The Challenge Ahead: Harnessing Gene Editing to Sustainable Agriculture

  • by Nteranya Sanginga (ibadan, nigeria)
  • Wednesday, March 29, 2017
  • Inter Press Service

IBADAN, Nigeria, Mar 29 (IPS) – The role of genetic engineering in agriculture and food has generated enormous interest and controversies, with large-scale embrace by some nations and wholesale bans by others.

Nteranya Sanginga, Director General of the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA). Courtesy of IITA Nteranya Sanginga, Director General of the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA). Courtesy of IITAMany studies have been done and much research remains to be done on the impact genetically modified organisms (GMO) can have on broader food systems.

Fast-moving developments, however, suggest that lines drawn in the sand both for or against the broader use of GMOs risk becoming a distraction, particularly in Africa.

The major novelty is the emergence of CRISPR, which stands for “Clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats” and is popularly called “genome editing”, which amounts to a much faster way to alter genomes. The method sharply lowers costs and amounts to a revolution for seeds.

The second development springs from the first: Genetic engineering can now be deployed on a far vaster array of organisms, and with more bespoke goals such as drought resistance or nutritional enhancement. Many GMOs in the market are for insect and/or herbicide resistance, as has been the case for many biotechnology products of the past.

While formulating national policies on GMOs is the responsibility of governments, informed debate entails that we recognize these developments change the game.

The International Institute of Tropical Agriculture,– and the Food and Agriculture Organization considers biotechnologies as potential tools in the toolbox, meaning they may be appropriate. Our primary interest is in boosting food production, food security, nutrition, climate resilience, and rural employment.

At any rate, vast monocultures of cash crops such as maize, soy and cotton – the main GMO varieties in the world today – are not our utmost priority. But CRISPR and related new approaches open the door to many more applications.

To cite a few examples, all very recent: Researchers have developed a transgenic maize variety that keeps aflatoxin out of kernels, thus tackling one of the world’s single-largest food problems and source of farm-based agriculture loss.

Elsewhere, scientists in Ghana have developed a GM cowpea that survives pests – or needs less pesticide – is advanced and might be available at a commercial scale as early as next year. Currently, the Maruca pod-borer destroys a hefty share – often more than half – of cowpeas grown in West Africa.

Or take cassava, which is one of IITA’s favorite crops and is the second-most important source of calories consumed in sub-Saharan Africa. A recent exploratory review found 14 potential genetic pathways that could improve the crop’s yield which has proven stubbornly stable for decades. One of them involved optimizing the plant’s photosynthesis in the same way that has worked well with tobacco and other plants. The goal is to adjust the plant’s canopy so that more of its energy goes into actual storage roots rather than stems. Another potential path is to tweak the cassava so that it can thrive better in soils with lower phosphorus, to which it is notably more sensitive than other major staple crops.

Working with Nigeria’s National Root Crop Research Institute, IITA is conducting research on a disease-resistant cassava with higher vitamin A content. Nigeria is also running confined field tests for GMO sorghum fortified to produce more iron, zinc, protein and vitamin A and to demonstrate greater nitrogen efficiency while growing. These and other hypothetical developments – think salt-tolerant rice, or zinc-enhanced cassava, or zinc and iron-fortified pearl millet – may warrant pursuit.

Similarly several confined field trials of GMOs are occurring in Malawi, Mozambique, Kenya, Ethiopia, and Uganda

African governments are taking cautious steps. South Africa grows GMO corn and soybeans, while non-food crops are legally cultivated in Sudan.

Last month, Kenya’s parliament authorized local crop researchers to start growing GMO cotton, although instructed not to let related by-products enter the human and animal food chain. Lawmakers also welcomed experimental genetic trials aimed at solving endemic national problems affecting sweet potato and cassava crops, and suggested they’d look at legalization on a case-by-case basis. Ghana recently authorized GMO guidelines – a bill allowing them is not yet law – and other countries including Nigeria and Burkina Faso have moved even further.

Opposition in the past has come for a host of reasons, including fears that GMO crops required expensive inputs provided by multinationals and posed environmental risks as they were often designed to be resistant to herbicides. Many of the new proposals come without such baggage, suggesting the policy debate will change.

Norway has adopted an interesting regulatory approach to genetic engineering, which requires safety reviews, farmer consultations, and a litmus test of whether alternatives contribute better to sustainable agricultural practices. That’s a far cry from the usually binary debate – stoked by stories about creating designer human babies – about GMOs.

The subject matter is complex and the science even more so. It appears we are on the brink of a deluge of new discoveries – engineering beneficial soil microbes may soon be a booming research arena – many of which may not need the kind of capital-intensive agricultural operations where GMOs were first developed and can instead directly address the needs of smallholders in developing countries and the specific food and nutrition security and climate change challenges they face.

