How Plant Breeding Innovation is Different from GMO and how PBI can improve food security in Africa

By Bennett Oghifo


Africa has a big challenge with feeding its large population that is put at 1.3 billion as at 2018. Africa’s population is 16% of the world’s human population.

Food security in Africa is of global concern, considering its position as the world’s second-largest and second-most populous continent. According to available data, Africa’s land area is about 30.3 million km², including adjacent islands, and it covers 6% of the Earth’s total surface area and 20% of its land area.

Africans have been producing their food by tilling the continent’s vast arable land, using traditional methods that are now found to have diminishing returns.

Scientists recommend the use of more modern sustainable methods of food production in Africa. These scientists have narrowed down on two of these systems – Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs), and Plant Breeding Innovation (PBI).

The application of GMOs for food security has raised global controversies among proponents and those who oppose it, because of their belief that organic foods are healthier than inorganic.

Genetically modified foods, also known as genetically engineered foods, or bioengineered foods are foods produced from organisms that have had changes introduced into their DNA using the methods of genetic engineering.

On the other hand, Plant Breeding Innovation (PBI) should be understood in the context of New Breeding Techniques and Precision Breeding Techniques which refer to the tools and methods used to develop new varieties more precisely and rapidly, according to scientists. Precision is just the definition of the accuracy of the technique. It is applicable in both animals and plants. These tools are broad, among which is gene editing. Plant breeding innovations are those specific to plants.

So, PBI is critical for sustainability and food security, and benefits all in the food chain, including farmers and consumers.

Scientists say PBI is not a new concept; breeding has improved over the years.  Latest technologies such as GMOs and products of genome editing are an advancement of science and breeding over the years, and are not bad, scientists insist.

They want policy makers to adopt regulatory policies that are science-based, proportionate to risk, and risk/benefit-based, predictable and promote innovations. And that gene editing techniques should not be put into the same category as GMOs.

According to a Scientist, Dr. Joseph Odusanya, the Chief Executive Officer of Biocrops, seed and seedling production company in Abuja, Nigeria, “It is pertinent to establish that breeding has always been with us. It is from making positive selection, looking for elite characteristics and multiplying those.”

Odusanya said plant breeding is the discipline but that genetic modification, gene transformation or productions of transgenic organisms are just techniques employed in the breeding process.

He said, “Many breeding techniques include air layering, grafting, etc that do not change move or transpose or translocate DNA of plants like we do in GMO. Interestingly there is a paper that shows that plants undergo genetic modification on their own naturally. This has been documented. If nature can do it on its own, I wonder why all the hue and cry.”

Odusanya stated that plant breeding has been with us for more than a century in various forms with increasing sophistication. “GMOs on the other hand are fairly recent dating back only to the 1070s. The GMO technology is by itself getting very sophisticated as well. It has gone beyond introducing bioinsecticides or making plants selective to herbicides, today, we can decide on the amount of starches and the structure of the starches desired.

“What we have today is pure designer series of organisms. Designer plants, designer animals and even humans have been engineered. Many ethical issues and probable scientific questions remain unanswered but when we consider the low hanging fruits of either GM technology or breeding as we know it traditionally, we will be doing our works loads of goodness by latching in on them early.”

The world, he said was close on genetically modifying microorganisms that would recondition the soil naturally in such a way that degraded soils could be rejuvenated and use of mineral fertilisers will be cut by 95%.

Also discussing the difference between GMO and PBI and why they should not be subjected to the same regulatory policies, an avid Biotechnologist and Business Strategist in Kenya, Doris Wangari said, “The creation of GMOs involves inserting genes from other species into DNA through modern biotechnology techniques. Genome editing, on the other hand, allows scientists to alter the DNA of an organism without necessarily adding genes from a different organism (usually they use sexually compatible species).

“Today, plant breeders can also use genome editing tools to introduce genetic variation. There are different types of genome editing tools such as site-directed nucleases (SDNs) and Oligonucleotide-Directed Mutagenesis (ODM). SDNs currently utilized in plant research include Meganucleases (MN), Zinc Finger Nucleases (ZFNs), Transcription Activator-Like Effector Nucleases (TALENs) and the Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats (CRISPR)-associated proteins. These Genome editing techniques are precise editing of an existing genome usually by deletion, substitution, silencing.”

Wangari said in many instances the Genome edited end-product usually does not have the detectable foreign gene, hence term ‘natural’. “This becomes hard for the regulators to regulate what they cannot detect. However, some aspects of Genome editing result in formation of GMOs like site-directed nucleases. There is therefore need for regulators to allow for early consultation with the researchers to understand the technique they will be utilising in their work so as to determine whether or not to regulate. This is the approach Kenya is taking.

