High expectations for GMO rice research in Ghana

By Joseph Opoku Gakpo

January 29, 2019

Both farmers and the Ghanaian scientists now conducting field trials of genetically modified (GM) rice believe the improved variety will better the lives of smallholder rice farmers once it’s released onto the market.

The nitrogen- and water-use efficient and salt tolerant (NEWEST) rice has been engineered to require less nitrogen fertilizer, tolerate drought conditions and grow in salty soils — and still give good yield.

Confined field trials conducted on a GM variety with just the nitrogen use-efficiency trait showed it increased yields by between 14 and 25 percent over traditional varieties.

“This new variety will help us boost productivity and ensure farmers get better yield from each hectare of farmland,” Dr. Maxwell Darko Asante, plant breeder and principal investigator in charge of the NEWEST rice project in Ghana, told the Alliance for Science in an interview.

Rice is a major staple food in Ghana and the second most consumed cereal crop after maize. But the Ministry of Food and Agriculture estimates productivity on Ghanaian rice farms currently is only about 46 percent of potential yield because of environmental and other challenges.

Soils in most parts of Africa have high levels of nitrogen deficiency and this has been identified as one of the major factors limiting yield on rice farms in Ghana. Farmers thus have to apply vast quantities of fertilizer to their fields every planting season in order to grow rice successfully. Additionally, poor rainfall patterns as a result of climate change limit productivity because more than 90 percent of Ghana’s farm fields are not irrigated. And it’s difficult to grow rice in coastal regions due to high levels of salt in the soils.

“The challenges with rice production are several,” said John Awuku Dziwornu, a rice farmer at Asutsuare in Southern Ghana. “Sometimes you apply a lot of fertilizer to the field and nothing changes. It’s always a big challenge. And the weather is not helping either.”

The challenge associated with nitrogen deficiency and its impact on rice production in Africa is worrying, said Francis Onyekachi Nwankwo, programs officer at the African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF).  “For everything you plant, you need nutrients. With rice, nitrogen is needed in the soil to make it grow well. In a soil that is deficient of nitrogen, you can see that you will have a poor harvest. And fertilizer which gives nitrogen is not very much available and not affordable to farmers.”

These challenges are precisely what the NEWEST rice hopes to fix. Scientists at the Crop Research Institute of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) in Ghana are leading ongoing trials to introduce the new variety in the country. Through the work of California-based Arcadia Biosciences, the International Center for Tropical Agriculture and the AATF, genes responsible for drought and salt tolerance and nitrogen efficiency have been introduced into NERICA, a popular rice variety in Africa. Research institutions in Ghana, Uganda and Nigeria are evaluating the varieties to introduce the traits into other local rice varieties.

“For this project, we have two different products that are coming out,” Onyekechi Nwankwo explained. “First is nitrogen use efficiency (NUE) alone. Then the second covers all three [traits]. We have not done field trials on the combined traits yet. But for the nitrogen use efficiency, we have evaluated and screened it in the field and selected the best fertile ones that have the trait and are performing well in the field.”

Researchers still have to meet requirements to conduct environmental and safety assessments, he said. “This new variety will boost local rice production,” Onyekechi Nwankwo said. “Within four years, it should be able to get to the hands of the farmers.”

Scientists conducted field trials that showed the NERICA rice with the nitrogen use-efficiency trait produced yields 14 and 25 percent higher than traditional varieties. The next phase of the project will see the backcrossing of the desired traits from the GM NERICA varieties into popular local rice varieties in Ghana, Asante said.

“So far, it’s just the NERICA4 which was transformed. Once the gene is de-regulated, then we can backcross it into most of the popular jasmine types that we have locally. That is the plan. If everything goes on as planned, for most of our popular varieties, we will have NUE or NEWEST versions of it,” Asante said.

“You know our soils are depleted. Farmers don’t get the productivity that they deserve. If this works, it means farmers can get good yield by applying lower levels of fertilizer. So they save money, and they make better yield,” he noted.

When the three stacked traits of the NEWEST rice are finally introduced into local varieties of rice, other benefits will be seen. “Peasant farmers who don’t have the financial strength to irrigate their fields can use these varieties and the farms will still do well,” Asante explained. “Marginal lands that farmers couldn’t plant on could make use of these new varieties… In the coastal area where a lot of the lands are salty, these new varieties will do well there.”

A recent economic study in Ghana has predicted the adoption of the new GMO variety could add up to US$75.7 million (GH₵334m) to the rice production economy over the next six years if released this year. The study predicts that if regulatory processes delay the introduction of the new rice by five years, the rice sector will lose US$45.3 million (GH₵200m).

Charles Afriyie Debrah, biosafety officer at the Crop Research Institute of the CSIR, said ownership of the new GMO varieties will remain Ghanaian. He also assured farmers it may be possible to re-plant their seeds if they wish. “Our GMO rice that we conducted the experiment on, that crop, we have done about four trials. And it was based on the seed that was saved. So there are those seeds that you can re-plant like this new GMO variety,” he explained.

It could take about half a decade before the novel varieties are eventually available on the market for farmers to plant, but players in the rice industry are already expectant.

Rice farmer Dziwornu, who is also vice chairman of the Ghana National Farmers and Fishermen Association, is excited about the difference the new GMO rice can make in the country. “A lot of work has been ongoing to produce improved rice varieties that can help increase productivity,” he said. “We expect the NEWEST variety to benefit farmers and Ghanaians in general.”