The new frontier for agricultural innovation is genome editing and IITA is already leading the way by using the technology to improve several crops. Principal Scientist and Deputy Director of IITA East Africa Hub, Dr Leena Tripathi revealed this during the Third Africa Biennial Biosciences Communication Symposium (ABBC), which took place in Pretoria South Africa, 29-30 August.

Tripathi said, “We are using genome editing to develop disease resistant banana and plantain. Plantain will be resistant to Brown Streak Virus (BSV) and will benefit Nigerian farmers who grow the crop widely.” Other crops that are being improved using genome editing are cooking and dessert bananas. Her Kenya-based lab is working on bananas resistant to bacterial wilt and fusarium wilt.

Tripathi is excited about genome editing just like a number of other research scientists, because it is a more powerful and efficient tool for crop improvement. “Since there is no foreign gene being introduced into the plant, we hope products of genome editing will not be regulated.” Asked why she and other researchers are wary of regulation, she said it was a long and expensive process to the disadvantage of Africa’s farmers. These farmers continue to lose 50–70% of their crop while legislation drags on and delays access to seeds of improved varieties.

Dr Margaret Karembu, Director, International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA) AfriCenter, and co-Convener of the Conference called upon all stakeholders to “rise early and start proactively communicating about genome editing so that it is received better by the public, unlike GMOs that faced a toughtime.” However, the African Union representative, Prof Gasama Yaye, reiterated the need for fair regulation for genome edited crops. “Regulation does not mean stifling progress. Africa’s farmers need seeds that are high yielding, disease resistant, and tolerant to the vagaries of climate change, and genome editing can provide this.”