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Genome Editing technology: Key to protecting Africa's ecosystem, biodiversity - Dr Akinbo

BY: Zadok Kwame Gyesi

The Supervisor of AUDA-NEPAD Centre of Excellence in Science Technology and Innovation, Dr Olalekan Akinbo, has stressed the need for African countries to adopt the genome editing technology in order to help protect the continent’s ecosystem and biodiversity.

He explained that genome editing has a great potential to reduce the use of agro-chemicals that tend to negatively affect the environment.

He said due to insect pests and diseases, many African farmers use harmful chemicals that are targeted at these pests but which end up affecting other non-target insects which play a key role in the ecosystem.

Dr Akinbo in an interview with a group of science journalists in Accra during the development of a genome editing national communication strategy and action plan for Ghana, said “Most of the crops use chemicals to be able to get the optimise unit because when plant is attacked by pest and diseases, the farmer wants to get their return so they use these chemicals to kill those pest and spray for yields.”

Background

The development of the genome editing national communication strategy and action plan for African countries, which has now started with six countries, including Ghana, is being led by African Union Development Agency – New Partnership for Africa’s Development (AUDA-NEPAD) Centre of Excellence in Science, Technology, and Innovation.

The event served as platform to build on and complement the ongoing AUDA-NEPAD efforts towards enhancing regulatory capacities on Biosafety through the African Biosafety network of Expertise (ABNE).

The goal of the Genome Editing project is to foster a broader understanding of genome editing among different stakeholder groups through communication and advocacy for enhanced uptake of the tool to optimise agriculture in Africa.

This is from the recognition as contained in Agenda 2063 that technological advancements from biotechnological innovations in plant and animal breeding have the potential to advance continental agricultural sustainability goals and transform African societies.

Following the successful genome editing sensitization exercise that included engagement with high level officials towards the buy-in of the tool in Burkina Faso, Ghana, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Zambia, and Eswatini, a writing workshop is being held in the six selected countries to draft and develop responsive national communication strategies and action plans for validation by stakeholders.

The development of a genome editing communication strategy and action plan will enhance public, government, private sector and media confidence in agricultural research and biotechnology.

Why genome editing now?

The plant breeder, Dr Akinbo, said with genome editing technology, it would help to drastically reduce the amount of chemical pesticides use on farms, thus helping to protect the environment and ensuring its sustainability.

He explained that genome editing technology would also ensure that plants are healthy enough to give optimum yields.

“When the plant is healthy the yield is optimal….because the farmer who has been given money to plant wants yield, so, he will force the plant to be healthy by using chemicals…so when we now force the plant to reproduce then we are affecting the environment,” he explained.

For Dr Akinbo, destroying other organisms to ensure the growth of plants with chemical sprays, would affect the entire ecosystem.

“Ecosystem is the living together of so many different people like a village. Village is like an ecosystem. You have mad people there, you have intelligent people there, you have school dropouts, you have people who are in the university, you have people that trade. Everybody makes the city. So, if you remove the mad people from the city the city become quite. When there is a war you don’t send your best children to war, you send the area boys to war. That is when you know the importance of area boys in the community. When there is no war the area boys are nuisance. When there is a war they are the ones to cheer on to killing someone. When they go and die they don’t care. But it’s an ecosystem, if you remove them you have skewed the society,” he explained.

He further explained that the genome editing technology “helps bio-diversity because now you're not adding what affect the environment but working within the plant to get your desirable result.”

“You see seed, for you to get the best, you plant a good seed. If you don’t plant a good seed, it’s like 'garbage in garbage out'. If I give you a good seed and there is a good soil, it will grow good. If the seed is bad, you plant it in a good soil it will not give you results. So, this technology helps you to improve on the seed so that at the end of the day, the biodiversity; the environment”…will not be affected,” Dr Akino indicated.

For him, even though genome editing would not do away with the use of agro-chemicals, it would reduce its usage drastically, thus saving the environment from chemical pollution.