not depend on one fermented food or another in their daily meals. Besides, some of these fermented foods and their by-products are also taken as remedies for certain ailments. For example, "Omidun" the liquid decanted from "Ogi", fermented cereal gruel, is used in the treatment of childhood diarrhea. However, the science of fermentation using modern biotechnologies has gone far beyond what operates in fermented food processing in Nigeria today. The household level technology use of back-slopping as against defined starter cultures is a major setback that makes fermentation fall short of modern agricultural biotechnology. This lack of development beyond small to medium scale household technologies could be regarded as a failure of fermentation as a biotechnology in Nigeria.

Case study of sour maize/cassava bread: My post-graduate research work was on production of bread from maize, and later cassava, in order to encourage the use of these locally available substrates in bread production rather than imported wheat, which hardly grows in Nigeria. In developing the products, I discovered that the flour/meal from maize or cassava did not lend itself to conventional straight dough process using bakers' yeast and I adopted the sour dough process wherein I developed starter cultures from indigenous microbiota of the flours/meals. The success of this research is that the breads are acceptable on their merits not when compared with white pan bread. (Sensory evaluation and consumer acceptability test results showed that the bread was acceptable as sour maize or cassava bread but panelists didnt feel it should be compared with white pan bread. Some even suggested the use of other names to express that the product is different from conventional bread. I guess this is because sour dough is not common in Nigeria).

I can conclude based on my experience with my research so far that the reasons for success or failure of agricultural biotechnology in developing countries include:

1. Socio-cultural and economic reasons, consumer interests and perceptions. A lot of work is required in this regard to strategically take cultural values, consumer preferences and perceptions into consideration or to avoid wide deviations from the norms where possible in (genetic or other technology-based) modifications of traditional foods. The political will of the government in some regions like Sub-Saharan Africa to get involved in public enlightenment and education programs is mandatory to aid acceptability where the modified foods products are significantly different from the culturally known forms.

2. Regulations: The role of regulations in the development of food biotechnology in developing countries is very important and inconsistencies in regulations can be considered a factor causing the delay in applications of biotechnologies. A number of countries in developing countries either lack regulations guiding the implementation of such technologies, or lack the manpower and facilities to apply and/or enforce existing regulations. For example, many African countries, e.g. Nigeria, do not have biosafety laws in place. This prevents applications such as field trials and, of course, delays commercialization. I have attempted to try some of the modified cassava varieties with high quality protein of Prof Nagib Nassar in Brazil but cannot do so as Nigeria does not have a biosafety law.

3. Networking: A major reason for the successes achieved in the implementation of various biotechnologies in developing countries is the strong networking among food researchers with their overseas counterparts in the developed world. This networking is giving rise to a large pool of dedicated researchers in the field of food science and technology, many of whom are exposed to modern biotechnologies in various aspects of food processing and related fields. Such networks also enhance the quality of research in developing countries making research that is carried out in these regions at a par with that carried out in developed countries. However, many scientists who visit advanced labs abroad return home to limited facilities which often limit continued efforts technologies learnt.

Of course there are other issues some of which have been previously mentioned by contributors to this conference (inadequate facilities and funding), while others are related to IPR (intellectual property rights) environmental/conservation/ecological concerns etc.

There is definitely a need for a strong resolve from all stakeholders in developing countries to achieve more successes in adoption, application and development of agricultural biotechnology in the affected regions.

Moji Edema, PhD
Department of Microbiology,
University of Agriculture,
PMB 2240, 11001, Nigeria.
edemamo (at) unaab.edu.ng
Tel: +234-39-245291-2 (Office)
Tel: +234-8089816937 (Mobile)
Tel: +234-39-773252 (Home)

[For anyone particularly interested in fermented foods in developing countries and the applications of biotechnologies to processing of foods, note that Conference 11 of this FAO Biotechnology Forum was entitled "Biotechnology applications in food processing: Can developing countries benefit?". The background document, messages posted and summary document of this e-mail conference are available at http://www.fao.org/biotech/Conf11.htm ...Moderator].

