By Joyce Ojanji

Due to climate change making it difficult to grow enough nutritious food, African scientists are being trained to use Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats (CRISPR) to adapt agriculture to new threats.

The African Plant Breeding Academy programme, an initiative of the African Orphan Crops Consortium (AOCC), and the University of California of Davis organized the six-week training programme.

They partnered with UC Berkeley’s Innovative Genome Institute (IGI) and the International Institute for Tropical Agriculture (IITA).

The 11 doctorate-level scientists from seven countries, drawn from a highly competitive applicant pool of 57 are being trained on how to use CRISPR, a tool that allows scientists to make precise and specific changes to DNA sequences in living organisms, including crops.

The technology will help plant scientists quickly develop crop varieties adapted to the changing climate, and boost their nutritional content for important vitamins and minerals like Zinc, Iron, and Vitamin A, all of which are critical for human health and development.

Director of the Seed Biotechnology Center at UC Davis and Scientific Director of the AOCC Dr. Allen Van Deynze, appreciated the teamwork amongst the top institutions in the world saying that this training would enable Africans to drive innovation critical to improving African crops to eliminate stunting due to malnutrition.

According to Dr Howard-Yana Shapiro, AOCC founder, gene-editing toolkit training is a momentous occasion that should be celebrated given the scale of the problem that CRISPR is expected to address.

“CRISPR is a key strategy towards improving food nutrition in Africa and the trainees from this programme will be the change agents that will make the impossible happen especially with the kind of pan-African collaboration we have witnessed today,” said Shapiro.

Also, Dr. Silas Obukosia from African Union Development Agency (AUDA) explained that gene-edited crops and their products that are equivalent to conventionally bred crops should be regulated under conventional laws.

“Gene editing makes specific, targeted changes to the DNA of an organism and can be programmed to produce products equivalent to those developed through conventional breeding. In contrast, techniques used to develop GMOs often involve introducing genetic material from distantly related organisms to develop traits of economic importance,” Dr. Obukosia said.

The programme supports the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal 2 (SDG2), which aims to end hunger, achieve food security, and improve nutrition as well as promote sustainable agriculture by 2030.