Some scientists in Africa are calling on their governments to ensure the continent isn’t left behind as gene editing revolutionises food production.

They say gene editing is a good tool that can help enhance Africa’s food security, and it shouldn’t suffer the same fate that has stymied the use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) over the last three decades.

As GMOs continue to face regulatory barriers that are hampering their acceptance across the continent, scientists are convinced that gene editing offers a new frontier for introducing advanced technology to tackle food security issues in Africa.

“Very soon, GMOs may be forgotten,” Prof. Walter Alhassan, retired Director General of Ghana’s Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, told the Alliance for Science.

“Now we have new breeding techniques [with] gene editing. This technology is moving, and Ghana should not be left behind.”

“We hope our government will put money into science,” Alhassan added. “That is how the nation will develop. Covid-19 has been a rude awakening…

“Without science, we cannot develop…We are all ready to move ahead with the technology, but our governments must put their money where their mouth is.”

Dr Chiedozie Egesi, a senior scientist at the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) in Nigeria, said that gene-editing technology can help make African crops more resilient, more productive and more nutritious if applied appropriately.

“We need technologies such as gene editing to increase our productivity, enhance the nutrition status of our crops and make them more resilient to climate change and a pandemic environment,” Egesi said.

“For example, we have seen promising landmark research for virus resistance in banana and cassava, pest resistance [against] the fall armyworm in maize and better nutrition, like less cyanide in cassava and high iron and zinc in cassava, among others.”

Zimbabwean scientist Nyasha Mudukuti, who earned a master’s degree in plant breeding and genetics, agrees.

“I’ve had the firsthand experience of working on gene editing of crops and plants that are of importance to us as human beings,” she said.

“So, it’s something that I can tell you that we have the science that backs it up. It’s safe to use.”

Mudukuti said governments need to make existing policies more flexible, or enact new enabling polices, “so that farmers can adopt this if they want to. Let the farmer make a choice for him or themselves about whether or not to use this technology.”

Gene editing (also referred to as genome editing) is a set of molecular biology techniques that allow scientists to delete and silence specific genes, or otherwise manipulate the genomes of living organisms, to address productivity challenges in agriculture.

CRISPR is of the most popular editing techniques. CRISPR, or Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats, refers to treating specialized DNA stretches with an associated enzyme, Cas9, which works like a pair of molecular scissors capable of cutting DNA strands and editing the genes to suit specific purposes.

In humans, CRISPR has the potential to stop the perpetuation of diseases. In plants, it has the potential to help them use nitrogen and water more efficiently, accelerate the photosynthesis process, provide more nutrients, resist insects and diseases, tolerate increased soil salinity and otherwise thrive in an erratic climate.

Some research has been ongoing in Africa using the technology to improve crops and animals, although no product is on the market yet.

The Kenya Agriculture and Livestock Research Organization (KALRO) and two other international organisations are using CRISPR-Cas9 technology to improve maize germplasm so it becomes resistant to maize lethal necrosis.

The devastating viral disease reduced maize yields in Kenya by an average of 22 per cent in 2013, forcing many farmers to abandon the crop entirely.

A team of scientists from the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) has used CRISPR-Cas9-based genome editing to inactivate the endogenous streak virus, a plant disease, and develop virus-resistant banana varieties.

Using CRISPR, the Innovative Genomics Institute is undertaking research to produce cocoa varieties that can withstand warmer conditions, as well as resist viral and fungal diseases.

Gene editing has a number of advantages. It can be applied in a very targeted manner to introduce small genetic changes that can have potentially significant impacts, such as conferring crops with tolerance to various plant diseases.

Additionally, it is easily applicable to orphan crops, which are often indigenous staple foods. Until now, they have largely been ignored by plant breeders because of their low economic significance.

There are, however, some constraints to the application of the gene editing technology, including the prospect of over-regulation if African policy makers decide to treat gene edited crops like GMOs.

A lack of solid infrastructure for novel scientific research has been a challenge to adopting improved technologies like gene editing on the continent, Egesi observed.

“We make efforts to train African scientists in some of the finest research centers in the world but often times the scientists get disillusioned on returning home to poor funding, poor [electrical] power to sustain a lab, and sometimes, no lab at all,” he explained.

“Misinformation and perceived risks or dangers of growing crops derived from improved technologies has played a key role in demotivating policy makers and development planners from making a big case for investment in science and technology,” he added.

Advocacy at all levels, including government and non-government spheres, is crucial to help overcome some of these challenges, Egesi noted. He called for continuing investment in science and technology, including building a talent pipeline for young scientists to bridge the already existing gaps.

The value of using new plant breeding technologies to improve crop production must be demonstrated to convince people of its efficacy, he said, and African governments need to award competitive grants so scientists can access and invest in these new technologies.