Commercial production of gene-edited food has been legalized in England. Cambridge researchers are currently developing gene-edited potatoes that don’t get those common ugly dark spots that result in potato wastage. They aim to cut down on food waste and the prospects are worth looking forward to. What is the implication of gene editing on agriculture and food security in Africa and around the world?
Gene editing is a powerful technology that allows scientists to modify the DNA of organisms including food crops, with such precision that leaves only desired qualities behind. According to scientists, gene editing has the potential to address many climate change and agricultural challenges as well as improve global food security. However, its use in Africa and many parts of the world is still limited and controversial.
Since the 1980s when the first successful gene editing experiments in plants were carried out, the technology has advanced rapidly. Until the late 1990s, when the technology was used to genetically modify crops, gene editing had not been applied in Africa. Today, countries like South Africa, Nigeria, Burkina Faso, and Egypt have approved the cultivation of genetically modified crops. This is because they are drought-resistant and sturdy enough to withstand adverse changes in climatic conditions.
While the use of gene editing in agriculture in Africa is still in its early stages, it has the potential to address many of the continent’s food security challenges. The technology’s capability to develop new varieties that thrive in hotter and drier conditions is awesome. Farmers can leverage it to overcome the challenges of climate change and provide sustainable food for society with crops that are resistant to pests, diseases, and harsh environmental conditions.
Although gene editing technology has been greeted with criticisms and controversies, it is predicted to improve agricultural outcomes, open doors to investments, and reduce food insecurity in the world. Commercial production of gene-edited food in England was endorsed on the condition that the end product in each case, is a crop similar to a variety that could have been naturally produced. No doubt, gene editing in agriculture is a hot topic that has sparked both excitement and concern in recent years.
However, critics opine that the probability of gene-edited foods introducing allergens and toxins in the food system is high, if extensive testing is by-passed based on the assumption that the gene-edited food, unlike mainstream genetically modified organisms, is only a simulation of an existing variety. Though commercialization of gene-edited food has become legal in UK, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland are yet to endorse it. Just like these countries, African nations like Zambia, Algeria, and Angola placed a ban on the cultivation of genetically modified crops.
One significant concern is how gene editing could affect climate change, particularly in Africa. There are concerns that gene-edited crops could exacerbate climate change by increasing greenhouse gas emissions and reducing biodiversity. They could potentially increase greenhouse gas emissions. Also, some gene-edited crops are designed to produce more biomass, which can lead to increased soil erosion and loss of organic matter. Additionally, gene editing could lead to the homogenization of crops, reducing the diversity of plant species and making them more vulnerable to pests and diseases.
On this note, critics are emphasizing how important it is to proceed with caution and ensure that the technology is used safely and responsibly because as with any technology, there are potential risks and unintended consequences that must be carefully considered. Taking into consideration these ethical concerns, the potential impacts on both the environment and human health could be significantly reduced.
No doubt, gene editing in agriculture presents us with opportunities to improve crop productivity and resilience in the face of climate change. However, as this technology continues to evolve, it is important to approach it with caution and a commitment to its responsible and ethical use as more research is carried out in preparation for wide adoption.
Ehi Ogwiji is a storyteller and science writer who advocates for a science-literate Africa. She aspires to be a science development communicator and leader of important conversations around gender imbalances in STEMM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics, Medicine) in Africa and around the world. She writes from Abuja, Nigeria. Connect with her on social media @Ehi Ogwiji.