-----Original Message-----
From: Biotech-Mod4
Sent: 01 July 2009 15:15
To: 'biotech-room4@mailserv.fao.org'
Subject: 80: The pursuit of academic butterflies

This is from Denis Murphy, Head of Biotechnology Unit, University of Glamorgan, United Kingdom.

One of the themes mentioned by several participants in this e-mail conference is the lack of capacity and focus on practical areas of agricultural research in developing countries. In some cases, colleagues have mentioned the 'internal brain drain' away from research centres (Message 21 by Agyemang Kojo; Message 23 by Worku Damena Yifru; Message 43 by E.M. Muralidharan) and the selection of projects to suit external donors or academic fashion rather then more relevant 'real world' research challenges such as improving subsistence crops (Message 31 by Satish Kumar; Message 32 by Von Mark Cruz; Message 36 by Olusola Oyewole; Message 43 by E.M. Muralidharan; Message 48 by Uche Chikezie; Message 68 by C Tom Hash).

Here I will address the topic of balancing applied versus basic research. Over the past 30 years I have worked in the public sector where the trend away from applied research to more prestigious basic research is now a more or less global phenomenon. This was recognised by none other than the father of the Green Revolution, Norman Borlaug, who was especially focussed on practically orientated research on crop improvement. He restricted his staff to projects that were "relevant to increasing wheat production." Borlaug later recalled that: "Researches in pursuit of irrelevant academic butterflies were discouraged, both because of the acute shortage of scientific manpower and because of the need to have data and materials available as soon as possible for use in the production program." (Murphy 2007, p87)

This focus on applied research in the public sector began to unravel in the UK when the Plant Breeding Institute (Cambridge, UK), which I joined in 1989, was one of the first centres to be privatised. There followed a retreat by publicly funded labs into more academic areas that now affects both industrialised and developing countries. Meanwhile, the private sector went on to develop many of the newer biotechnologies, especially those associated with genetic engineering.

The shift away from practical work was reinforced by a worldwide process I have termed 'academisation' (Murphy 2007, pp 140-146). This involves a network of structural mechanisms including research funding, promotion, career development, peer group esteem, and institutional ranking that explicitly favour what is perceived as high quality academically excellent work. Examples of the latter would include basic research into developmental biology and similar 'cutting-edge' disciplines leading to highly cited papers in high impact journals, plus invitations to prestigious international meetings.

Therefore, I am afraid that the route to career advancement for many ambitious researchers across the world today is precisely to pursue the "academic butterflies" that were so disparaged by Norman Borlaug all those years ago. As an external assessor of research and development programmes in both industrialised and developing countries, I am only too aware of these tensions. Agricultural biotechnology involves many high-tech approaches that require well-trained and highly motivated graduates. And yet our education, training, and reward systems tend to direct people towards the seductive allure of basic research at the expense of what is often portrayed as the more mundane task of practical crop or livestock improvement.

I find it difficult to blame people who choose to study the basic mechanisms of chromosome pairing in meiosis or DNA methylation, instead of focusing on more immediate practical tasks like selecting a new variety of blight-resistant wheat or rice. Indeed, under present circumstances, I would probably be reluctant to advise a really ambitious student to move into agriculturally applied biology. That is unless they felt some sort of vocational attraction and were willing to forego the chance of more conventional career advancement in the academic sector.

So, what are we to do? Personally, I think we need to do all we can to boost the status of applied researchers and to ensure they are equally rewarded compared to more academic colleagues for their arguably more important (to humanity) work. The public sector in all countries should shift the balance back towards socially valuable applied research and development and bodies like the European Union (EU) should channel collaborative funding with developing countries towards such areas. In this way, the public sector might 'recapture' ownership of strategic biotechnologies (e.g. GM) so that they are employed for the common good as well as for private profit.

Professor Denis J Murphy
Head of Biotechnology Unit and Head of Research
Division of Biological Sciences,
University of Glamorgan
CF37 1DL,
United Kingdom
tel: +44 1443 483 747
email: dmurphy2@glam.ac.uk
website: http://people.glam.ac.uk/view/184

Reference: Murphy DJ (2007) Plant Breeding and Biotechnology: Societal Context and the Future of Agriculture, Cambridge University Press, UK

Return to Archives of this conference or go to the main Forum pages. Note: you must join the Forum to participate in these discussions.