Genome editing can now economically be applied to the crop cultivars that farmers in a given locale prefer, consisting of highly targeted interventions that can address specific challenges, and don’t take years of breeding to consolidate.

It’s a new world. Let’s have a new debate, not the old one.

© Inter Press Service (2017) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service

Read more

The Challenge Ahead: Harnessing Gene Editing to Sustainable Agriculture

Africa, Development & Aid, Economy & Trade, Featured, Food & Agriculture, Headlines, Labour, Poverty & SDGs, Projects, TerraViva United Nations, Trade & Investment | Opinion

Nteranya Sanginga is the Director General of the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture

IBADAN, Nigeria, Mar 29 2017 (IPS) – The role of genetic engineering in agriculture and food has generated enormous interest and controversies, with large-scale embrace by some nations and wholesale bans by others.

Nteranya Sanginga, Director General of the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA). Courtesy of IITA

Nteranya Sanginga, Director General of the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA). Courtesy of IITA

Many studies have been done and much research remains to be done on the impact genetically modified organisms (GMO) can have on broader food systems.

Fast-moving developments, however, suggest that lines drawn in the sand both for or against the broader use of GMOs risk becoming a distraction, particularly in Africa.

The major novelty is the emergence of CRISPR, which stands for “Clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats” and is popularly called “genome editing”, which amounts to a much faster way to alter genomes. The method sharply lowers costs and amounts to a revolution for seeds.

The second development springs from the first: Genetic engineering can now be deployed on a far vaster array of organisms, and with more bespoke goals such as drought resistance or nutritional enhancement. Many GMOs in the market are for insect and/or herbicide resistance, as has been the case for many biotechnology products of the past.

While formulating national policies on GMOs is the responsibility of governments, informed debate entails that we recognize these developments change the game.

The International Institute of Tropical Agriculture,– and the Food and Agriculture Organization considers biotechnologies as potential tools in the toolbox, meaning they may be appropriate. Our primary interest is in boosting food production, food security, nutrition, climate resilience, and rural employment.

At any rate, vast monocultures of cash crops such as maize, soy and cotton – the main GMO varieties in the world today – are not our utmost priority. But CRISPR and related new approaches open the door to many more applications.

To cite a few examples, all very recent: Researchers have developed a transgenic maize variety that keeps aflatoxin out of kernels, thus tackling one of the world’s single-largest food problems and source of farm-based agriculture loss.

Elsewhere, scientists in Ghana have developed a GM cowpea that survives pests – or needs less pesticide – is advanced and might be available at a commercial scale as early as next year. Currently, the Maruca pod-borer destroys a hefty share – often more than half – of cowpeas grown in West Africa.

Or take cassava, which is one of IITA’s favorite crops and is the second-most important source of calories consumed in sub-Saharan Africa. A recent exploratory review found 14 potential genetic pathways that could improve the crop’s yield which has proven stubbornly stable for decades. One of them involved optimizing the plant’s photosynthesis in the same way that has worked well with tobacco and other plants. The goal is to adjust the plant’s canopy so that more of its energy goes into actual storage roots rather than stems. Another potential path is to tweak the cassava so that it can thrive better in soils with lower phosphorus, to which it is notably more sensitive than other major staple crops.

Working with Nigeria’s National Root Crop Research Institute, IITA is conducting research on a disease-resistant cassava with higher vitamin A content. Nigeria is also running confined field tests for GMO sorghum fortified to produce more iron, zinc, protein and vitamin A and to demonstrate greater nitrogen efficiency while growing. These and other hypothetical developments – think salt-tolerant rice, or zinc-enhanced cassava, or zinc and iron-fortified pearl millet – may warrant pursuit.

Similarly several confined field trials of GMOs are occurring in Malawi, Mozambique, Kenya, Ethiopia, and Uganda

African governments are taking cautious steps. South Africa grows GMO corn and soybeans, while non-food crops are legally cultivated in Sudan.

Last month, Kenya’s parliament authorized local crop researchers to start growing GMO cotton, although instructed not to let related by-products enter the human and animal food chain. Lawmakers also welcomed experimental genetic trials aimed at solving endemic national problems affecting sweet potato and cassava crops, and suggested they’d look at legalization on a case-by-case basis. Ghana recently authorized GMO guidelines – a bill allowing them is not yet law – and other countries including Nigeria and Burkina Faso have moved even further.

Opposition in the past has come for a host of reasons, including fears that GMO crops required expensive inputs provided by multinationals and posed environmental risks as they were often designed to be resistant to herbicides. Many of the new proposals come without such baggage, suggesting the policy debate will change.

Norway has adopted an interesting regulatory approach to genetic engineering, which requires safety reviews, farmer consultations, and a litmus test of whether alternatives contribute better to sustainable agricultural practices. That’s a far cry from the usually binary debate – stoked by stories about creating designer human babies – about GMOs.

