An African plant breeder’s opinion on GMOs

A mature cassava root. Photo taken by Neil Palmer at CIAT.

Each day, 20,000 people die from malnutrition. Many die simply because they do not have enough calories – they starve to death. Others die due to lack of vitamins in their food. As the poorest people in developing countries continue to weaken and die, scientists work diligently on solutions. Plant breeders use genetic tools to develop crops that resist aggressive plant diseases, withstand changing weather patterns, and provide the nutrients needed for human health.

A modern-day plant breeder uses many different techniques. Transgenic technology (aka GMOs) can precisely change the genetics of a plant. While there are unproven fears about GMO safety, this technology could decrease the death toll from malnutrition. What is the perception of GMOs in the developing world?

I recently had the pleasure of meeting the head plant breeder of the National Root Crops Research Institute, Dr. Chiedozie Egesi. Dr. Egesi does much of his research in Umudike, a rural town in Nigeria. Given the urgent need to develop crops best suited to help African farmers feed their growing population, the perspective of a scientist working at the front lines was critical. I decided to ask him a few questions about his work and about perceptions of modern breeding techniques in Africa.

How long have you been a plant breeder?  Have you always worked with cassava?

I have been a plant breeder for 15 years, working first on yams then the past 12 years on cassava. I also do minor research in sweetpotato, potato, and cocoyam with my students at the root and tuber crops research center.

Are any of your cassava lines currently being used by farmers in Africa?

We have developed nearly 50 varieties of cassava in Nigeria with our partners IITA (International Institute of Tropical Agriculture) Nigeria. These are grown all over Nigeria and in some other African countries. Our work includes 6 provitamin A cassava varieties which were released between 2011 and 2014 in Nigeria.

Are your cassava varieties a large portion of what is being used by farmers?

Farmers still keep many local varieties that they have been growing for centuries. They may choose cassava with certain eating characteristics despite sometimes lower yielding, sickly plants. The improved varieties have high yielding potentials and are very resistant to disease.

Do you use transgenic technology or do you only do conventional breeding?

Our primary research is conventional breeding mixed with molecular breeding (marker assisted selection). We have recently started using transgenic technologies.

What is the biggest source of resistance that you see towards GM crops in Africa?

The activist groups who are determined to slander the benefits of science to poor Africans.

As a plant breeder, have you encountered resistance from the government or activist groups? Have they interfered with your work?

Activist groups use the media to misinform the public by wrongly referring to conventionally bred varieties as GM, scaring people away from using these crops. We ignore such distractions, and continue to demonstrate that the technologies we use to produce our crops are safe. We can alleviate poverty and improve food security in Africa. We are the ones developing these technologies ourselves and have very good intentions for our people. The down side is that we are frequently inundated with questions about GM by concerned citizens.

Are there any social movements happening in Africa that are in support of GM crops?

Not yet. But we have the Open Forum on Agricultural Biotechnology (OFAB) to educate people. We would need something like Genetic Literacy Project targeted solely on Africa, targeting areas where there is promise of ag biotech in empowering poor farmers and households economically.

What is needed to educate African citizens about the benefits of GM crops?

We need some continuing communication and to form alliances. Education should start with young people who these days are hooked on social media. An informed younger generation can take decisions by themselves. Teach biotech in primary and secondary schools.

Moving Forward

As we battle 21st century problems, the need to use 21st century solutions is clear. However, progress is slowed by public distrust of scientists, due in part to fearmongering in the media. Dr. Egesi’s perspective is a reality check – reminding us that social change is needed to promote education and scientific literacy throughout the world.

Follow Michael Dzakovich:
Michael Dzakovich is a PhD student using genomic and metabolomic tools to find out how tomatoes make certain anti-cancer compounds. Ultimately, his research aims to enhance the understanding of plant secondary metabolism and create new ways to prevent non-communicable diseases. Follow him on Twitter @MDzakovich
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