Gene editing: Time for SA to embrace plant breeding innovations

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Plant breeding innovations have significant benefits to offer South Africa. Innovative breeding technologies can help to protect and grow our agriculture and retail sectors, which will also lead to further job creation and economic revenue.

These technological advances in plant breeding can also provide enhanced food security at a time when economic and geopolitical realities have seen a rise in South African households suffering from food scarcity. However, realising these benefits hinges on the appropriate regulation of products derived from these technological innovations, and this is not currently the case in South Africa.

Last year the Shoprite Group commissioned research into food security in the country leveraging data from the World Data Lab. Its findings, published in October last year, paint a serious picture of food security challenges in South Africa. According to the research, one in five South African households doesn’t know where their next meal will come from. The report also predicted that by 2025 almost half (49%) of South Africans would be food insecure.

The importance of gene editing

Supply of food is just one aspect of ensuring food security, but it remains an important one.

South Africa faces several significant challenges when it comes to the production of adequate domestic food supply.

Whether it be pressure from pests, like the locust infestations experienced in 2022, from climate change which has brought heavier than normal rains in some areas, the hottest weather on record in others as well as drought, or simply the need for yields to match population growth, our agricultural sector must constantly adapt to ensure our food supply remains stable.

A significant technological breakthrough that can unlock better yields, improve pest resistance, offer more nutritious foods and help us mitigate climate change concerns like drought and heat, and in this way contribute to food security, is on offer from gene editing.

However, South Africa currently recognises all gene-edited products incorrectly as genetically modified organisms (GMOs). The decision to recognise them as such was taken despite there being no sound scientific reason to do so, as not all gene-edited products can or should be regarded as GMOs. Internationally, there is also a very clear trend toward regulating gene-edited products on a product-by-product basis.

Regulatory realities

Gene editing is a breeding innovation that allows scientists to make very precise edits to the genomes of crops that can produce seed for the agricultural sector, seed that can address specific agricultural challenges. These types of plant breeding developments will be at the forefront of ensuring food security through stable supply in years to come.

African countries like Kenya have adopted a regulatory approach to gene editing which recognises this and is keeping pace with international best practices. Regulation there recognises that, while gene editing can be used to create GMOs, this is by no means true for all products using the technology. For this reason, Kenya regulates gene-edited products on a product-by-product basis.

This is the most appropriate form of regulation because many of the innovative crops being produced by the technology are indistinguishable from varieties that could be achieved through traditional breeding methods as no foreign DNA is inserted into the plant’s genome.

In the Kenyan case, gene editing has taken inspiration from nature. Sorghum grown in that country is vulnerable to a plant known as witchweed which acts in a parasitic fashion, binding to the root structure of sorghum and robbing them of water and nutrients.

However, wild varieties of sorghum have genes that make it resistant to the weed and this natural characteristic is being utilized to create commercial seed that will go to field trials later this year. In this way, gene editing looks to have solved a serious problem which has significantly impacted the yield of sorghum farmers on the continent.

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Gene editing for sustainable food systems

And Kenya is not alone, Malawi, Ghana, and Nigeria have adopted similar policies that will allow them to introduce appropriately regulated gene-edited crops which can deal with issues specific to their growing regions. As with the sorghum example, this will undoubtedly play a significant role in ensuring their food systems remain responsive to challenges and thus contribute to their food security.

Most recently though, the European Union’s parliament voted to regulate gene-edited products on a product-by-product basis. This decision will ensure that European farmers too will have access to the newest and most innovative crops to meet the challenges facing their food supply.

Numerous countries have recognised the very significant role that gene-editing can play in safely ensuring food security for their populations. South Africa has an opportunity to adopt regulations which not only ensure the highest safety and standards are met but also serve to protect the South African food production system from the serious challenges we are likely to face in the future.

Source: Mzansi