The IT and biological technology link

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We need capacity to engage with respect to policy and regulatory mechanisms. FILE PHOTO | NMG

How do nations create an adaptive management of benefits and risks in the face of rapid technological changes? I had the privilege of being one of the keynote speakers at The Gordon Institute of Business Science and the Georgia Institute of Technology on The Emerging to Converging Technologies Conference in Johannesburg last week. The two-day conference sought to address the above question.

Among the speakers were Kenneth Oye, professor of Political Science and Data Systems & Director Programme on Emerging Technologies, Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Prof Oye dedicated his speech to the late Prof. Calestous Juma, the renowned Kenyan biotechnology expert who they closely worked with in Boston.

His speech, although revealing a wide rift between the scientific needs of the developed world and that of the developing world, had many solutions that could bring great benefit to the southern hemisphere.

While acknowledging that the field of biotechnology is changing fast, he emphasized that DNA sequencing has made it possible to redesign crops and livestock; make new materials; improve health and edit the environment. All these discoveries are possible due to exponential decline in cost of information technology data, growth in data analytics, advances in efficiency and development of gene editing tools.

For example, the editing of genes in goat embryos led to an increased number of second hair follicles and enhanced fiber length necessitating greater productivity of cashmere (Kashmir) wool, a fiber obtained from cashmere goats. The technique can practically be applicable to any other types of goat.

Genetic engineering is improving food production especially in salmon that grows to market size within a shorter period (half the time) as conventional Atlantic salmon.

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved genetically engineered Salmon for human consumption in 2015.

In crop science, it is now possible to grow salt tolerant crops without losing productivity. What this means is that it is possible to use saline water for irrigation purposes. Some of the arid and semi-arid areas could benefit from this.

In essence it is a major disruption that will make millions of people productive in lands that were basically useless. India has successfully developed a salt tolerant transgenic rice plant rice similar to their IR 64 variety that is commonly used by over-expressing a gene from wild rice.

In healthcare, scientists have managed to genetically modify mosquitos that carry malaria parasites which they transmit through bites, infecting close to a billion people and killing at least 10 percent of the infected annually. Genetic modification of especially crops is expanding especially now when crop productivity is declining while populations rise. Many countries, whether they like it or not, will eventually consume genetically modified foods.

These advances in science are not without risk. There have been cases that have gone wrong especially with rogue researchers. There have been cases where scientists attempted to create a gene-edited baby. In other cases, a gene-edited animal led to the destruction of its immunity. Many researchers, however, are acting responsibly but this is not sufficient.

As the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) beckons, genetic modification will intensify. Africa’s safeguards will largely depend on the scientific capacities we build.

Even if we don’t close the scientific research gap between the developed and developing countries, we need capacity to engage with respect to policy and regulatory mechanisms.

Some of the discoveries will mean well while others may be damaging. Either way, we need to create a well-informed and adaptive management system of innovations for our benefit as well as the risks ahead of us.

Although Africa holds more than 60 percent of arable land globally, it is a net food importer, thus posing a great risk of importing foods that we have no clue under what conditions they were grown in.