By Margaret Karembu, PhD, MBS
The African Climate Summit held in Nairobi in September adopted a bold declaration to address climate challenges and forge for a collective will in driving green growth and climate finance solutions for Africa and the world. Cognizance of the devastating impact of climate change, the declaration – dubbed Nairobi Declaration – identified critical areas of intervention towards environmental restoration, sustainable food systems and climate-positive growth.
The African Heads of State and Government, and the more than 30,000 delegates attending the Summit expressed concern that many African countries face disproportionate burdens and risks arising from climate change-related unpredictable weather events and patterns, including prolonged droughts, devastating floods, out-of-season storms, and wildfires.
Climate change, a global challenge exacerbated by human activities, continues to increase stress on our ecosystems threatening the essence of our food systems and causing massive humanitarian crisis with detrimental impacts on economies, health, education, peace and security, among other risks.
Climate shocks have altered the natural order enhancing transmission of zoonotic diseases due to increased human-wildlife interaction. According to the World Health Organization, over 30 new human pathogens have been detected in the last three decades, 75% of which have originated in animals.
Science, technology and innovation comes with a huge potential to build resilience to climate shocks and address food, health and environmental challenges in a sustainable way. New breeding technologies (NBTs), though somewhat not given the attention they deserve, stand in a prime position to contribute to planetary health and sustainable food production. This is a set of modern biotechnology tools designed to precisely develop new traits in plants and animals for improved productivity.
One NBT that is gaining traction in the scientific world is genome editing, a more precise and efficient technique used to make specific changes to plant or animal DNA to achieve desirable characteristics such as disease resistance, drought tolerance, pest resistance or nutritional enhancement. This technology comes in handy in building resilience and improving food production amid the current harsh climatic conditions.
Three African countries – Kenya, Nigeria and Malawi – have already put in place robust genome editing regulatory frameworks anchored within their Biosafety Acts. Ethiopia is a step away from joining this league as the country puts final touches on its genome editing guidelines before they are published.
Several genome editing projects are currently underway in these countries. Kenya and Ethiopia are implementing the Striga Smart Sorghum for Africa project, a public-private partnership project that utilizes CRISPR technology to develop new sorghum varieties resistant to Striga. Striga is a parasitic weed responsible for up to 100 percent yield loss in staple cereals, thus posing a great danger to the livelihoods of more than a third of the Kenya and Ethiopian population who depend on cereals (maize, sorghum and millet) as their staple food and source of income.
In Nigeria, researchers are developing cassava varieties resistant to bacterial blight disease, a vicious disease that threatens Nigeria’s glorious reputation as the largest producer of cassava in the world.
African scientists are also employing this technology in animal research. In a bid to address susceptibility of livestock to diseases, researchers in Kenya are developing goat breeds with superior genetics hence resilient to diseases. Researchers at the International Livestock Research Institute in Nairobi are using CRISPR/Cas9 technology to develop multiple vaccines against African swine fever, a viral disease that can cause up to 100% mortality in pigs. There are currently no vaccines or cures for the disease. In Nigeria, scientists are working on a project that uses genome editing tools to develop bird flu resistant chicken.
Latest data show that one in five people in Africa is food insecure. Alarmingly, the proportion of the population facing hunger is much larger on the continent compared with any other region in the world. Encouragingly, the food security challenge will potentially be addressed with scientific breakthrough in development of genome edited climate-smart and highly-producing crops and livestock.
Genome editing is an important enabler towards realization of One Health goals. One Health is an integrated approach that seeks to achieve optimal health outcomes for people, animals and ecosystems. It recognizes the interconnection between people, animals, plants and their shared environment, and calls for multisectoral and transdisciplinary collaborations in tackling threats to health and ecosystems while building sustainable food systems and taking a more pro-active climate action.
By harnessing genome editing to develop drought tolerant, insect resistant and disease resistant crops, over-reliance on pesticides will be reduced significantly. Pesticides are often used irresponsibly thus posing health risks to humans, animals and the environment.
This technology has shown a potential to revolutionize disease diagnostics and prevention in animals. This is key in eradicating zoonotic diseases (diseases transmitted from animals to humans). In Kenya, the country’s Ministry of Health estimates that recurrent outbreaks of diseases such as Rift Valley fever and Anthrax have caused significant socio-economic impacts and threatened rare and endangered wildlife species. According to the Ministry, the burden of zoonotic diseases in the country causes a loss of more than USD 4 billion every year.
Putting up systems and policies that nurture development of new breeding innovations within One Health spectrum is crucial in mitigating the effects of climate change and preventing pandemics.
Dr. Karembu is the Director, ISAAA AfriCenter and Chair, Africa Science Dialogue. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org