An African plant breeder’s opinion on GMOs

Written by Michael Dzakovich

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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.

Written by Guest Expert

Michael Dzakovich is a PhD candidate and USDA National Needs Research Fellow at Ohio State University. He uses genomic and metabolomic tools to understand how genetic diversity influences potentially health-promoting compounds in tomatoes. He also uses animal model studies to determine how tomato consumption affects gene expression in tissues where tomato phytochemicals are deposited and metabolized.

Guest Expert

Written by Guest Expert

The strength of the discussions on Biofortified depend on the diversity of expertise, perspectives, and backgrounds of our contributors and guest experts.

7 comments

    1. Well, for better or worse, they’re almost like job security. These are the people that need to be reached the most. Once everyone’s at the same table, we’ll be in a better position.

  1. I’ve heard conflicting accounts of what happens to the percent dry matter content in beta carotene accumulating lines. I’ve heard that lines bred from CIAT show no loss of DMC, while lines bred in Africa show some loss, and transgenic lines also definitely show some loss of DMC. What do the lines that Dr. Egesi has bred show?

  2. Great to read the thoughts of an African scientist, would love to know more, es[ecially about which GM traits he is working on.
    One question though-
    >>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<<
    that doesnt sound right- why would they do that? Are they opposed to conventional breeding aswell?

  3. It is good that Dr Chiedozie Egesi, a Nigeria scientist and researcher has tried using this forum to educate the world on the challenges of developing new crop breeds in Africa. Although Egesi was speaking to a journalist, it would still have been much more convincing to quote research findings that show TRANSGENIC CROPS “are not harmful” while speaking about his institute’s adoption of the new breeding method if fears of the stakeholders are going to be allayed all around. Dr Egesi or any other scientist should lay the facts on the people in the most verifiable and convincing manner if they want citizens to accept their new crop breeds as safe.

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