As Africa continues with its sterile debate on alleged risks of first-generation genetically modified crops despite evidence to the contrary, leading scientists elsewhere tired of the hostilities have moved on to second-generation crop genetic-modification techniques.
The main reason why scientists have opted for genetic engineering technique is to allow them to generate plant varieties with desired traits more precisely, rapidly and efficiently than with conventional method of breeding.
Whereas in Sub-Saharan Africa policymakers and regulators are still focusing on developing laws targeting transgenic plants and the technology used to produce them, evidence is merging that scientists are quickly turning to techniques called epigenetic modifications whose end product is free from any foreign gene since its DNA sequence remains unchanged. Given that the changes induced by epigenetic modification are indistinguishable from those produced by conventional breeding or natural genetic variation, are these plants GM crops?
These new techniques can improve resistance of crops to disease, pests and drought. They also have the potential to enhance crop yields and nutritional content without introducing any foreign gene into the organisms. Hence, classifying them as GMOs would restrict their use, especially in Africa, due to regulatory hurdles and associated costs, not to mention the propaganda against GM products.
A recent report published by the European Academies Science Advisory Council (EASAC) points out, expert groups have already concluded that many of these new breeding techniques do not constitute ‘genetic modification’ in the way that the term is usually used. As such, the plants that they produce should not be regulated as GM organisms. Work on these techniques is well advanced, in particular in the United States and Europe. The EU has not yet decided how to classify — and so regulate — plants produced by them, and this is hampering progress there.
Researchers and plant breeders across Africa urgently need to know the legal status of these novel breeding techniques. Recent safety assessments by expert advisory groups of the European Food Safety Authority in Parma, Italy, have already judged that hazards are similar for conventionally bred plants and those produced by cisgenesis (in which only genes from the same species or a normally interbreeding relative are introduced), and that targeted mutagenesis (in which only specific nucleotides in a gene are changed) is also likely to minimize unintended effects associated with the disruption of genes or regulatory elements in the modified genome.
Confirmation by the EU that targeted techniques that leave no foreign DNA behind do not fall under the scope of GM legislation would give considerable support to agricultural innovation in Europe and this is something Africa should monitor very closely.
The implications go further. It is good to know that most EU member states regulatory positions are not based on sound science yet they create damaging knock-on effects for developing countries, which unfortunately look to the EU for leadership in managing bioscience innovation. There is an ever-greater requirement for consistent, harmonized, evidence-based policy worldwide to enable synchronous technology development and trade.
At the same time as addressing the proportionate management of these new techniques, the Africa must recalibrate its broader approach to GM crop regulation. It must make it transparent, predictable and fit for purpose by taking account of the extensive evidence of safe use of these crops around the world for close to two decades.
It is instructive to note that countries in the European Union (EU) are losing ground in the international race to grow more food on increasingly scarce land and Africa must not allow itself to sink with them. There is the dilemma of having to import tens of thousands of tons of GM crops/products for food, fiber and feed but deny their farmers the opportunity to grow the same crops domestically.
Hence looing up to them for leadership on GM issue would have serious and urgent implications for the Africa’s science base and the environment, as well as for domestic food security, employment and economic growth. It is down to the slow and expensive way that the continent regulates genetically modified (GM) organisms.
Historical attitudes and actions of the EU have constrained the use of GM crops — both at home and in Africa, where products are considered to be risky even if they don’t exist on the continent. The region must now base its regulations in this area on sound science, as it has promised to do without having to look up to Europe. An early test of this commitment will be its approach to the next generation of crop genetic-improvement technologies.
The world faces major problems in food security alongside pressures from population growth, climate change and economic and social instability. The biosciences can play a big part in the sustainable intensification of agriculture, improving efficiency in production and avoiding further loss of biodiversity.
In common with other innovation sectors, the objective must be to regulate the product and not the technology that produces it. By making better use of all crop-improvement techniques and so reducing dependence on food and animal-feed imports, the Africa can help improve sustainable land use.