New breeding innovations are increasing the efficiency of improving crops with valuable traits. In Africa, CRISPR-Cas9 genome editing is already being used by researchers to address various crop production challenges. To realize its full potential, an enabling environment should be fostered through science-based policies and regulations, communication and stakeholder engagement. In this exclusive interview by the Drumbeat, Dr. Rufus Ebegba, Director General of the National Biosafety Management Agency (NBMA) Nigeria, provide insights on prospects of genome editing in Africa. 

What are your thoughts on genome editing as an emerging biotechnological tool?

Genome editing is becoming a key biotech approach to come up with new products. Nigeria, for instance, has now accordingly amended the Nigerian National Biosafety Management Agency (NBMA) 2015-2019. It now is more proactive, forward-thinking and has foresight because we believe that this technology will be a major tool. We have developed guidelines for gene editing. These guidelines specify three approaches when looking at products developed through the technology. For instance, if you have a product developed through genome editing and you didn’t use a transgene to carry out the transformation, we will give it an abridged processing. We do not place it under genetically modified organism (GMO) classification and hence it is not considered a GMO. If you come up with a product for which you initially used a transgene to modify but the final product does not contain a transgene, we also do not employ GMO regulatory approach. We give it a quasi-non-GMO classification. However, if the final product contains the transgene, we classify it as a GMO and carry out all the due biosafety diligences. We ensure that this product’s risk assessment is carried out to be certain that it is safe for human consumption and isn’t harmful to the environment and other living things such as plants and animals.

Should genome edited products be regulated as genetically modified organisms (GMOs)? What are the likely implications of using GMO biosafety regulations on genome editing?

Some genome-edited products do not fall under the classification of GMOs. This necessitates that we develop guidelines to enable us to effectively regulate such without putting undue rigor on the products that do not fall under the category of GMO. In our case (as NBMA) we first do a preliminary review when you submit your product’s dossier; whether it be transgenic or not. We will then inform you (if) it doesn’t fall under GMO classification that we do not intend to proceed into application of more detailed regulatory approaches. This means you should take the product to the appropriate agency that regulates such products. 

Does this mean there’ll be no safety analysis for such products? Or any other laboratory safety processes?

There is nothing in the world that doesn’t require safety standards. There are other bodies that ensure that such new products are appropriate. As long as it doesn’t fall under GMO classification, we will not do the assessment as there are other bodies that should do it. But a product must first pass through our agency so that we determine whether we regulate it or not.

What biosafety assurance would you give with regards to safety around biotechnology and some of its applications such as genome editing?

One of the major roles of biosafety is to ensure safety. Due diligence is therefore imperative. On products that contain transgenes, we apply the necessary rigorous biosafety parameters and are able to say whether the product is safe or not. I think people should trust the faculties that deal in ensuring biosafety. And these faculties should, on their part, be able to convince the people to trust them. This, they can achieve through transparency in their roles, being meticulous on matters biosafety and involving the citizens/public in the processes. 

What kind of policies and regulations should African states develop for genome editing?

The policies should not be preventive but rather be geared towards safety. If you come up with policies that stifle and prevent genome editing technology from being used, it means we don’t need the technology. But if we make policies that give room to assess the safety of the technology, it means we give room for scientific and technological advancement, and development of the technology. The laws developed should, therefore, not be to stifle development or restrict the use of emerging technologies such as genome editing especially when there are parameters in place to confirm their safety. And that is what biosafety is all about. I believe African countries and regulators have what it takes to regulate the sector; identifying which products should be subjected to rigorous regulatory processes or which ones do not require over-regulation. Generalized over-regulation definitely affects research and development. Yet African countries should be eager to use science and technology to move their economies forward.

What are the expected benefits of genome editing in agriculture and addressing food insecurity in Africa?

Socio-economic benefits consideration is usually the final approach towards approval of any product. The product must give economic value and be environmentally sustainable. I believe genome editing is faster and more precise. It gives confidence to the emerging aspects of modern technologies for enhancing agriculture and hence food security. 

What should African states do to build capacity for research and development of genome editing?

Currently, Africa isn’t doing enough in terms of developing science and technology. Science and technology drive the modern world. These concepts drive the green economy, and address issues of climate change and other scientific applications and adaptations. The way things were done in the past is changing as modern scientific innovations and technological applications come into play. African countries must therefore do more in adopting these emerging technologies. The continent needs to invest more in science and technology.

Are there fears that products of genome editing will face the same scrutiny as GMOs, especially when the two technologies are viewed through the same lens?

Scientists must speak to the public early enough to avert any such fears arising. They should project the importance of the technology and highlight the safety regulations and measures put in place. Regulatory agencies must also convince the public that they have the ability to regulate and ensure that only the genome-edited products that are certified to be safe are approved. 

What do you believe will be the outlook of genome editing in Africa in the next 5 to 10 years?

I believe genome editing will be a technology playing a major role. It may even outdo the normal transgenic biotechnology approaches; it could substitute the transfer of genes. This way, it may remove the stigma associated with GMOs because genome edited products will seemingly have some relationship with other conventional products.