By Prof.  Jennifer Thomson

The third edition of African Biennial Biosciences Communication Symposium (ABBC2019) was held in Pretoria, South Africa, on 29th and 30th August 2019. The symposium, running under the theme ‘Getting it Right: Communicating about Genome Editing’, provided a platform for interrogating best communication practices that will facilitate informed dialogue and decision-making on genome editing in Africa.

On the sidelines, The DrumBeat secured an exclusive interview with Jennifer Thomson, Emeritus Professor in the Department of Molecular and Cell Biology at University of Cape Town and President of Organization for Women in Science for the Developing World (OWSD). She talks about the role of genetic engineering in improving Africa’s food security and shares her experience from ABBC2019.

What research areas have you been working on?

I have been researching on genetically modified organisms (GMOs) since the 1970s when the focus was on bacteria. But more recently, I have been working on plants and I am glad that my team and I have developed drought tolerant maize. The Department of Science and Innovation has given us some grants to take this plant to contained trials.

From your expertise in GMO science, do you think genetic engineering is a foolproof technology against food insecurity in Africa?

One thing that scientists must remember is not to oversell their products because every new technology comes with its own challenges and shortcomings. Insect resistant crops are no exception. Insects are stubborn but clever little beings that become resistant to any insecticide – whether it is the chemical insecticide or the protein that is present in biotech plants. Similarly, in medicine, bacteria or other microbes can develop the ability to resist effects of an antibiotic. Genetic engineering can give you insect resistant crops but just like in the cases I have mentioned, insects can learn to overcome this resistance just as they will with a chemical. No one should claim that one technology is a silver bullet to food insecurity. However, genetic engineering is one of the options.

What is the role of African women in technology acceptance and improvement of food security on the continent?

When it comes to food, women are the most important people in the family since they decide what food to buy, what meal to take, and how to cook it. It is a shame that women are often forgotten as important stakeholders in technology development and acceptance. It is for this reason that we must get our messages about the technology delivered to women in ways that convince them. Women scientists have an advantage in doing this because they understand what women go through. In Africa, there are crops referred to as ‘women’s crops’ – these include cassava, yam and many others. Whereas main crops make money, ‘women’s crops’ feed the family. Lots of attention need to be given to these crops since they influence women’s lives.

What were your expectations from ABBC2019 Symposium? 

I was very excited when I heard about this conference. What we do is ‘old-version’ GM work that involves incorporation of bacterium into plants. We made so many mistakes in the early days of trying to communicate effectively about the importance of GMOs particularly in developing countries. We are now in an era of highly precise genome technologies such as CRISPR. To get CRISPR right, we must learn from those previous mistakes, and ABBC2019 provided a perfect platform to do exactly this. 

What key take-away lesson did you learn from the symposium?

I have had wonderful ideas coming from this conference; practical ideas on how to get the trust of audiences in communicating about genome editing. There are those who would disagree with you on the benefits of the technology. It is alright, just leave them alone. Speak to people in the middle ground who are unbiased, and give them examples that they can relate with.

How will what you have learnt impact your work going forward?

My work is on food safety. Public acceptance is critical when it comes to food technologies because there is absolutely no way that a farmer is going to plant drought-tolerant maize or a consumer is going to eat it unless they know it is safe. Coincidentally, the impact of climate change is so evident. For instance, we have had devastating drought in Cape Town. With this, water has become so scarce that residents have learnt to utilize the available water by making do with showers instead of baths. Climate change is so real in Africa; it affects not only farmers but all of us. Therefore, relating our communication about genome editing with something they know or value brings the message home. People know what it is like not getting water flowing from the tap. Helping them understand that drought-tolerant crops are water efficient, thus saving more water for household use, would relate to their value for water. I have learnt the importance of anchoring genome editing communication with the reality, and this will be impactful on my work.

What should Africa do to get CRISPR right?

Africa missed out on the green revolution and it is in danger of losing out on this evolving science too. The continent has failed to optimize the use of GM crops with only South Africa, Sudan and Swaziland currently having these crops commercialized. Some countries are too afraid about adopting biotech crops. The fear of political repercussions from adoption of GM crop has made it almost impossible for some countries to embrace the technology. We cannot afford to lose out on CRISPR. We must get it right. How should we do this? We must sell our messages to the right people. We need to get the farmers understand this so that they may lend their support for it.

Going forward, what could be the best communication approach to help improve acceptance of genome editing technologies?

From the conference, what stood out for me is the importance of inter-group and inter-stakeholder interactions. Natural scientists must work jointly with social scientists to complement one another in order to make adoption of scientific technologies a reality. Most of the former are not good communicators. However, social scientists have communication skills that can be crucial in prompting widespread acceptance of genome editing technologies.

You can reach Prof. Thomson on