All About Genetic Modification in Crop Biotechnology.

Over the past decades down the history lines, plant breeding has been a major contributor, to upgrading plant varieties to manage food demand. In most case scenarios, agriculture has been pushed to more marginal lands and s as a result of compounding population growth. yield increases have been stark in several crops.

This will at some point, mostly, necessitate plant breeders to fold their sleeves and step up with New  Breeding Techniques that will crack the paradox of producing food in a more sustainable way.

What are GMOs

Genetically modified organisms refer to plants, microbes, or animals whose genetic makeup has been altered through the introduction of a select gene from another unrelated species.

For the crops, this is usually for the purpose of producing a desired characteristic such as increased yields, early maturity, or drought resistance. In animals is for increased yields.

What about genetic engineering?

Refers to the science involved in selecting the desired genes responsible for the specific traits from species and transferring them to genes of another organism which in turn modifies the genetic composition of the second species.

History of GMO

There have been a series of improvements in the quality of local or domesticated crops for over a thousand years to counter the ever-growing demand but this has been mostly done through conventional.

How long does conventional breeding take? How is it done?

Conventional plant breeding involves identifying parent plants with desirable characteristics to create favorable combinations in the next generation. The process of selecting superior-performing plants for food, feed and fiber products dates back more than 10,000 years and has been substantially refined in the last century.

A number of surveys among plant breeding companies unveil that it can take, on average, from seven to 12 (sometimes up to 20) years to generate a new plant variety with the desired characteristics. It depends on the crop. This is a fact and enormous research trials before commercialization are started.

What is the status of cultivation in Africa?

The approval and uptake of the GMOs have been slow up the hill faced by resistance. Of course, there is success to mention. Few countries have fast-tracked the technology, with South Africa being the leader in this regard. It has experienced milestones in coping with food shortages. The number of countries that have commercialized different types of GMOs has increased from 3 to 10 between 2016 and 2022.

The slowdown of the adoption of genetically engineered crops in other African countries is due to potential concerns with respect to environmental biosafety, human health, and economics.

Planting of GMOs has been allowed in, Ethiopia, Burkina Faso, Malawi, Nigeria, Ghana, and Eswathi. There are reports of development in other countries at different levels.

Ghana has approval and commercialization of pod borer resistant (PBR) Bt cowpea, making it the first-ever genetically modified crop to be approved in the country. With the milestone, the genetically modified cowpea is improved to resist the Maruca pod borer, an insect responsible for up to 80% loss in yield.

Some of the crops in the priority pipeline include GM cotton (tolerant to African bollworm) in (Kenya, Malawi, Uganda, Nigeria, and Ghana), GM cassava (resistant to cassava brown streak disease) in Nigeria and Kenya and GM maize (resistant to stem borer) among other staple crops.

In 2019, BT cotton was approved in Kenya to bolster farmers from bollworms. The results have been promising but coupled with a number of challenges including drought. Kenyan farmers have reported the need for more extension support. Commercializing food crops was reinstated in 2022 since its ban in 2012 which will see the importation of maize to bolster shortages reported by Early Warning Systems.

More countries are implementing Biosafety laws and the number is expected to go up after experiencing protracted delays resulting from social, political and scientific disparities.

Kenyan situation

In 2008 Kenya’s minister of agriculture was a key advocate for biotechnology and helped to champion the passage of biosafety legislation in 2009(being the 4th country in Africa to do so then). Afterward, in 2012, the minister of public health used a public health act to ban the importation of GM.

Amidst the ban, still there were developments going on, which saw the public–private sector creating partnerships to develop Bt cotton varieties according to agroecological zone by 2015 that got approved in 2019.

The Water Efficient Maize for Africa project coordinated by the African Agricultural Technology Foundation has had multiple trial seasons underway to develop drought-tolerant maize. There are positive results already.

The BioCassava Plus project in Kenya and Nigeria is testing a vitamin A, iron, and protein-enhanced cassava.  Additional traits addressed by BioCassava Plus include increased shelf life, reductions in toxic cyanogenic glycosides to safe levels, and resistance to viral disease.

Why was the ban in Kenya?

The ban on GMOs was instituted in November 2012 following a directive from the Ministry of Public Health. It was largely informed by the 2012 report dubbed from the Seralini study that associated GMOs with cancer in rats. The study was later discredited and pulled from the scientific journal that had published it.

The ban on GMOs was instituted in November 2012 following a directive from the Ministry of Public Health. It was largely informed by the 2012 report dubbed from the Seralini study that associated GMOs with cancer in rats. The study was later discredited and pulled from the scientific journal that had published it.