The subject matter is complex and the science even more so. It appears we are on the brink of a deluge of new discoveries – engineering beneficial soil microbes may soon be a booming research arena – many of which may not need the kind of capital-intensive agricultural operations where GMOs were first developed and can instead directly address the needs of smallholders in developing countries and the specific food and nutrition security and climate change challenges they face.

Genome editing can now economically be applied to the crop cultivars that farmers in a given locale prefer, consisting of highly targeted interventions that can address specific challenges, and don’t take years of breeding to consolidate.

It’s a new world. Let’s have a new debate, not the old one.

 

Read more

Africa trade Bloc ready to embrace transgenic products

By Peter Mutai NAIROBI (Xinhua) —The Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) member
countries on Wednesday expressed their readiness for the development and
importation of genetically modified organism (GMO) products in the region.

Getachew
Belay, COMESA Senior Biotechnology Policy Advisor, said the Africa’s largest
trading bloc has experts and laboratories for testing GMOs.

“The region
has trained scientists and some are currently working in other continents due to
lack of developed systems in biotechnology development,” Belay told Xinhua in
Nairobi on Wednesday.

He said the
19-member bloc has taken biotechnology seriously by putting down infrastructures
as per the recommendations of the Cartagena protocol.

The countries
are currently cooperating in creating an enabling environment for external,
cross-border and domestic investment, including the joint promotion of research
and adaptation of science and technology for development.

Belay said
COMESA provides a technical opinion about the biosafety of GMOs seeking
commercial status in the COMESA region, which can be used by individual
countries to make decisions within their own biosafety regulatory frameworks,
and also a harmonized mechanism for decision-making involving commercial
planting, trade of GMOs and food aid with GM content in the COMESA region.

He noted that
COMESA has helped member states share and build capacity to conduct risk
assessment and management. It also established interactive regional
information-sharing mechanism on biosafety and biotechnology issues.

Margaret
Karembu, Director of the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech
Applications (ISAAA), said whereas several countries are making profits from
biotechnology, African countries are still lagging behind due to unpredictable
political and policy environment in supporting biotechnology research.

“Costly
regulatory processes coupled with miscommunication of the technology are to
blame for Africa’s slow uptake of the technology,” she noted.

Sudan is the
only country in the region that is currently growing GMO. It has 100,000 acres
under such crops since 2012 when the technology was introduced. Currently 97
percent of farmers are growing the GMO variety.

Kenya,
Swaziland, Uganda and Malawi are at confined field trial stages for Bt. cotton,
Bt. maize, virus-resistant cassava and sweet potatoes, bacterial-wilt-resistant
banana and drought-tolerant water-efficient maize.

.

EARLIER REPORT:

Kenya to adopt development of synthetic biology
technologies

NAIROBI (Xinhua) —Kenya is
in the process of adopting synthetic biology technologies research and its
commercialization, a senior government official has disclosed.

A Principal
Scientist at the National Commission for Science, Technology and Innovation (NACOSTI)
Dr. Benson Kinyagia said on Wednesday that Kenya has seen the potential in
investing in the area in helping harness its potential in the industrial
development.

“We intend to
develop a policy on synthetic biology to enable the country tackle disease, food
and energy production, clean water and waste management challenges,” Kinyagia
said during a workshop on synthetic biology at a Nairobi hotel.

The field of
synthetic biology aims to define a framework for accelerating the engineering of
biological systems and cells for useful applications as well as furthering
fundamental understanding of living systems.

It adopts an
engineering approach for the systematic design and construction of new
biological systems and cells at the genetic level and is inherently
interdisciplinary bringing together biologists, engineers, computer scientists,
social scientists, designers and artists.

Kenya will be
the third country in Africa after South Africa and Egypt once the technology
takes shape. Europe and Asia have already adopted the technology.

Kinyagia
observed that synthetic biology technology is the route to realizing global
development after the agricultural revolution, industrial revolution and
technology.

“With the
depletion of the natural ecosystem and biodiversity, there is need to develop
synthetic biology research,” he added.

The Director
General of NACOSTI Dr. Moses Rugut said that Kenya and other east African
countries are due to start exploring synthetic biology technology through
academic scientists and student exchange in the United Kingdom.

“We intend to
establish potential research collaboration focused on the identified application
areas,” he added.

He said that
Kenya has identified 14 research programs where local researchers will engage
with the British researchers.

Dr. Julia
Kemp, head of research at the Department for International Development (DFID)
hailed east African governments for realizing the importance of science and
innovation.

She said that
through the Newton-Utafiti Fund, the bilateral science relationship with the
region will provide a platform to develop new knowledge partnerships in science,
technology and innovation.

Read more