By Tabitha Oeri

In the general agricultural transformation agenda for food security and poverty reduction in Africa by the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), there is need to embrace new Genome Editing technologies in biofortification for crops improvement.

Dr Ihuoma Okwuonu, a Plant Biotechnologist and the Chief Research Scientist at the National Root Crops Research Institute (NRCRI) in Umudike, Nigeria, while addressing journalists and various partners during virtual AfriSMC press briefing, said genome editing especially in cassava improves nutritional value.

Dr Okwuonu  said applying the cutting-edge technologies such as genome editing improves cassava micronutrients, starch content, yields and seed systems for ccassava production  in Nigeria.

“Let me say this as a way forward for cassava improvement in Africa; there are a lot of possibilities with genome editing in breeding varieties compared to conventional breeding or genetic engineering. Genome editing takes shorter period while conventional breeding takes long about 8-15 years to get new variety,” Chief Research Scientist explained.

“Breeders have done a lot to improve cassava crop. What we have to do now is to improve cassava with good yield, Vitamin A, among other nutritional values using genome editing. It takes approximately 8-15 years for a breeder to come up with a new variety using the conventional method and this is a lot of time,” Dr Okwuonu clarified.

“You will agree with me that anything that is out in the environment depreciates, so does the variety of cassava over time,” she added.

The Plant Biotechnologist said this was after comparison of the two breeders’ techniques to improve production hence affirmed the setbacks. The normal conventional way is a long breeding cycle with low seed rates and again takes longer time. She regretted the problem is alarming as depreciation in nature is inevitable.

The Expert emphasized that with genome editing, it is possible to improve cassava from impact of diseases.  She explained the organism decreases sweet gene in cassava caused by the bacteria.

“One of the reasons why we are using genome editing is to improve cassava against impact of diseases. The most common is the Cassava Bacterial Blight (CBB) disease which can be removed by this technique,” Dr Okwuonu explained

“Again using gene editing it is easier to develop disease monitoring tool to monitor disease progression and stop it. We can also use gene editing to make a change or deletion in cassava or include/ attach any signal to help us study any effect in cassava,” the Plant Biotechnologist added.

The Scientist said cassava is currently a staple crop in Nigeria and more than 500 million people around the world and over 200 million people in Africa depend on it for daily calories. This is according to data by the International Institute for Tropical Agriculture (IITA). Therefore, it is important to improve its productivity as it stands to be a critical component of food and economic security.

Cassava is tolerant to drought and poor soils and resilient to climate change making it a choice food for many families, especially in Nigeria the highest producer of the crop. She stated that genome editing in cassava adds value to the crop in terms of variety of micronutrients thus helping to minimize predisposition deficiency diseases common in the tropics.

Dr Okwuonu encouraged governments and policy makers to look into importance and benefits of the technology and provide a conducive environment for its effective use. She urged them to also provide funding for effective research in the area.