Prof. Bruno Delvaux

Belgian agricultural and university engineer (UCLouvain)


According to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity –Art. 2, biotechnology means “any technological application that uses biological systems, living organisms, or derivatives thereof, to make or modify products or processes for specific use”. Thus, humanity has used biotechnology for food production since the Neolithic revolution. From animal and plant domestication or wine making, biotechnology now includes new and diverse sciences such as molecular biology, microbiology or genomics and biological engineering.

Currently, specialists consider biotechnologies as major tools for a new agricultural revolution. They agree on the contemporary meaning of biotechnologies, which they see as the technologies resulting from the discovery of DNA in 1953. Among next milestones were the isolation of DNA polymerase (1956), the artificial synthesis of rDNA (1973), the creation of transgenic plant (1983), and the genome sequencing (1996: eukaryote; 2000: plant; 2002: humans).

The previous Green Revolution followed a logic of yield-focused control, using selected cultivars and mechanization, controlling water supply and mineral nutrition through chemical fertilization, while fighting pest and disease with pesticides. Though successful in raising overall yields of cereal grains, it did not give sufficient relevance to nutritional quality while it has plunged smaller farmers into debt and poverty, and generated adverse effects on the environment and health. A critical point undoubtedly lies in the low agricultural prices and thus revenues that concern a large majority of farmers in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA).

To ensure food security in SSA, the current dream is to substitute chemical technology with biotechnology. However, this vision pays little attention to African challenges and specificities, particularly with regard to soil and climate constraints and the accumulation of local knowledge developed over time within complex agroecosystems. Moreover, following a logic of control requires stability at all times while Africa is mainly in a situation of dependence. At the farm level, recent analyses suggest that smallholders are unable to benefit from the current yield gains offered by biotechnologies, notably plant genetic improvement. The very high potential of biotechnologies could likely be achieved by fully considering the agroecosystem through a systemic approach answering the question: what, why, how, when and where to introduce biotechnological innovations according to a logic of adoption rather than control? Indeed, the systemic and biotechnological paradigms are not necessarily conflicting. They could be strongly complementary in a common vision of improving agroecosystems in a reinvented socio-economic environment.