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February 24, 2024
Agribusiness Featured

African scientists challenge activist claims that crop biotechnology revolution spreading across Africa threatens continent’s plant biodiversity

Do genetically modified (GM) pose a threat to the Africa’s plant biodiversity?

That’s the claim by many of the leaders of ideologically opposed to GMOs and the coming innovations in gene editing.

“There is no doubt that the release of contaminated altered genes from genetically engineered organisms into the continent’s natural environments will result in biodiversity loss, destruction of ecosystems and the polluting of water and animal resources,” says Fred Odongo, a Ugandan agroecologist, a familiar claim.

For the record, the genes in genetically-engineered crops are not “contaminated” as Odongo claims, and nor is their evidence they result in biodiversity loss or other ecological threats. That’s not science but ideological-soaked characterizations.

Yes, the genes of GM cops are altered, as our genes from cross breeding or mutagenesis, a process in which seeds are exposed to radiation or chemicals to create thousands of random mutations in the hopes of creating a new food plant (e.g., sweet grapefruits, durum wheat used in pasta, malting barley and more three thousand others). But unlike the thousands or even hundreds of thousands of random mutation resulting from mutagenesis, the creation of GMOs and soon gene-edited crops is precise and tracked — the very opposite of “contamination”.

Many organic farming supporters maintain that GM crops will result “uncontrolled gene flow” from the GE eco system, such as outcrossing into wild plants and spurring the growth of uncontrollable, mutated weeds that could spread across the continent’s vast ecosystems, disrupting native plant communities, cross-contaminating other plants, and getting into human food supplies.

“This is environmentally undesirable for Africa, a continent obligated to conserve biodiversity under the UN’s Convention on Biological Diversity,” Odongo adds.

“It is an old and false claim that should be dismissed” says Dr. Rose Maxwell Gidado, a Nigerian industrial microbiologist and the Deputy Director of the National Biotechnology Development Agency (NABDA) in Abuja, Nigeria.

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Playing the “unknown future” card is a well-worn scare tactic used by GM critics that dates back decades, when there were only a handful of countries that had introduced modified crops. But after 30 years of growing transgenic crops on billions of acres worldwide, “there is little evidence that GMOs have impacted genetic diversity in today’s environment,” notes a crop scientist at Harvard University.

And study after study has shown that unintended gene escape occurs in conventional and organic farming as much as in GM-related agriculture. Agriculture in general has developed effective developed monitoring and planting strategies for managing gene flow.

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“Adopting GM technology and genome edited products will not destroy biodiversity, Dr. Gidado adds. “With GM crops, which some 3,000 peer-reviewed journal papers have indicated are safe, African farmers can produce more on very small acreages. They do not have to go destroy more forests, which are vitally important for biodiversity conservation and climate change adaptation,” she explains. “The continent is losing biodiversity due to other reasons, not because of GM technology.”

Andrew Kiggundu, a plant biotechnologist and senior research scientist at Uganda’s National Agricultural Research Organisation concurs, stating that claiming that biotechnology is a major or even a factor in the continent’s declining plant biodiversity is a gross distortion.

Mining, intensive agriculture, and deforestation are among the factors contributing to Africa’s biodiversity loss. Biotechnology is a sustainable technique that aims to reduce the usage of unsustainable technologies such as chemical fertilisers and pesticides. It decreases post-harvest storage losses, improves nutrient composition, and boosts agricultural output.

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Andrew Kiggundu

In Africa’s tropical, sub-tropical, and grassland terrestrial habitats, plants [of different varieties] are dominant. These comprise the continent’s vast plant biodiversity, the broad spectrum of its plant life. The different plant species serve as protection for wetlands, habitat for many different animal species, and a source of new food crops and medicines.

Dr. Gidado, who has long worked to dispel agricultural biotechnology myths in Nigeria, also states that anti-GE groups in Africa are wrong in their assertions that international agribusiness conglomerates are plotting to control the continent’s production systems and eradicate its traditional crops and seeds.

