In agricultural production, genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are crops and animals which have had their genetic materials improved upon through genetic engineering techniques.
Genetic engineering techniques are laboratory procedures that allow scientists to introduce genes into an organism from the same or different species. For example, a popular GMO is Bt maize.
This maize has a gene introduced into it from a bacterium called Bacillus thuringiensis, resulting in maize that is resistant to specific insect pests.
However, since the basic building blocks of all living things are the same regardless of whether they are plants, animals, or micro-organisms, such gene transfer is possible and results in products that have been consumed for decades.
In the USA, at least 90% of all maize, cotton, and soyabeans are GMOs. In South Africa, 85% of all maize, 95% of all soyabeans, and 100% of all cotton grown there are GMOs. Genetically modified organisms are currently grown in at least 29 countries worldwide including Bangladesh, Sudan, Nigeria, Brazil, China, and India.
Despite strict GM regulations in Europe, GM maize is grown in Spain and Portugal. Ghana recently approved the growing of GM cowpea (beans), which is resistant to an insect pest called Maruca, and farmers will in the next few years be able to grow it.
Genetically modified organisms have mainly been controversial because they result from the introduction of genes from same or non–related living organisms.
Those who rally against the technology question why people should be eating maize that has genes of bacteria in it, although scientific evidence says that should not be a problem since all living things have the same basic building blocks.
About a decade ago, a more advanced form of genetic engineering technology called gene-editing or genome-editing was discovered. This technology allows scientists to break, insert or delete DNA strands of an organism, as a way of improving upon it to create beneficial traits.
There are several versions of this technology, including one that uses CRISPR-associated protein-based systems. This technique enables precise alterations to specific regions of the genome, in a way that you could avoid using external genes from other living organisms.
This is the primary difference between GMOs and gene-edited products. Thus, GMOs usually involve the introduction of external genes, whilst gene-edited products do not always involve the introduction of external genes.
But as far as agriculture is concerned, both strategies are aimed at producing better-yielding, more resilient, and climate-smart crops and animals.
Gene-edited products under development in Africa
The Innovative Genomics Institute in the USA is using CRISPR genome-editing techniques to remove harmful cyanide from some cassava species. Researchers in the US and Uganda are utilising CRISPR to develop cassava with increased tolerance to cassava brown streak virus.
Field trials of cassava resistant to brown streak and mosaic viruses produced using the gene-editing technology, are currently underway in Uganda and Kenya. To combat the spread of the banana streak virus, scientists at the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) are working to create virus-resistant banana cultivars using gene-editing.
The IITA in Nigeria is developing bananas resistant to banana bacterial wilt and banana streak virus, using gene-editing. Corteva Agri-Science and the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre (CIMMYT) are working on a gene-editing project in Kenya to develop maize varieties that are resistant to maize lethal necrosis, a viral disease that causes severe crop loss.
Sorghum is a staple crop in Africa, and scientists at the University of Queensland in Australia and their African partners have produced a high-protein cultivar of the grain using gene-editing, which is awaiting release authorisation.
Sorghum variants resistant to Striga, a parasitic plant, are being developed at the Kenyatta University in Kenya using gene-editing, a CRISPR technique. Scientists at Penn State University in the USA are using CRISPR to breed cocoa varieties that are resistant to the cocoa swollen shoot virus (CSSV), a virus that causes widespread and debilitating damage to the chocolate tree in West Africa.
The IITA in Kenya employed gene-editing to pinpoint disease-fighting and heat-resistant genes in bananas. In Ghana, a scientist at the University of Cape Coast, Samuel Acheampong, is using gene-editing technology to develop a sweet potato variety with improved vitamin A content and higher yield.
Scientists in the USA have developed reduced trans-fat oils and high-fibre grains through gene-editing. They have also developed hornless and heat-tolerant cattle, and fast-growing tilapia as the first gene-edited products to be consumed in that country.
Contrasting the product with the process
The Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety which came into force in 2003 governs how products from genetic engineering should be approved worldwide. GM regulations in various countries resulting from the signing of this protocol have created a cumbersome and expensive regulatory procedure which averagely takes at least a decade to get a GMO approved.
To protect gene-edited crops from having to go through such burdensome regulatory steps, scientists across Africa and throughout the world have quickly drawn the line between GMOs and gene-edited products.
They insist that gene-edited products should not go through approval procedures like regular GMOs, particularly when they contain no foreign genetic material, and the resulting trait can happen through natural changes in the plant.
In the USA, the United States Department of Agriculture says gene-edited products with no foreign materials will not be regulated as regular GMOs. They will rather go through regulatory procedures that non-GMO seeds go through. A lot of north and south American countries like Argentina and Canada have followed this route.
Nonetheless, genome-edited crops have been categorised as GMOs by the European Union. All over the world, countries are still navigating how to approach the approval of gene-edited products.
Some of India’s most prominent agricultural scientists wrote to Prime Minister, Narendra Modi in 2021 expressing concern about what they say is a lack of urgency in deciding on approval processes for gene-edited crops.
Until now, no country in Africa has enacted regulations specific to gene-editing. However, conversations have begun. In 2016, the Department of Science and Technology in South Africa commissioned an expert report on the regulatory implications of new breeding techniques like gene-editing, but no action has been taken yet.
Legislators in Nigeria have discussed amending the Biosafety Act of 2015 to include legislation on gene-editing in agriculture, as the current law only provides a framework for permitting the release of GMOs.
However, a guideline was published in 2020 as an interim measure, a move that the Kenyan National Biosafety Authority replicated in 2022. It looks like in most African countries; ongoing gene-editing works are likely to be governed by the GM regulations that currently exist.
We however think it will make a lot of sense if gene-edited products without foreign genetic materials are regulated as non-GMOs.
Kojo Ahiakpa is team lead and agribusiness advisor at Research Desk Consulting Limited.
Joseph Opoku Gakpo is country lead at Alliance for Science Ghana.
Benjamin Karikari is a lecturer and consultant at the University for Development Studies and Research Desk Consulting Limited, respectively.