Gene editing could help Africa build resilient agricultural systems amid climate change.

By Joseph Maina

New research has identified gene editing as a strong and viable option for improving the food security situation in the developing world amid a rapidly changing climate, with Africa standing to benefit from this technology.

Gene editing, also known as genome editing, comprises a group of technologies that give scientists the ability to change an organism’s DNA. The technology allows for the addition, removal or alteration of genetic material at particular locations in the genome, and is being used to produce high quality crops and livestock that can thrive in diverse settings.

Africa has already made commendable inroads with gene editing, and a number of projects have already been launched in various parts of the continent targeting key agricultural crops and livestock. Earlier this year, the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA) produced a report titled “Genome Editing in Africa’s Agriculture 2021: An Early Take-off”, which showed some of the gene-editing projects underway in Africa.

The ISAAA report details the efforts by researchers in the continent using gene editing to improve disease resistance in plants and build more robust crop and animal varieties. Among the crops and livestock targeted for improvement are sorghum, maize, bananas, sweet potato pigs, cattle and goats, which are central to food sufficiency in many parts of the African continent.

The study notes that crop production is very sensitive to climate change effects, with an increase of even 1 °C in average temperature having the potential to cause the reduction of between 5-10% in major food crops.

Climate change, which includes high temperatures, more intense rainfall and drought, is projected to have an unfavorable effect on plant agronomic conditions and soil nutrients while increasing threats from diseases, and insect pests.

“As a result, climate-resilient varieties with broad spectrum and long-term tolerance to both biotic and abiotic stresses are required,” the report notes. “The new genetic engineering method for crop enhancement is precise genome editing.”

Signs of a bleak food security situation are already visible, thanks to the changes in climate.

“It is estimated that climatic changes may cause a considerable decrease in maize production in southern Africa,” observes the report. “It may also cause up to 10% decrease in staple crops of south Asia, including rice while more than 10% decrease in millet and maize production”.

India recorded a dip in production of rice by 23% during the period of 2001-2002, attributed to water scarcity. The report added that in Indonesia, about 1 344 million tonnes production of rice has been lost due to flooding.

Added to the changes in climate is population growth, which is seen in many places not to match the dwindling food production.

“By 2050, it is expected that another 2.4 billion people be added to the population of developing countries of the world”, notes the report. “Agriculture in developing countries is a key source of employment, but at present more than 20% of the population falls on an average, in the category of food-insecurity.”

To counter the looming catastrophic food shortages, the study authors suggest that the agriculture sector must expand globally by 60% by the year 2050 to meet the increasing demand due to continuously increasing human population. In order to spare wild lands from being converted to farming, scientists are seeking to develop crop varieties that are more productive under climate change.

Even though traditional crop improvement through genetic recombination or random mutagenesis have had a measure of success in meeting global food demands, it is a time-consuming process that cannot keep up with rising food demand of the modern day and the future.

The authors recommend strong government commitment to formulate or adapt agricultural policies that will overcome or minimize the impacts of climate change on crop production. But while acknowledging that modern technological tools such as gene editing can revolutionize crop improvement programs in terms of production, the authors note that an integrated approach is required to face the challenges of food security under climate change from global to local level as well as from research to policies and investment level.

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