By Dr. Hala Eissa
The sad realities of climate change in Africa have continued to dominate the headlines. The worsening state of the continent’s agriculture has majorly been occasioned by persistent drought, pest infestation on crops, and crop diseases that are a result of unfavorable climatic conditions. Egypt has not been spared the wrath. The country faces numerous agricultural problems due to global warming. This has affected the availability of water needed for agriculture and pampered the ground for pests and diseases.
Throughout my career as a scientist, my utmost aspiration has been to help feed the Egyptian population from agriculture developed by the Egyptians themselves. This still remains, and will always remain, my undying vision.
We are living in an era that demands for top-notch agricultural innovations that have the ability to meet the rapidly growing food needs of the population. We must believe in science and have courage to apply its findings. I am sure that Egypt will be one of the countries that understand the importance and the potential of modern science in solving today’s agricultural problems.
In this view, therefore, it is high time that the country commercializes biotech crops. Biotech crops have delivered substantial agronomic, environmental, economic, health, and social benefits to farmers and consumers around the world. Globally, 67 countries are using biotech crops; out of which 24 grew the crops, comprising 19 developing countries that include two from Africa – South Africa and Sudan.
The technology is particularly important to Egypt, a country that has been experiencing diminishing water because of plans to erect dams on the Nile. The country, therefore, has to adopt new technologies that would help fight hunger. It needs to develop plant genotypes that can cope with unfavorable environmental conditions such as drought, heat, and salinity.
Egyptian scientists have successfully researched on a number of biotech crops and have demonstrated the crops’ exemplary performance over their counterparts. Over the last few years, a team of scientists – that included myself – have successfully developed transgenic wheat that have shown improved resistance to Sitophilus granaries, serious insect pests that attack wheat plants worldwide and are responsible for significant yield loss.
My fellow scientists and I, at the Agricultural Genetic Engineering Research Institute (AGERI), have also produced drought-tolerant wheat by transferring a gene from barley into wheat. We have demonstrated that this technique reduces the number of irrigations needed from eight to one, and that wheat could be cultivated with rainfall alone in some desert areas.
Addressing drought stress is a serious problem that limits plant growth and crop productivity globally. The research team reported that by transferring a gene called HVAI1 from barley to wheat, the plants could tolerate low water levels more than the control without leaves wilting. The improved crop also recorded improved yields over the conventional breed.
My team of scientists have also developed rust-resistant wheat. Wheat rust is a devastating fungal disease of wheat worldwide.
It should be noted that wheat is the first most important field crop worldwide in terms of crop value and total production but its production is limited by both biotic and abiotic factors. Genetically modified (GM) technology has proven an option in delivering viable solutions to developing high yielding and climate resilient wheat.
Egypt faces a gap that would reach 45% in wheat consumption because the country’s lack of water limits the land area that can be cultivated. The only solution is to take wheat cultivation outside the Delta, and use genetic engineering to develop several wheat varieties that are tolerant to drought, salt stresses, and rust infection.
Delivering factual information
Our duty as biotech proponents is to deliver the right information about the safety and benefits of biotech crops to the public, to the media, as well as to the decision makers. They should know that biotech crops are as safe as their traditional counterparts. This will contribute to the acceptance of such products by the public.
Now, more than ever, Egypt has a golden chance to benefit from biotechnology, with our political regime open to new ideas and innovations. A new biosafety law is being established. At the same time, there are a number of biotech crops in the pipeline awaiting approval. However, authorities and agricultural stakeholders need to come together to address biosafety issues in order to expedite commercialization of these crops.
Dr. Hala Eissa is the vice dean of the College of Biotechnology, Misr University for Science and Technology. She is also a senior scientist at the Agricultural Genetic Engineering Research Institute (AGERI), Egypt