On how farmers would benefit in terms of cost in ratio to yields, she said the Genome Editing techniques are still very new and that “most of the work is still in research an trial phase. I am not sure the cost-benefit analysis has been done in some of the products as this is done in the last stage of research when they compare the performance of the GE product yields to farmers and conventional crops yields to determine the costs.”

She said if Africa’s population is to be fed adequately, then new technologies must come into play. “Feeding Africa’s population is a challenging task. My opinion would be for the various stakeholders to allow for an integrated approach when it comes to food production. We need to embrace new technologies which offer a chance to improve our agricultural systems.”
All things considered, Africa can no longer depend on traditional methods of agriculture to feed its population and would need all the modern technics of food production to ensure food security, said Professor Ismail Cakmak, Faculty Member, Faculty of Engineering and Natural Sciences, Sabanci University, Istanbul Turkey.

Prof. Cakmak, who was a resource person at a workshop OCP Africa organised in Lagos, Nigeria, in June, this year, believes GMOs or PBI requires sufficient amounts of fertilizers. “There is no change in the demand for nutrients by GMO or Breeding. Even if you breed, you need more nutrients because they have higher yield capacity. The higher the yield capacity, the higher the nutrient demands.”

OCP Africa is a subsidiary of OCP Group, a Moroccan company and the world’s largest producer and exporter of phosphate and phosphate-based fertilisers. The multinational company drives a bilateral partnership between Nigeria and Morocco on the supply of phosphate to blending plants in several states across Nigeria.

The scientist noted that production of more food in Africa would also be affected by climate change, which he said had become a major challenge. “Extreme weather condition has negative impact on plant grown, on yield capacity of the plant, because of temperature variation, flooding from excessive rainfall. These have huge impact on the yield capacity of the crop. The increase in yield of food crop will be limited in the next 10 years, 20, 30 years because of the increase in the number of environmental problems caused by climate change.”

Prof. Cakmak, who had his PhD at Cornell University, Stuttgart Germany, said he was currently working with two professors from the UK and Australia to develop a programme on crop nutrition at the Mohammed VI Polytechnic University, Morocco.

He is also working on the HarvestPlus programme to improve the micronutrient content of food crops, stating that HarvestPlus is a breeding programme, adding that there are a lot of breeding programmes in Nigeria by IITA.

There is an ongoing programme to enrich maize, he said, explaining that because HarvestPlus is a plant breeding programme that incorporates an Agronomic programme that uses fertilizer strategy to improve the micronutrient content of staple food crops by using micronutrient content fertilizer.

Prof. Cakmak said his other function is to coordinate the Agronomic Programme under the HarvestPlus Programme, explaining that for instance, they apply it on maize to ensure that it contains zinc, iodine, selenium, adding that the programme will start in Nigeria, Uganda, South Africa, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, and Rwanda.


It is a fact that Africa needs more food with nutrient content with the application of GM and Gene Editing, but these must be done with safety in mind, scientists say.

John McMurdy, the Director of Emerging Markets at CropLife International, Washington DC, in a presentation, ‘Innovations in plant breeding at crossroads’ noted the goal of the African Seed Trade Association to promote the use of improved quality seed, wondering “how the industry (and the agricultural research community) will take advantage of newer innovations in plant breeding, like gene editing or CRISPR technology.”

He said governments worldwide make regulatory decisions on Gene Editing, stating that the transformational ability of gene editing platforms to make precise base pair deletions, edits, and additions makes the potential benefits of the technology quite remarkable.

“However, the introduction of gene edited products into global markets has accelerated questions on how they should be considered from a policy standpoint, specifically whether or not some of these products should be assessed and managed under current GMO regulations or whether they should be managed in the same fashion as “conventionally” developed varieties,” he said.

The global seed industry, McMurdy said, encourages innovation in plant breeding, and advocates government policies that are based on sound scientific principles. “Consistent science-based policies regarding products of plant breeding are necessary to ensure timely access to the benefits of products developed through these latest tools.

“Inconsistent criteria, standards, and arbitrary categorisation applied to products of gene editing will inevitably impede investment and innovation in agriculture, and limit the realisation of societal and environmental benefits.”

McMurdy said lack of consistent criteria between governments – especially trading nations – also risks disrupting trade. A rationale solution promoted by the global seed industry is that: ‘Plant varieties developed through the latest breeding methods should not be differentially regulated if they are similar or indistinguishable from varieties that could have been produced through earlier breeding methods.’ Many countries around the world are in fact adopting progressive policies consistent with aspects of this position, especially in South America (e.g. Argentina, Brazil, Chile and most recently Colombia).

As a primary trade partner, European governments and consumers often ideological view against GMOs has stifled and, in many cases, ground progress to a halt on the African continent, he said.

