An Expert Scientist in genome editing, Dr Ihuoma Okwuonu, is spearheading the biofortification that has become a major game changer for the crop improvement for Africa. Genome editing, has been identified as a viable tool that holds great prospects for improving micronutrient deficiencies of cassava crops.

Addressing a battery of journalists during a virtual AfriSMC press briefing on how Africa is using the genome editing for cassava crop improvement, Dr Okwuonu said the innovative tool improves micronutrient deficiency of cassava.

Dr Ihouma Okwuonu, experts scientist in cassava genome editing

She mentioned vitamin A, critical for eye sight among other nutritional values to cassava ranking it highly in Africa’s crop. The Expert stated that genome editing in cassava adds value to the crop in terms of variety of micronutrients thus helping to minimize deficiency diseases common in the tropics due to predisposition.

For example lack of iron or zinc could easily predispose one to malaria, tuberculosis, anemia, physiological disorders affecting the immune, gastrointestinal, epidermal, central nervous, skeletal and reproductive systems.

“At least 50% of pregnant women and 40% of preschool children in developing countries are anemic. Iron deficiency anemia affects the immune system, stunts growth and impair cognitive development in children. Annually, Nigeria loses over US$1.5billion in GDP to vitamin and mineral deficiencies,” the Scientist regretted.

Dr Okwuonu, the Chief Research Scientist at the National Root Crops Research Institute (NRCRI), Umudike, Nigeria, explained genome editing is simply rewriting the genetic information of living organisms to create new abilities, correct abnormalities and improve performance. She pointed out diseases and pests such as bacteria, viruses, fungi which affects cassava both vegetative and the roots parts resulting to low yields.

“There are two reasons why we are promoting genome editing; one is to improve cassava to withstand some of the impact of diseases. Example is the Cassava Bacterial Blight (CBB) disease. So, with genome editing it is possible to identify the gene, study it, use gene editing to remove the susceptibility gene within the cassava crop,”  Dr Okwuonu explained.

“The second goal is to use gene editing to develop disease monitoring tool to monitor disease progression and stop its spread. We can 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 emphasized.

However, the Chief Research Scientist noted with regrets several other factors that affect cassava production in Africa, making it difficult for farmers who grow cassava to generate income. This subsequently affects several people depending on cassava as their source of food.

Cassava variety resistant to diseases and climate change

She said the use of conventional breeding to improve cassava present a lot of bottlenecks that come with breeding cassava and long period for developing new varieties. “It takes between 8-15 years using conventional breeding method while genome editing reduces the period,” Dr Okwuonu regretted.

“Cassava is a basic staple to more than 500 million people around the world and over 200 million people in Africa depend on it for daily calories. It is a choice food for many families, especially in Nigeria, which is the highest producer of the crop, according to the International Institute for Tropical Agriculture (IITA),”Dr Okwuono said. “Thus, by improving the nutritional value of cassava the ranking is highly in Africa’s crop improvement priority list as a sure way of dealing with malnutrition on the continent.” She added.

The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has identified cassava as a key crop in Africa’s agricultural transformation agenda for food security and poverty reduction.

Therefore, genome editing provides an innovative tool for crops’ improvement because it presents a lot of possibilities not possible with conventional breeding. This includes adding essential nutrients in the crops, removing the bottlenecks that come with breeding cassava and reducing the breeding period for new varieties.

The biotechnologist further encouraged governments, policy makers and stakeholders to understand the importance and benefit of this technology. She called upon the team to also provide a conducive environment for the technique effective use and provide funding for effective research in the area of biofortification.

On the other hand, Dr Rose Gidado, the Coordinator, Open Forum for Agricultural Biotechnology (OFAB), Nigeria chapter, expressed her fears that Nigeria has so many biotic stresses and attendant problems in the agriculture sector. She listed drought, fall army worm, floods, oil spillage among other natural disasters, noting that they use of highly innovative technologies to reverse their effects.

Dr Chiedozie Egesi, the Director of Biotechnology and Product Development Department, NRCRI, Umudike, Nigeria, equally said Africa has come a long way and is currently practicing the use of advanced technology, such as genome editing to improve crop and animal productivity.

“There is a lot of power in Science and Technology. We should not shy away from using it to improve the lives, increase income and productive abilities of smallholder farmers on the continent,” Dr Egesi said.