To start with, there are no agribusiness companies campaigning for African countries to accept biotechnology. African are smart people, our farmers know what is best for them, they are the ones clamoring on the government to adopt more GM Crops. They are seeing the benefits, and they don’t want to be left behind. The alleged claims that there is an indirect ploy to control Africa’s food production is very false because the adoption of GM technology will rather bring liberty to Africa’s Agricultural systems.

On the continuing infodemic of false biotechnology information on the continent, Gidado projected that it would eventually be supplanted when farmers and consumers increase their usage of the healthier foods grown from biotechnology innovation.

“The safety and benefits of GM crops on the market are already speaking for themselves,” she said. “In Nigeria, for example, since the commercialization of the two GM crops, insect-resistant Bt cotton and Bt pod-borer resistant cowpea [both engineered with an organic chemical to repel pests]  there has been no evidence or trace of any ill health or any other hazards.”

Other GM crops — Africa bio-fortified sorghum and nitrogen, water use efficient and salt tolerant rice—are in development.

Professor Richard Okoth Oduor, an associate Professor of Molecular Biology at Kenyatta University, laments that the continent’s biotechnology debate has devolved into disinformation.

“The debate in Africa has spurred every quack to offer her views. Every time ‘biotechnology’ is mentioned, everyone, including many politicians and non-scientists, assumes the role of expert,” Odour says.

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Richard Okoth Odour

“The fact is, in the current climate crisis, transgenics and gene editing will allow some of the continent’s most vulnerable staple crops to be modified for improved climate resilience and disease resistance.”

GM seeds will not undermine the long-standing indigenous African practice of preserving agricultural harvest seeds, Gidado added, and noting that these new seeds, developed in cooperation with the government, can be replanted.

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Nigerian farmer Alhaji Ali Tsalaha Hayinsambo displays seeds saved from the year previously.

She also points out that the seed saving is not even the best method to increase seed yield, which is desperately necessary across the continent with so little uncultivated land available to exploit.

“Experts always advise farmers to utilize certified seeds for the best harvest possible. GM seeds and non-hybrid crops can be planted multiple times. That means African farmers will be able to continue the traditional African indigenous practice of saving agricultural harvest seeds,” she says.

“Nigeria’s GM cowpea seeds are now in the hands of farmers (officially released in 2021), and they have been replanting them without any complaint. However, the only seeds that cannot be replanted are [non GM] hybrid seeds, and hybrid seeds are not exclusive to GMOs alone.”

Nigerian plant scientist Peter Adeolu Adedibu, who recently co-authored a paper titled “Modern plant biotechnology: an antidote against global food insecurity,” said GM crop varieties don’t threaten, but complement indigenous varieties, adding:

“I view genetically modified crops as complementing and sister varieties to indigenous crop varieties, rather than a threat to them. As a plant scientist, I admire native varieties and regard them as part of our history; however, in today’s era, these varieties are limited in capacity to meet the increasing population nutrition demands, thus the need for improved varieties to enhance production.

With respect to recent calls by some African agro-ecologists and conservation biologists to exercise caution in the use of genome editing, Adedibu told the Genetic Literacy Project that African scientists owe it to the continent to set the record straight when misinformation is voiced.

Genome editing is a promising technology that the continent’s scientists can use to speed up research into diseases like cancer and produce staple crop varieties with important agronomic traits like disease resistance and nutrient enhancement. These very scientists should take the lead in providing information about this technology to science journalists on a regular basis.

Concerning genomic research, one of many “omics” disciplines that is becoming more prominent in modern biotechnology, Oduor believes Africa must start bearing an earnest hand in it. Calls to heavily restrict or ban GM crop innovation could set the African agricultural revolution back decades — and that’s time the countries cannot afford as climate change challenges escalate.

“The continent needs modern biotechnology tools such as genome editing and all cutting-edge genetic innovations,” he says. “Genomic editing holds great promise in generating crop varieties with enhanced disease resistance, improved yields and quality and novel agronomic traits, which will be beneficial to Africa’s farmers and consumers. Africa must take the initiative to patent its own innovations.

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