The most prominent reaction is the fear about the effect of GMOs and the potential risks it has to the environment and the future of Biodiversity.  Additionally, some farmers say GMO maize will push them into “seed slavery”.

The key issues affecting the Kenyan situation:

  1. Whether or not GMOs offer sustainable food security options. 
  2. The implication of transgenic technology and biosafety and human health and wellbeing. 
  3. The existing capacity of the country to undertake effective research and monitor and evaluate GM products-biosafety experts and labs. 
  4. Intellectual Property rights (IPRs) and access of materials to farmers. 
  5. Regulatory capacity.

Why lift the ban?

The Kenyan Government lifted the 10-year ban after looking into factors such as guidelines of the Kenya National Biosafety Authority(NBA) and now the need to address the devastating climate change through the adoption of new strategies that would reduce dependency on rainfed agriculture.

Currently, Over 4 million Kenyans risk starvation as the country faces the hardest drought since the 1980s with 4 consecutive crop seasons recording rains below average in most parts of the country in 2022 backward. This may have led the government to radical actions to mitigate the acute food shortage following below-average food production in 2022.

Maize production in Kenya has been further hampered by the devastating Fall Army Worm (FAW), a pest first reported in March 2017 in Western Kenya, which has sparked worries, particularly in the prime cereal-growing regions that are considered the breadbasket of the country.

Therefore, the decision was arrived at with references from the recommendation of a task force that had been assigned to review issues that surrounded genetically modified foods and food safety. The importation of food crops and animal feeds produced through biotechnology innovations was authorized government. 

This marks a remarkable policy shift in the country’s agriculture sector that is resolving to advance science-based solutions in tackling emerging challenges to its agricultural production alongside the indigenous farming practice.

The approval of GMOs is expected to fast-track the availing of pest-resistant GMO maize once approved for commercialization, and slow down perennial losses caused by the pest. 

What could go wrong? And what mitigation plans are there?

There are three main concerns about what could go wrong with GMOs. These are unintended harmful effects, food safety, environmental safety and social attitudes.

In anticipation of these risks, scientists working in the field of GMOs have created regulations that aim to evaluate whether GMOs are just as safe for humans and the environment as their conventional counterparts before they can be accepted for commercialization.

1. Food safety:

Food safety studies including tests of allergenicity are a mandatory requirement for commercialization of GMOs. Countries have also instituted biosafety authorities mandated to regulate the development and commercialization of GMOs.

2. Environmental safety:

An international agreement provides a framework for handling, transporting and use of GMOs. It provides a clear road map for the evaluation of the impact of GMOs on the environment. It has instituted the practice of post-release monitoring and assessment for 10 years or more after the release of a GM crop.

The potential development of superweeds, that can resist one or more specific herbicides is a case in point. Herbicide tolerance has helped farmers to control weeds and significantly reduce the cost of GM crop production. This is because crops can be genetically modified to confer resistance to common herbicides, such as glyphosate.

However, the aim should be to use multiple approaches to control weeds and pests, also referred to as integrated pest management systems.

3. Socio-cultural aspects:

The government must make every effort to address people’s concerns about GMOs. This includes our own scientists coming out iron out issues surrounding the technology. GM foods have now been grown and consumed for over 20 years in different countries. There is so far no scientific evidence to confirm any of the fears. GM crops have been evaluated to be just as safe for human consumption and for the environment as conventional crops.

Classification of GM Foods. 

There are four main classifications; 

  1. Foods consisting of or containing living/ viable organisms. E.g GM maize
  2. Foods derived from or containing ingredients GMOs. E.g. oil from GM soybeans
  3. Foods containing single ingredients/additives produced by GM microorganisms
  4. Foods containing ingredients processed by enzymes produced through GM technology/GMMs. Eg corn syrup produced from starch using an enzyme produced by GMM

Typical examples of GM food labeling: 

  1. Fully regulated mandatory labeling regimes e.g. EU Requirement of production labeling and Composition of food labeling
  • Mandatory labeling of all foods right from/ or containing ingredients derived from organisms produced using gene technology.
  • Mandatory labeling of all GM foods and ingredients where noted DNA or proteins are present in the final product 
  1. Voluntary labeling Where the GM is similar to the conventional counterparts, this is based on general provisions in food or fair trading. Law relating to force misleading and deceptive labeling and industry codes of practice developed to assist with compliance. e.g. Canada, USA, South Africa, china 
  2. Equivalency labeling; requires mandatory labeling of GM foods only when it’s significantly different from its conventional counterpart.

Two questions here for us: is the government of Kenya importing GM seed for planting or GM-harvested crops such as maize? And which labeling would you prefer if GM foods are commercialized?