Royalty-free genes reduce GMO seed costs in Africa

By Christopher Bendana

May 28, 2019

Smallholder farmers in sub-Saharan Africa will be able to access improved seeds at low cost, thanks to the use of royalty-free genes in genetically modified (GM) crops.

The African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF) negotiated with patent holders to donate certain genes royalty-free for humanitarian purposes, said Dr. Emmanuel Okogbenin, director of technical operations for AATF.  The goal is to enhance crop productivity through such GM traits as insect-resistance and drought-tolerance, thus improving farmer incomes and the overall economic prosperity of African countries, which depend significantly on agriculture.

The price of royalty-free seeds will be determined by market forces and other economic factors, including costs incurred by the African seed companies that multiply the foundational seeds bred by public institutions, such as Uganda’s National Agricultural Research Organization (NARO), as is currently the case with hybrids. For vegetative crops like bananas and potatoes, the cost will reflect the expense of developing plantlets through tissue culture.

The issue of foreign seed companies possibly dominating Africa’s seed industry and “enslaving” farmers has been a hot-button concern promoted by non-governmental organizations opposed to GM technology. They’ve claimed that foreign seed companies will impose high prices on GM seeds, keeping them out of reach of the majority small scale-farmers and making them “slaves” of the biotech multinationals.

“If the genes were not free, farmers could pay as much as twice the price of products lacking such genes,” Okogbenin said. In South Africa, GM seeds that do not have royalty-free genes can sell for 100 percent more than equivalent non-GM seeds.

Dr. Godfrey Asea, a maize breeder and director at NARO’s National Crops Resources Research Institute (NaCRRI) in Namulonge, said the royalties paid for patented crops typically account for three-to-five percent of the sales price.

Royalty-free genes brokered by AATF have been used in the TELA program, a regional project running in East and Southern African to develop drought-tolerant maize varieties that also provide resistance to the stem borer and fall armyworm pests, Asea said. NaCRRI has used free donated genes to breed salt-tolerant and nitrogen- and water-efficient rice varieties, as well.

Other royalty-free genes include one for the control of maruca, a pest that affects cowpea, according to Suleiman Okoth, an AATF program officer. Some confer high-yielding traits, while others improve nutrition, such as vitamin A-fortified banana. Others offer protection against banana bacteria wilt and potato wilt.

Okoth said AATF has so far secured more than 12 royalty-free genes for use in both conventional and GM crop breeding. “The goal is to help small-scale farmers move from subsistence to commercial farming,” he said.

Dr. Murenga Mwimali, a scientist at Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organization (KALRO), another national research institute that has benefited from royalty-free genes sourced by AATF, said the donated technology allows farmers to easily access improved crops, thus improving their ability to address the challenges of food security and nutrition.

Dr. Jerome Kubiriba, head of the banana program at Uganda’s National Agricultural Research Laboratories in Kawanda, said a donated gene incorporated into banana has shown 100 percent resistance against bacterial wilt, a disease devastating banana crops throughout the continent.

Access to donated technology is expected to help Africa embrace the “gene revolution” after it largely missed out on the “green revolution” that greatly advanced agriculture in the global north.