By Sharon Atieno and Gift Briton

With climate change posing a serious challenge across the globe, and countries making effort to limit the global warming to below 1.5 degrees Celsius, agricultural biotechnology could be a game changer in achieving this target, Dr. Joel Ochieng, Programme Leader, Agricultural Biotechnology & Wildlife, University of Nairobi expounds.

What is biotechnology?

Biotechnology is a wide term referring to a range of tools that farmers have deployed for centuries, sometimes even unknowingly, in order to increase productivity in agricultural systems, and ranges from simple tools such as cross breeding, vegetative propagation, grafting, , artificial insemination, to more complex ones such as tissue culture, genetic engineering and gene editing, among others.

How does human and natural causes of climate change differ?

In climate change, we are talking about some long term shifts in temperatures and weather patterns across the world. Climate change has several causes, a key one is natural shits including changes in the sun’s energy level, volcanic eruptions and other disasters that occur naturally without human intervention.  We also have human activities that cause climate change. We have the reflectivity or absorption capacity of the sun’s energy as a result of human actions such as construction of roads that reflects the sun’s rays. When the sun hits the earth, it gets absorbed within the atmospheric system and that causes some warming that is then brought back as elevated levels of temperatures.  Then we also have another human-linked activity, perhaps the key one, which is greenhouse gas emissions.

If you compare the two, we can clearly see that human activities cause far much higher levels of greenhouse gas emissions and hence climate change compared to natural systems. So that means that a lot will be achieved especially if human behavior changes, than dealing with natural causes such as trying to remove volcanoes, for example.

What are greenhouse gas emissions?

Greenhouse gas emissions are gases that absorb and trap heat in the earth’s atmosphere and when that happens, it causes an increase in the average global temperatures. We use the words greenhouse gasses to simply say that these are gases that trap and absorb heat in the earth’s atmosphere that trigger a change in the global temperature to be higher. This century has seen the highest change in global temperature ever and so there is a red flag, something must be done. Many gasses can do this including carbon dioxide and methane which is produced from many human activities including animal agriculture. Those two are the key ones but there are many others including carbon monoxide, chlorofluorocarbons, hydrofluorocarbons and nitrogen oxide.

What can people do with regards to biotechnology to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions and limit climate change?

There are ongoing research projects across the world focusing on this challenge. In the US, scientists initially focused on altering the animal’s diet. In one research, there is use of more corn in the animal feed. The other one is adding supplements that slows down methane production. An example is seaweed (red algae) their trial involved  adding red algae to cattle feed in the artificial rumen of a cow and demonstrated an overwhelming reduction of methane production by 90%. But of course the challenge now is to progress from there to a real cow because an artificial stomach is different from an actual cow. And then they would move from that to the effects of production if that has to be scaled out, an application on large scale may be challenging.

The third one is where you capture and purify the methane for domestic use. Once you capture them the gas can be used for several purposes and in fact, if you have a large herd, then you can get enough methane to run your household. However, if you have to capture methane from animals, it means that all the animals have to be kept in a specific enclosed place at all times and that may not work for Africa where we have pastoral groups who move from place to place with their cattle, we are more used to outdoor animal agriculture and animal welfare issues will arise because when you keep the animals in, they become unhappy and we can predict therefore that the production level will decrease then now you have to keep more cows, thus going back to square one.

The basis of these three research projects is that when the cow feeds, the food is broken down and that process releases methane which is then expelled from the rumen through two main avenues, the animal will burp (belching) and through the shit. Our local projects cover two aspects – the two avenues through which methane is released from the cow. The goal is to develop farm animals with feed efficiency.

Are there projects or research going on locally with regards to biotechnology and climate change?

There is a project using pigs/swine. We selected swine for two purposes; as a model for discovery, and second, as a target farm animal. Energy production is domiciled within the mitochondrion and if we target genes that are involved in oxidative phosphorylation, then we can regulate the metabolism within the cells for energy production and this is intended to reduce the amount of feed that the animal needs to obtain the same amount of energy. This is what I am calling feed conversion efficiency where you feed the animal less than you would ordinarily fed it and it will get the same amount of energy.

This will do two things; it will improve productivity because the farmer now spends less on feeding. As I said, all methods must be farmer centered. The farmer will feed the animal less so he is saving money, because production goes down while at the same time, from less feeding, there will be less emission of methane to the environment. At the end of the day, our technical purpose is to introduce target maternal traits  into the germline of domestic swine seed stock. As we talk about this project, we must bear in mind that we have a crisis of animal feed in East Africa. There are no feed and when you find any, they are way unaffordable to the farmer. And this project can reduce feeding, while at the same time mitigating climate change.

The other project is the extension project which is as simple as convincing people to change their way of doing agriculture. It convinces farmers to have components that complement each other in their system thus, if you have an aquaculture system that is integrated with your crop system, you can rotate the waste within the system. You get waste from the fish pond, you use it to irrigate your farm, and rotate your waste from the farm back to your animals and you get animal manure to fertilize the pond. This keeps the waste within your enterprise so that less waste goes into the environment. It only involves demonstrating and convincing farmers to do so.

The third project which is basic research as well is the use of plant saponins to reduce the processes that initiate production of methane into the environment. Saponin is a plant secondary compound and we are using that as a strategy to mitigate against methane production. It is a natural alternative and therefore we expect it to be more accepted because all our efforts may be wasteful if we are going to produce something that the people will not buy or a method that the government or the farmers will not adopt. We have already extracted pure compounds and currently conducting tests.