Outside of South Africa, and a few more recent examples of approvals of insect resistant cotton technology, the vast majority of public and private funded research remains either on the shelf or behind high fences under confined field trial.

“While it remains to be seen whether the impasse will be broken on African farmers being afforded the same access to GMOs as farmers in much of the Western Hemisphere, recent decisions by the European court systems have the potential to similarly negatively impact gene editing technology.

“In a late July 2018 ruling, the European court of justice ruled that the circa-2001 EU rules for GMOs shall also be applied to newer forms of targeted mutagenesis (including gene editing). This includes all of the onerous provisions that have effectively banned cultivation of GMOs in most of Europe (and, ironically, positioned them collectively as the world’s second largest importer of GMOs).

“While the EU Commission now grapples with how to potentially implement these rules for a technology that they were not designed for, this decision shocked much of the EU based public research enterprise, seed industry, and food value chain.”

African governments, McMurdy said are at regulatory crossroad, stating that African farmers could benefit significantly from gene edited products, noting ongoing research projects focused on improving disease resistance, pest resistance, drought tolerance and crop composition and nutrition in many indigenous and staple crops to Africa such as cassava, cowpea and banana.

It will be up to African governments and policy makers to set the landscape in which the African seed industry will be able to market and deliver these products, he said.

Some African policy makers, he said are insisting that, following the ECJ ruling, “gene edited crops are GMOs for now” and/or “we need to put in place a system to look more closely at these technologies.”

The dilemma, he said would be “what policies are put in place, those of much of the world that is working to increasing sustainable production using gene editing and other plant breeding innovations, or policies mirroring the decision of a single 28 member European court on the interpretation of an 18 year-old regulation.”

Presenting ‘Genome Editing Applications in Crop Developments’, Dr. Rashmi S. Nair of The Nair Continuum LLC said, “Based on 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.

“Regulators around the world have also been developing regulations to approve products developed using various genome editing techniques.”

General agreement among many regulatory agencies is that “where no new DNA is introduced, end-product should not be considered genetically modified.”

However, the impact of the ruling of the EU Court of Justice to regulate most products developed using genome editing as GMOs is still being evaluated globally.

A Scientist in Nigeria, Dr. Rufus Ebegba, who is the Director General, National Biosafety Management Agency (NBMA), believes Africa’s population can be fed using, among other methods, biotechnology, which he described as a scientific tool to develop new variety of living organism, whether plant, animal or microbes, and that as it concerns food, it should be looked at from the standpoint of improved crops and animals.

Ebegba said, “Modern biotechnology that is being tailored towards safety is the application of biosafety to ensure that the products which are genetically modified are safe. For sure, it is a major step in ensuring food security.

“For instance, in Nigeria right now, we have a National Biotechnology Development Agency (NBDA), we also have National Biotechnology Policy, we have agriculture policy that promotes the use of biotechnology, we also have agricultural research institutes and some Universities that are doing genetic engineering with the intent of producing genetically modified objects. All these show that Nigeria has put in place structures to adopt the use of genetically modified organisms.

“Also, Nigeria has a law known as National Biosafety Management Act 2015, and this Act gave room for the establishment of the National Biosafety Management Agency.”

The government’s intention, he said was “to ensure that the activities of biotechnology and its products are safe for human consumption and for the environment. “In Nigeria, one major thing we also have is the National Biosafety Policy; we have also National Biosafety Regulation and Guidelines for various sectors.”

According to him, “Risk Assessment is a major step before any genetically modified organism can be used. So, Risk Assessment is very important to determine whether any genetically modified has any risk, if it can be tolerated and risk management strategies are also adopted.”

He said food security has a lot of considerations and not just to make the food available, stating that the food must be affordable, have nutrients, and it should be wholesome and safe.

Stating the position of the Nigerian government, he said some permits had been granted for the introduction of some genetically modified crops, “like the commercialisation of cotton for which permit has been granted, we also granted permit for the use of genetically modified cowpea, ie, beans also for commercialisation.

He said although these crops have not been fully brought to the market, but that the multiplication of the seeds were ongoing. “Then, we have also granted permit to test for the efficacy of the modification of some of the crops like genetically modified cassava for increase in ion content, increase in Vitamin A content. We have also granted some permit to delay harvest deterioration in cassava and to increase the starch content.”

There is also permit granted for genetically modified rice for nitrogen use efficient, water use efficient and soil tolerant, adding that these are on-gong processes.

Nigeria, he said has granted permit for genetically modified maize for the production of animal feeds and that the permit for soya beans was basically for the production of vegetable oil. “These have been imported into the country, after going through extant laws. The poultry industry needed more grains and the Ministry of Agriculture actually confirmed that the production of maize in the country is not adequate to drive the poultry industry. So, the need for the importation of some of these grains has arisen.”

