Agricultural biotechnology is an important scientific technique that involves the breeding of crops and animals, among others, to improve the productivity of the products or build their resistance to various diseases, pests and weeds as well as climatic hardships.
Over the years, agricultural technology has developed a broad spectrum and this time around with the understanding of the basis of genetics , scientists have started conducting selective and effective breeding of crops and animals.
Now it is widely accepted that the science enables African farmers access quality, high yielding, disease-tolerant, and resistant crop varieties. So far, populations around the world have benefited a lot from modern biotechnology including from what are called the traditional techniques and even genetically modified (GM) products and recently Genome Editing (GEd) out puts.
According to several biotechnologists, Africa is lagging behind in investing in biotech research and development as well as gaining benefits from it, despite the proven advantages of biotechnology.
Professor Firew Mekbib of Ethiopia’s Haramaya University is one of the renowned African biotechnologists , and he emphasizes that modern agricultural biotechnology is among the decisive technological techniques that Africa needs now more than any time in its history.
African Science, For Africans And On The African Soil
“Some people think that we are doing agricultural biotechnology researches because we want to secure financial assistance from somebody in Europe or America to do the studies or some people are imposing the idea on us. No, that is a wrong assumption; we need the technology badly to solve the various existential problems in our agriculture.” Professor Firew says.
“We require our own biotechnology capabilities to address our own challenges and, of course, we have proved that we can do it ourselves,” the professor underlined.
Professor Firew cited the recent successful development of the sorghum variety that is resistant to the striga weed under the joint “Feed the Future Striga Smart Sorghum for Africa (SSSfA)” project of the Addis Ababa and Kenyatta Universities registered in Genome Editing, which is the latest biotechnological research technique.
He said, “The Striga Smart Sorghum gene editing research is done by Africans, for Africans and on the African Soil. Therefore, it is a practical proof that we Africans can develop our own biotech technologies. As former US President Barack Obama has said ‘Yes We Can’ and I say ‘Yes We Do’.”
“The Striga Smart Sorghum gene editing research is done by Africans, for Africans and on the African Soil. “
Director of the Biotechnology Research Institute of the Kenyan Agriculture and Livestock Research Organization (KALRO) Martin Kiogora Mwirigi (PhD) on his part said that as agriculture has passed a series of revolutions since antiquity, Africa has not benefited from the global technological advancements and now the continent has to seize the opportunities that have come in relation to the modern tools of genome editing.
It Is Time For Africans
“It is time for us Africans to harnessing the genetic resources we have for the development of the agricultural sector in Africa instead of domiciling of the precious time we have,” Dr. Mwirigi added.
According to Dr. Mwirigi, Africa is lagging behind with regard to making use of the opportunities accessible in this modern world and the continent, through the guidance of AUDA-NEPAD, needs to move forward in the right direction of achieving the African vision of 2023 – The Africa We Want- counting the opportunity of genome editing that we have on hand tackling the challenges in the continent.
According to Chief Executive Officer of Africa Harvest Dr. Florence Wambugu, agricultural biotechnology and especially gene editing has a number of advantages in allowing scientists to make accurate and precise site-specific changes to an organism’s genetic material (DNA) to remove or introduce specific genetic traits.
As gene editing is about making a small, controlled pinch to a living organism’s existing DNA, it avoids the introduction of a new foreign gene and it is a natural breeding, she said, adding that Gene Editing Technology should not go through stringent regulations that can prevent scientists, farmers, and the public from exploiting its potential benefits and the products are highly valuable for consumers to have full and timely access to the benefits of the technology.
Currently, African scientists are undertaking commendable and successful genome editing researches both on crops and animals. For instance, the new public-private partnership project, Feed the Future Striga Smart Sorghum for Africa (SSSfA), that has been undertaken in Kenya and Ethiopia is a case in point in the effective strides of genome editing in Africa by Africans,
The SSSfA is a project that utilizes CRISPR genome editing technology to develop new sorghum varieties resistant to Striga. Striga is a parasitic weed responsible for up to 100 percent yield loss in Africa’s staple cereals, thus posing a great danger to the livelihoods of millions of smallholder farmers on the continent.
According to International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA), the three-year multi-institutional, multi-sectoral project is supported by the U.S. Government’s global hunger and food security initiative, Feed the Future, and led by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).
Close to US$3.8 million has been awarded by USAID to support the lead partners, ISAAA) AfriCenter, Kenyatta University (Kenya), and Addis Ababa University (Ethiopia).
The other promising genome editing project in Ethiopia is the one which has been undertaken on Ethiopia’s native and very common staple crop of ”Tef”, the effort to develop a new semi-dwarf version of the grain is much celebrated among biotechnologists as it would result to be significantly improved than traditional varieties and will reduce “lodging” (whereby the plant breaks or bends), cutting yield losses by up to 25%.