Ethiopia is a developing country where food security remains a major challenge and this is in stark contrast to the fact that the country is endowed with huge biodiversity in general and high crop, animal and microbial genetic resources in particular.
In the last few decades, Ethiopia has made great strides in increasing the productivity of its main staple crops such as maize, sorghum, tef, wheat, and barley through conventional breeding efforts and use of modern inputs. However, compared to the global average, the yield of staple food crops is still low due to minimal use of improved technologies and loss to abiotic and biotic stresses.
Biotechnology is emerging as an important research approach to bring about new prospects with viable potential of overcoming the challenges in agriculture. The applications of advanced techniques such as molecular breeding/marker-assisted selection could contribute significantly to fighting food insecurity and poverty in Ethiopia.
Ethiopia is making strides the biotechnology sector through its public research and higher learning institutes. Addis Ababa University (AAU) has pioneered in graduate education and research in Ethiopia. It runs various biotechnology research projects funded by the government and international collaborators for attaining environmentally safe and sustainable food security and green development of the country.
Particularly, the Institute of Biotechnology is conducting research on five staple crops, namely, Finger Millet, Durum Wheat, Noug (Guizotia abyssinica), Ethiopian Mustard, Sorghum, with the aim of enhancing the quality and productivity of the crops by integrating plant genomics with conventional breeding. The project is run in collaboration with Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU), Sweden.
Transgene technology has created great opportunities to generate genetically modified (GM) plants with novel traits. It has mainly been effective in cases in which simple traits, such as herbicide tolerance and insect resistance have been added to plants. These GM crops have delivered net beneﬁts for farmers, both small and large scale, and consumers, in the countries where cultivation has been allowed, although there are public concerns on their possible impact on health and the environment. Ethiopia is expected to benefit from these technologies with Bt cotton that was recently approved for commercial planting, and WEMA maize that is currently under confined field trials (CFT).
New Breeding Techniques (NBTs) such as genome editing overcome concerns of GM technology through rapid and precise genetic manipulation of a wide range of crop traits without transferring foreign DNA. Published data clearly show the potential beneﬁts of genome-edited crops in terms of agronomic performance, ﬁnal product quality, climate change resilience, and global food security. Genome editing tools such as CRISPR-cas9 have been found to be precise, cheap, easy to use and robust.
Genome editing is a useful tool especially in developing countries where local crop plant varieties are the mainstay. Improving orphan crops such as cassava, plantain, enset, tef, and millet through this technique would be advantageous because they are already well-integrated in the socio-economics of our region, are preferred by both farmers and consumers, and they provide more stability under rapidly changing environmental conditions.
For example, my institute in collaboration with SLU, is running a project to improve the oil quality and quantity of a local crop called Ethiopian Mustard through CRISPR-Cas9. The main outcome will be developing new breeding lines with edible or healthy seed oil quality (increased oleic acid level, reduced erucic acid and polyunsaturated fatty acids).
It is highly promising to learn other African staple crops are being improved through CRISPR technology, including plantain resistant to Banana Streak Virus (BSV), maize resistant to Maize Lethal Necrosis (MLN), sorghum resistant to striga, and tef for reduced logging and grain shatter.
Another added advantage of the CRISPR technology is the fact that the role of academic institutions is increasing in the formation of business ventures. The spinout of CRISPR biotechnology companies from academic institutions elsewhere in the world such as Argentina demonstrates a shift in entrepreneurship strategies that were previously led by the industry. This is a lesson to be taken by our governments so that our research institutions are empowered to play a great role in the development of knowledge-based economies though academic born bio-ventures.
Therefore, following the motto of the African Biennial Communication (ABBC) 2019 symposium, “#GetCRISRight“, Africa should provide a conducive environment to public research institutes, local SMEs and private companies to bring the technology close to home.
While using NBTs to solve our pressing problems in agriculture, food and nutrition, environment and health, we need to properly regulate the technology through science-based decision-making processes. Already existing regulatory frameworks can be used with expanded mandate following the example of Argentina where the concept of “novel combination of genetic material” derived from Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety is applied. Proper regulation of genome editing technologies will therefore provide opportunities to foster innovation and productivity, particularly through the involvement of public institutions and SMEs.
Prof. Teklehaimanot Haileselassie is an Associate Professor at the Institute of Biotechnology, Addis Ababa University, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. You can reach him on firstname.lastname@example.org