‘If you have no food, you have hunger’: Why one Nigerian biotech scientist breeds drought-tolerant and biofortified corn

sylvester oikeh
Dr. Sylvester Oikeh evaluates the performance of conventional, drought-tolerant maize (DroughtTEGO®) at a field demonstration plot in Embu, Kenya. Credit: AATF

Nigerian scientist Dr. Sylvester Oikeh has long used his research prowess to advance healthy crops for humanitarian purposes.

His motivation is simple: to improve lives.

“To most children in Africa, food is what you get from the farm,” Oikeh said. “There is no marketplace. If you have no food, you have hunger.”

To help keep African children from suffering hunger and malnourishment, Oikeh has been instrumental to two important projects: HarvestPlus and Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA).

As a postdoctoral fellow at Cornell University, Oikeh established for the first time the link between iron and zinc in maize grain and improved human nutrition. His proof of concept research and expertise informed the work of HarvestPlus, a global partnership that won the 2016 World Food Prize for its efforts to develop biofortified foods to boost nutrition.

In 2009 he joined the African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF) as project manager for WEMA, an African-led public-private research effort that has used biotechnology and conventional breeding to develop 125 drought tolerant maize hybrids, five of which are genetically modified (GM).

The project chose maize because over 300 million people — one-third of Africa’s population — depend on it as their main food source.

Farmers in seven sub-Saharan African nations are now growing the conventional hybrids, only South Africa has approved the GM varieties. Oikeh is frustrated by political roadblocks that have hindered adoption of varieties that can increase yields and successfully resist the fall armyworm invasion that has devastated conventional maize crops.

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“We see technology that can benefit, yet farmers are being deprived of this technology,” he said. “To me, that is a crime against humanity, and I feel something urgently needs to be done. Let African farmers have choices on what to grow.”

Despite the obstacles, Oikeh remains undeterred in his drive to use biotechnology to breed healthier plants that can improve farmers’ lives. “Every day you think, should I abandon this cause or continue to fight, hoping that one day people will wake up and say look, this cause is a just cause. Let’s support these guys to fight the cause. That is my hope. That is what keeps me going.”

Joan Conrow has more than 35 years of experience as a journalist and editor.  She specializes in environmental issues, biotechnology, and agriculture, and is especially interested in how these highly charged topics are playing out globally. Joan holds a BA in history and journalism and is certified in beekeeping, mediation, and facilitation. Find Joan on Twitter @joanconrow

A version of this article was originally posted at the Cornell Alliance for Science and has been reposted here with permission. The Cornell Alliance for Science can be found on Twitter @ScienceAlly

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