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Kenya gears up for gene edited crops to boost food security


Sorghum, a drought-tolerant traditional crop, is quite an unlucky cereal. It is hard to digest and lacks taste; two undesirable qualities that have made it less popular among modern consumers.

Even in water stressed villages where the crop was once common for its resilience, farmers are slowly abandoning it because of its vulnerability to striga, a lethal plant weed.

Professor Steven Runo, a molecular biologist and a genome editing researcher at Kenyatta University, is, however determined to make the grain popular again.

The scientist who is currently developing a new sorghum variety that is more palatable, easily digestible and resistant to striga weed is using genome editing technology to do the job.

Prof Runo points out that while sorghum has a high level of indigestibility and can give constipation, the traits can be eliminated through genome editing.

In the past and even today, conventional breeding which also remains the most widely used approach in crop improvement would have been preferred, but researchers argue that it is labour intensive and takes several years to progress from screening of germplasms to commercial varieties.

The International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre (CIMMYT) for instance, developed some hybrid maize varieties that are resistant to the Maize Lethal Necrosis (MLN), but the process, according to them turned out to be quite resource-intensive and took close to five years.

With gene editing, they say, they can get new varieties under three years.

Genome or gene editing, a technology that enables scientists to make changes to DNA of a plant or an animal by cutting out certain bits of the DNA, is however quite the opposite.

Those advocating for the technology say it is fast and efficient, hence an effective way of reducing the timeline of developing new varieties that are resilient, high yielding and pest-resistant.

Elsewhere at the Kenya Agricultural Livestock Research Organisation (Karlo) and the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) biotechnologists are using gene editing to develop maize that is resistant to maize lethal necrosis (MLN) and banana varieties to fusarium wilt and banana streak virus.

Other ongoing gene editing researches in the country are focused on making pigs resistant to African swine fever and yams to plant viruses.

The scientists are using CRISPR/Cas9, a new gene editing tool that is popular for is simplicity and efficiency.

Gene editing with the CRISPR/Cas9 tool and other techniques has the potential to make hardier and more nutritious crops - as well as offering drug companies new ways to fight human disease.

The National Biosafety Authority (NBA), the biotech regulating agency in the country says it has so far received and approved six applications on gene editing.

With global population rapidly growing, contemporary agriculture will face enormous challenges, requiring crops with higher yields and of improved quality, and needing fewer inputs.

Urbanisation has at the same time, put land used for food production under pressure as demand for food rises fast. In turn, farmers are forced into intense land use that degrade soils, further inviting parasites such as Striga.

The witch weed, as it is popularly known, is estimated to have infected 217,000 hectares (ha) in the country, resulting to more than $53 million (Sh5.83 billion) worth of crop losses annually.

Prof Runo explains that once maize begins geminating in a striga-prevalent soil, it stimulates Striga seeds to germinate. The bright purple-leafed weed then attaches itself to the roots of the host plant, sapping the nutrients from the planting, causing it to wilt.

Though disadvantaged by its own characteristics, sorghum is a very nutritious food for those aspiring to live healthy; which explains why scientists in the country are determined to popularise it once again.

With genome editing the trait which make the crop susceptible to striga can be removed making the plant resistant to the weed, he says.

The scientist is, however quick to note that gene edition and genetic modification (GMOs) are profoundly different.

In GMO, a new gene with a foreign DNA fragment is introduced in an organism while in genome editing no foreign DNA is introduced, he explains adding that the sorghum variety they are currently developing is not far from the conventional ones.

It is worth noting that there has been a lot of concerns as far as the regulation of gene editing in the country is concerned.

Unlike, GMOs that had well-outlined biosafety regulations, genome editing did not have own guidelines. As a new technology, genome editing was still in its early stages of discovery when Kenya enacted its biosafety regulations in 2011, hence genome editing scientists in the country were being regulated by GMO guidelines.

Kenya has, however began developing its own guidelines for gene-editing regulations, using Argentina’s model as a procedure.

Prof Dorington Ogoyi, National Biosafety Authority (NBA) chief executive officer says the regulatory draft is ready for presentation to stakeholders.

“The draft guidelines define what needs to be regulated, what is partially regulated and what is not regulated at all,” he said.

Kenya, Nigeria and Eswatini have taken the lead on genome editing in Africa as part of a strategy to boost food security and increase farmers’ incomes.

Kenya has set tough procedures and punitive fines to ensure safe handling and movement of genetically modified (GM) crops, which it hopes will tackle perennial shortage of staple foods such as maize.

According to the regulations, any person intending to export, import or transit a product derived from genetically modified organisms must first obtain written approval from NBA.

Stiff fines

And even upon approval, such products would still be strictly monitored to ensure conformity with laid-out rules and regulations on areas such as packaging and declaration of the GM status.

Anyone who contravenes the set guidelines on the import, export and transit of GM products would face a fine of up to Sh20 million or a prison term not exceeding 10 years, or both.

To ensure elaborate scrutiny, all applications for authority to handle GM products would be handled by an array of State agencies that deal with plant health regulation such as Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Services (Kephis).

The scrutiny of applications has also been accorded a lengthy grace period of up to five months in a bid to ensure comprehensiveness in the vetting task.

The new regulations said the Biosafety Authority shall within 14 days screen for completeness of applications and circulate to the relevant regulatory agencies for further information, comments or reasoned objections.

The Authority shall then communicate its final decision to the applicant within 150 days of receiving the application, but not earlier than 90 days of such receipt in order to allow for sufficient vetting.

It will cost an applicant Sh25,000 to table a request to import or export GM products.

The regulations indicated that GM products that shall have existed in the market for up to two decades without causing negative effects on human health as well as the environment would be exempted from regular approval cycles.

“Where a genetically modified organism has been released into the environment or placed on the market for twenty years with approval from authority,” the new regulations read, “and the authority establishes that monitoring data indicates no risk to human health and the environment, the genetically modified organism may continue to be released to the environment or placed on the market without further approval”.