Embrace new breeding technologies to enhance food production, African countries urged

To close the gap in staple crops and enhance food production, countries need to embrace new breeding technologies in additional to conventional technologies.

According to Leena Tripathi, Director for Eastern Africa Hub at International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA), Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, these new technologies are projected to play a critical role in building sustainable agricultural systems that are able to accommodate the rapidly growing demand for food.

Breeding of ‘climate change ready’ and adaptable crop varieties and animal breeds is now more than ever critical in transforming agricultural productivity and ensuring global food security and nutrition.

“Only sustainable agriculture will save countries from the current situation of food insecurity, which is affecting almost every country. The advent of new breeding technologies is presenting countries with an additional, more efficient tool for improving agricultural productivity,” said Tripathi.

She was speaking during a webinar organised by the African Seed Trade Association (AFSTA) on genome editing for the seed sector on June 2, 2022.

According to Dr Tripathi, gene or genome editing is one of the technologies that countries should embrace. She defined gene editing as a group of technologies that give scientists the ability to make permanent and heritable changes at specific sites in the genome of an organism mediated by the cells organs’ own DNA repair machinery and lacking in any foreign DNA.

“Gene editing is a solution that is set to be a game changer in the agricultural sector yet many people are still opposing it on the basis that it is similar to genetic modification. However, this is not true as the two technologies are different,” she said.

Tripathi said gene editing is different from genetic modification because it doesn’t involve insertion of a foreign gene. It is a technique used to precisely and efficiently make specific changes on organism’s genome.

On the other hand, genetic modification involves insertion of foreign gene that can change an organism’s genome in an unpredictable way.

Gene editing is currently being applied to more than 40 crops across 25 countries, including Kenya. The technology is mostly addressing agronomy, food and feed quality, or biotic and abiotic stress tolerance.

Scientists at Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organisation (KALRO) are using this technology to come up with a maize variety that is resistant to Maize Lethal Necrosis (MNL) disease for improved maize productivity and grain harvest.

According to Tripathi, countries should embrace gene editing technology because it is simpler and faster as compared to other technologies like genetic modification. Apart from that, gene edited products are also not regulated the same way as GMOs in many countries.

Meanwhile, the meeting also heard that Kenyan farmers will soon grow Genetically Modified maize if the government approves it for commercialisation.

 

Dr James Karanja, Principal Investigator of the TELA maize project, said the variety, also known as Bt maize has completed national performance trials conducted by KEPHIS.

Three varieties were recommended for approval for commercialisation by the National Variety Release Committee (NVRC). National Biosafety Authority also approved the three varieties subject to a Cabinet approval since they are as safe as the conventional counterparts.

He said approval of the Bt maize for commercialisation shows the government’s commitment to adopting GM technology as a way of realising the food and feed security in the country.

As of February this year, the Kenya Food Security Steering Group’s annual Short Rains Assessment report said there are around 3.5 million food-insecure people in pastoral and marginal agricultural areas, a 48 per cent increase since August 2021.

“Bt maize research has been undertaken in full compliance with the national regulatory requirements. National performance trials showed that Bt maize effectively controls infestation and damage by the two major insect pests affecting maize production in Kenya; the spotted stem borer (Chilo partellus) and the African stem borer (Busseola fusca), and has a great potential of controlling fall armyworm too,” said Dr Karanja.

Bt maize was developed using a soil dwelling bacteria, Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) that has a long history of providing protection against target insect pests. It helps farmers improve yields and control pests without use of chemical insecticides.

“The country is losing about 40 per cent of the potential 67 million bags of maize produced annually to the stem-borer and fall armyworm and other challenges. As a result the government has to import maize to bridge the gap. We laud the government for taking this noble step of approving commercialisation of the Bt maize since it will help the country save all those bags that are lost every year to pests,” added Dr Karanja.

Approval for commercialisation of Bt maize makes it the second biotech crop to be adopted in the country after years of research and emotive debates. The third crop that might be approved soon will be cassava resistant to virus whose research is currently advancing to NPTs. Other African countries that have already authorised the sale of Bt crops, including Bt cotton, are Ethiopia, Nigeria, South Africa and Sudan.

According to Dr Karanja, apart from being pest resistant, all Bt maize varieties that will be released to the market are also drought tolerant since the project is building from the excellent work realised under the Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA) project that developed and released over 70 varieties under the brand name Drought TEGO.

The research on Bt maize began with confined field trials in 2010 under WEMA project before moving to the National Performance Trials (NPT) in 2020. The NPTs were carried out at Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organisation (KALRO) sites in Embu, Kandara, Kakamega, Alupe, Kibos and Mwea.