However, he said the genetically modified crops that have been approved have not really reached the farmers but that in respect of the cotton that is insect resistant, some farmers have been selected by the permit holder to set up demonstration plots and to multiply the seeds for commercialisation. Farmers, he said are looking forward to using the seeds.

Also speaking on the use of modern technics in agriculture to ensure food security in Africa, a Nigerian scientist, Dr. Rose Gidado, a Deputy Director, National Biotechnology Development Agency, said food security depends on four interrelated factors: quantity of food, which involves increasing agricultural productivity; access to food, which is determined both by income levels and quality of infrastructure; nutrition; and overall stability of the food system, such as resilience to shocks. Genetically-modified (GM) crops/foods can contribute to food quality, access to food, nutrition or stability of food systems.
She said genetically modified crops already benefit smallholder farmers in several major ways. For example, they help farmers control pests and disease. “This leads to higher production and increased income, which in turn provides them with increased ability to consume more nutritious food. Let us take the example of pest-resistant GM cotton. Although GM cotton is not directly consumed, it indirectly contributes to food security by raising household income levels and improving access to more nutritious food.
“In Nigeria the insect Maruca vitrata destroys nearly US$300m worth of blackeyed peas – a major staple crop. It forces farmers to import pesticides worth US$500m annually. To solve the problem, scientists at the Institute for Agricultural Research at Nigeria’s Ahmadu Bello University have developed a pest-resistant, transgenic black eyed beans variety using insecticide genes from the Bacillus thuringiensis bacterium. These techniques have the potential to address a wide range of agricultural, health, and environmental issues in African countries, leading to increased productivity and therefore contributing to increased food security. The importance of building capacity in biotechnology is reinforced by the rising concern over the impact of climate on agriculture.”

Dr. Gidado, who is the Country Coordinator, Open Forum on Agricultural Biotechnology in Africa (OFAB) Nigeria Chapter, noted that farmers could benefit in terms of cost to ratio to yields by reduction in production cost per hectare planted with PBR Cowpea, if of the 3 million hectares 1million is planted to PBR Cowpea the savings from reduction
They also benefit in cost of insecticide is sixteen billion and two hundred million naira (N16,200, 000,000.0) annually. A 20% yield increase per hectare translates to forty-eight billion naira (N48,000,000,000.0) annually at N120,000.0 per tonne.
Stakeholders should continue to support, promote and encourage the use of appropriate technologies like biotechnology in order to attain Nutrition and food security, she said.

The Nigerian government’s position

In September this year, the Nigerian government said it was doing all that was necessary to apply Genetic Engineering and Bio-Technology to ensure food safety and security in the country.
Nigeria’s Minister of Science and Technology, Dr. Ogbonnaya Onu, who inaugurated a training workshop on Basic Laboratory Training on Living Modified Organisms Detection and Identification in Abuja, said the government had recognised the immense importance of Genetic Engineering and Bio-Technology to the progress of the nation, adding that it would boost local production of food and commodities and minimise the need for continuous import.
Dr. Onu said, “The Federal Ministry of Science and Technology. will continue to support the National Biotechnology Development Agency (NABDA) in carrying out this very important mandate to help our country not only in the area of agriculture but also protecting our environment and in ensuring the desire of our nation to industrialise rapidly is achieved.”
Nigeria has embraced bio-Technology and genetic engineering, for better improvement in crops and animal production, said the acting Director General/CEO of National Biotechnology Development Agency (NABDA), Prof. Alex U. Akpa.
He said, “We have made significant investments in modern Bio-Technology to assist in deepening awareness of the Technology and its impact on national growth and development.”

Farmers’ reaction

As these scientists said, Nigerian farmers are eagerly waiting for the genetically modified seeds. “We are even waiting for the seeds,” said Chief Daniel Okafor, the vice national chairman, All Farmers Association of Nigeria, an umbrella body of farmers in Nigeria with not less than 30 million members, according to Okafor.

He stated that the genetically modified seed trial was done by scientists at the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, Nigeria. “They brought it to us and it is now being multiplied.”

Chief Okafor, who is the national chairman of potato farmers, said this was the ideal thing to do to increase the cultivation of cotton for use in the nation’s textile industry, as well as for cotton oil. “Cotton can generate a lot of revenue and a lot of employment.

He said Nigeria should produce and use biotechnology cotton like other countries do, adding that “we are ready to work with any organisation that can make it happen.”

He appealed to banks and other lenders to support every farmer that is interested in BT cotton, stating that more research should be done to ensure whatever was produced would be fit for consumption with the right nutritional value and that it should be good for the environment.


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