Gene Editing Technology in Agriculture: Time for African Governments to Intervene


Aghan Daniel

A series of genome editing related research work in Africa has triggered the need for the continent to develop a dedicated policy for new and precision breeding techniques, especially for genome editing.

According to experts who are already doing gene editing research, National Biosafety Authorities in the continent need to develop regulations on the innovation with speed. They say that whereas the adoption of the emerging new plant breeding innovations, is the way to go, Africa needs to take the lead to ensure that adequate guidelines are in place to streamline decision making processes.

Among other things, this process calls for stakeholder dialogue on technology development involving gene editing, in Africa and globally. Such stakeholder dialogues should discuss emerging best practices regarding regulatory approaches. This will then be followed up by the development and review of genome editing guidelines.

For starters, New Breeding Techniques (NBTs) and Precision Breeding Techniques (PBTs) refer to the tools and methods used to develop new varieties more precisely and rapidly. Precision defines the technique’s accuracy. It is applicable in both plants and animals. They are broad tools among which gene editing is one. Plant breeding innovations are those specific to plants. Gene editing therefore applies in both new breeding techniques and in precision breeding techniques.

Regulators in Africa hold it that three major challenges stand out when it comes to gene editing. These include how to regulate genome editing technology given that currently different countries regulate it differently. Yet how would they detect genome edited products that do not result into a GMO i.e. where no foreign DNA has been added? Finally, it would be hard to carry out labelling and traceability of such products while in the market.

Based on the need to improve agricultural productivity and increased knowledge of genomics, researchers have developed many new ways for breeding more productive, efficient plants using genome editing.

Even though many people may think that gene editing is a new concept, the technology has been around us for a while and plant breeding has improved over the years. Latest technologies such as Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) and products of genome editing are advancements of science and breeding over time. They are critical for sustainability and food security, and benefits all in the food chain including farmers and consumers.

Policy makers should therefore adopt regulatory policies that are science-based, proportionate to risk, and risk/benefit-based, predictable and promote innovations. As the continent comes together to work on this, care should be taken to see to it that gene editing techniques are not put in the same basket as GMOs.

Already, as at now, some researchers across the continent have complained that delayed decision by African governments on whether to regulate new breeding techniques using existing laws or developing new ones is hampering research on gene editing.

Addressing a regulators’ forum recently in Nairobi, Dr Steve Runo of Kenyatta University and Mr. James Karanja of Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Organization called on African governments to issue clear guidelines from conceptualisation all the way to commercialization of genome editing products.

The two researchers noted that a review of the current Biosafety Acts may not be the way to go since gene editing does not involve addition of any DNA unlike genetically modified organisms.

Dr. Runo, said that his team at Kenyatta University is developing sorghum varieties resistant to striga using the CRISPR/Cas9 technique which is a simple and efficient genome editing tool. The target genes are those responsible for signaling production of striga. Mutant lines will be selected and further developed for possible commercialization. A mutant is an animal or plant that is physically different from others of the same species because of a change in its genes.

Mr. Karanja discussed the Maize Lethal Necrosis (MLN) Disease project, a collaborative project with Corteva Agri-Science and CIMMYT, which aims at developing maize varieties resistant to the disease. The South Rift region of Kenya, which is one of the grain basket regions of the country, is among the worst affected by the disease. The approach by MLN project is through genome editing and will target the gene responsible for susceptibility to the virus.

Another researcher, Dr. Leena Tripathi of IITA called for the regulations to be put in place to help guide her work in two crop varieties under genome editing research i.e. banana and yam projects. The banana project is aimed at developing banana varieties resistant to banana streak virus. Initially the project used a biological process known as RNAi technology but after unsuccessful results a change of concept to genome editing was made. RNA interference (RNAi) is a method of blocking gene function by inserting short sequences of ribonucleic acid (RNA) that match part of the target gene’s sequence, thus no proteins are produced. The yam project also employs genome editing and is aimed at developing virus resistant varieties.

In Kenya, genome editing techniques are currently regulated using similar approach of GMOs meaning that no guidelines specific to genome editing exist. Risk assessment follows the existing procedure for GMOs. Contained Use Regulations, 2011 are being applied to make decisions on research projects under containment.

Regulators around the world have also been developing regulations to approve products developed using various genome editing techniques with the general agreement among many regulatory agencies is that “where no new DNA is introduced, end-product should not be considered genetically modified.”

Aghan is the Communication and Advocacy Officer at the African Seed Trade Association based in Nairobi, Kenya