Top scientist urges Kenya to take new approach to regulating gene editing crops

By Joseph Opoku Gakpo

September 2, 2021

Subjecting Kenya’s gene-edited crops to the same regulations as those developed through genetic modification could unnecessarily slow their release to farmers and consumers, warned the director of the East Africa Hub of the International Institute for Tropical Agriculture (IITA).

Leena Tripathi said edited crops with no foreign gene added should not be treated like genetically modified (GM) products because the changes made with gene editing could happen naturally and through traditional crop improvement methods.

Gene editing mimics conventional methods of plant breeding, which use the traditional technologies of mutation and are not subject to rigorous regulations, she said.

GM regulations include requirements for confined and multilocational field trials that could take up to a decade to complete, Tripathi explained, resulting in delays that have no basis in science.

“And if there is no foreign gene integration, it’s just precise targeted mutation, [and] those products should not be regulated as GMOs,” Tripathi observed. “Because the regulation of GMOs takes a long time, that means the products remain away from the consumers and the people who need them.”

Tripathi was speaking at a media briefing organized by the Africa Science Media Center on gene editing research in Kenya, where a number of research projects are currently ongoing. They include banana gene-edited to resist deadly plant diseases and pests.

Banana is ranked the fourth most important crop in Africa, where smallholder farmers grow a third of the bananas produced globally. Despite the potential to yield up to 70 tonnes per hectare annually, matooke — the cooking banana produced in Kenya — yields an average of just five to 30 tonnes per hectare each year. Farmers growing plantain, on the other hand, have a yield potential of 35.5 tonnes per hectare each year but currently harvest only about 7.8 tonnes.

The yield gap is the result of numerous banana diseases and pests, including black sigatoka, fusarium wilt, nematodes, bacteria wilt, banana streak virus and the banana xanthomonas wilt. Banana xanthomonas wilt, for example, causes between 40 to 80 percent yield loss, resulting in an overall economic loss of between US$2 billion and US$8 billion over the last decade.

Tripathi told the media that scientists are using gene editing to produce improved varieties with resistance to the banana streak virus and banana xanthomonas that are no different in taste or nutrition from the conventional ones.

Gene editing is a group of technologies that gives scientists the ability to make permanent and heritable changes at specific sites in the genome of an organism.  Genome editing can be used to add, remove or alter DNA in the genome. It is cheaper, simpler and more accurate than other plant breeding methods.

Tripathi said that “nature has been editing the genome for a very long time. Genome editing in crop improvement is not something new. It has been happening since cultivation started. The only difference is that using these genome editing tools, it’s more precise and efficient compared to the older techniques.”

Some of the potentially promising benefits of gene editing include yield improvement and resistance to bacteria, virus and fungi — traits that farmers desire — as well as consumer-oriented nutritional enhancements.

“Gene editing is a powerful tool for crop improvement,” she said. “Scientists use gene editing technology targeting a plant’s natural DNA to make precise changes that could otherwise happen through traditional methods but would take much longer. There is no trace of foreign DNA in the final gene-edited products.”

Global regulatory models

Gene-edited crops are already entering the global market, including non-browning mushrooms and high oleic soybean oil that is a source of healthy monosaturated fat. The United States Department of Agriculture and Colombian regulators have approved gene-edited blight-resistant rice and Japan approved its first gene-edited crop — a tomato rich in gamma aminobutyric acid to fight high blood pressure. None of these crops were regulated like GMOs. Argentina, meanwhile, is also conducting gene editing research on non-browning potato and higher quality alfalfa.

Tripathi noted that public institutions and academia are responsible for about 260 active research projects on gene-edited crops while private firms account for just 184.  It has long been held that gene editing will support the democratization of biotechnology by allowing public researchers to successfully compete with the private sector, which can better afford the expensive regulatory process associated with GM crops.

Africa needs broad ranging support to make agriculture better, Tripathi said. “With increasing demand for food and limiting resources, we need better and more efficient ways to produce food and one option is gene editing,” she observed.

Argentina was the first country to develop regulations for gene editing, taking a case-by-case approach. Crops without any foreign gene introduction are not regulated as GMOs —  the example Tripathi wants Kenya to follow.

Daniel Otunge of the Africa Science Media Center observed that with the continent’s increasing population and demand for food, African countries are looking for ways to boost production.

“Gene editing is proving to be a viable option because it’s producing new improved crops and other products to boost food production,” he said at the start of the media briefing.

Image: A banana market in Uganda. Photo: Joan Conrow