In the wake of the 21st century, African agriculture stands at a crossroads of tradition and innovation. With a history deeply rooted in the soil, the continent’s agricultural evolution has been a testament to resilience and adaptability. Now, as we embrace the technological strides of new breeding technologies, we are poised to redefine the paradigms of crop breeding and secure a future where food security is no longer a distant dream but an attainable reality.
The journey of crop breeding is a tale as old as civilization. From the ancient practice of selecting the best crops for replanting to the sophistication of hybrid breeding, every step has been a leap toward abundance. Mutagenesis and genetic modification further pushed the boundaries. Today, genome editing, particularly the Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats (CRISPR) technology, emerges not as a replacement but as a powerful addition to the breeder’s toolkit, promising to complement and enhance traditional and modern breeding techniques alike.
The dawn of genome editing heralds a new era of precision agriculture. With its unparalleled speed and accuracy, it equips us to sculpt the genomes of tomorrow’s crops, imbuing them with traits that confer not just higher yields but also resilience to the vagaries of pests, diseases, and an increasingly unpredictable climate.
Africa, a continent with immense agricultural potential, is now looking towards genome editing as a crucial additional tool in its quest for food security. The challenge is immense: to feed a rapidly growing population amidst the looming shadow of climate change. With a current population of just over 1.4 billion people and expected to reach close to 2.5 billion by 2050, securing a food-secure future has never been more important. Considering that more than 380 million people across over 40 countries in the continent did not have sufficient food in 2023, a lot is yet to be done to achieve food security for the present and future generations.
Historically, Africa has been cautious in adopting modern agricultural technologies. But change is in the air. Countries across the continent are making strides in genome editing research, backed by policies that foster innovation. Kenya, Nigeria, Malawi and Ghana have led the charge, establishing guidelines that recognize the similarity of genome-edited crops to conventionally bred ones, setting a precedent for others to follow.
As such, the narrative of Africa’s technological uptake is essentially being rewritten. Pioneering research and progressive policies will dissolve the inertia of the past, seeding the grounds for a future where genome editing is as much a part of agriculture as the soil and the seasons. The regulatory ethos demonstrated by the four progressive countries could pave the way for more African nations to cultivate a science-led approach to agriculture.
The success of genome-edited products is already evident in countries where they are commercially available. From the enriched GABA tomatoes in Japan to high-oleic soybean oil in the United States, the pacesetter products showcase the versatility and success of genome-edited crops, offering a glimpse into a future where such innovations are commonplace. Africa, with its rich biodiversity and agricultural heritage, stands to benefit immensely from similar advancements.
Encouragingly, genome editing isn’t just a concept; it’s a reality taking shape in research labs in Africa, and hopefully in the fields soon. Researchers are tackling challenges like Striga infestation in sorghum, maize lethal necrosis, and bacterial wilt in bananas among others with this technology. These efforts are not just about improving crops; they’re emblematic of a broader vision to harness genome editing in addressing the continent’s unique food production challenges, securing livelihoods, and ensuring the resilience of African agriculture.
One of the pioneering genome editing initiatives in Africa is the Striga Smart Sorghum for Africa (SSSfA), a collaborative project between the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA) AfriCenter, Kenyatta University, Addis Ababa University, Ethiopia’s Bio and Emerging Technology Institute (BETin), the African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF), with technical backstopping from Beneficial Bio, UK. The SSSfA project is working to impart durable Striga-resistance in sorghum using genome editing. Striga (witchweed) is a serious threat to sorghum production in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA), infesting up to 50 million hectares of cropland and affecting the livelihoods of millions of smallholder farmers in the continent.
The SSSfA project exemplifies the collaborative spirit driving Africa’s scientific community. By forging alliances across borders and disciplines, this initiative aims to gift sorghum – a crucial cereal crop in SSA – with enduring resistance to the scourge of Striga. The success of such projects could signal a turning point for smallholder farmers, especially women, whose empowerment is central to the continent’s agrarian future.
The way forward for genome editing in Africa’s agriculture is clear – it must address specific food production challenges and contribute towards enhanced food security. This requires a collaborative effort involving researchers, farmers, consumers, and the private sector. The goal is to develop crops and animals that not only thrive in Africa’s diverse climates but also meet the needs of its people.
As the continent forges ahead with genome editing, as demonstrated by proactive research and regulatory guidelines being developed, fostering an environment of trust through proactive communication will be crucial. Engaging with farmers, consumers, and all stakeholders in the agri-food sector in a transparent dialogue will ensure that the transition to advanced breeding technologies is inclusive and well-informed.
From where I stand, genome editing is not just a scientific breakthrough, it represents a journey of discovery, innovation, and resilience – a journey that promises a greener, more bountiful Africa. As we continue to grapple with the challenges of climate change and population growth, Africa cannot afford to leave any stone unturned. The technology holds great potential in addressing key food production challenges in the continent and delivering superior, climate-resilient crop varieties to farmers. As such, adopted and nurtured with care, it will be a critical ally in our quest for sustainable agriculture and food security.
Register your genome editing project: Are you a researcher using genome editing to improve a crop or animal in Africa? Get featured in the 4th Edition of our flagship publication “Genome Editing in Africa’s Agriculture: An Early Take-off” by registering your project here.
Godfrey Ngure is a Program Associate at ISAAA AfriCenter, and a Doctoral student at the University of Tsukuba, Ibaraki, Japan. You can reach him at email@example.com