Genome editing technology to end malnutrition in Kenya, Africa

Since the millennium's turn, the African population has grown by 39 per cent, which is an expansion of nearly 530 million people, roughly equivalent to the population of North America. At the current average birth rate of 32.005 births per 1000 people, the population is projected to exceed 2 billion during the next three decades. Proponents of this population growth argue that high birth rates are favorable to economic gains such as a larger labor force, a larger domestic market, and competition, which promote technical efficiency and innovation like the golden era of the People's Republic of China. This has been partially true, as evidenced by an average yearly gross domestic product growth rate of 4.7 per cent from $587 billion to $2.98 trillion in 2023. That is a 2.4 trillion-dollar increase, or $4110 for every individual born on or after the year 2000.

Countries with GDP per capita close to this figure, on the other hand, have a common challenge: food insecurity. The reason for this is best described by an adage in my dialect, which roughly translates as every newborn arrives with an empty plate and spoon.

Most African economies remain primarily agrarian, and despite recent progress on agricultural advancements such as improved fertilizer efficiency, higher seed quality, and sustainable cropping systems, agriculture has yet to transition from quantitative to qualitative production, such as improving nutritional value. In addition to attempts to fulfill universal basic necessities and achieve self-actualization for its citizens, Africa must face global challenges such as the devastating effects of climate change and the Eurasia political crisis, both of which have the potential to cripple covid-destabilized value chains. As a result, we may be caught in an intricate vicious cycle.

Consider drought; while irrigated farming has made significant progress toward achieving food security, overreliance on groundwater has resulted in increased soil salinity, which exacerbates the negative impacts of drought. It is therefore clear that arable land is rapidly diminishing.

So, how can we get out of this quagmire? The answer lies in a Nobel Prize-winning innovation from 2020 that has transformed genomics and all its applications. CRISPR-CAS genome editing. As a plant molecular geneticist, I will be biased toward crops. Simply said, this technology enables scientists to make precise edits to crops, letting them develop desired traits while eliminating undesirable ones. The technique has the potential to revolutionize crop breeding in Africa, substantially cutting down on starvation and crop losses. There is overwhelming scientific evidence that genome editing can improve agricultural production as well as quality while also promoting climate resilience in Africa. One success story in Kenya is ILRI's-successful production of plantains resistant to Xanthomonas, a notorious disease that has devastated farmers in east Africa.

Thus far, several African nations have devised policy frameworks to implement this technology, with Nigeria being the first. Furthermore, as a part of a global effort to improve the nutrition, productivity, and climatic adaptability of some of Africa's orphan crops, the African Orphan Crop Consortium (AOCC) and African Plant Breeding Academy, University of California Davis, have committed to training plant breeders and molecular biologists across Africa to innovate and develop crop traits of priority to their countries. These initiatives are only the tip of the iceberg in terms of the incredible potential of genome editing in Africa. Scientists, educators, breeders, farmers, and policymakers working together to implement genome editing will guarantee Kenya and Africa's food security.

[Dr. Erick Amombo is a Kenyan researcher at the African Sustainable Agriculture Research Institute, Mohammed VI Polytechnic University, Morocco]

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