South Africa needs to revise the rules for genetically modified plants

Food security is about global priority – and this is becoming increasingly important in the face of climate change that already exists affecting crop yields. One way to improve food security is to increase it crop yields.

But it’s not easy. Studies have shown that in the last two decades breeders have been unable to increase the yield of major crops at the rate at which the world’s population is growing.

New technologies are needed to achieve this speed. Several new technologies have been developed over the last decade. They are known as New breeding methods and have the potential to greatly assist in growing efforts.

One such method is genome editing. This allows you to accurately edit genomes – that is, the genetic information contained in the body. Scientists around the world embraced technology. And countries that adopted new breeding methods early on saw Fr. significant increase in development local products. Current crops under development include resistant to certain diseases and insect pests that are healthier to eat or tolerant of drought or heat stress.

Both small, micro and medium-sized enterprises and the public sector in these countries have been involved in the development and use of crops with an editable genome. This should lead to improved economic growth and employment opportunities.

Read more:
What is CRISPR, the gene-editing technology that won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry?

Whatever approach the country chooses, it must be backed up by regulations. This provides a basis for the introduction of new products that benefit consumers and stimulate the bioeconomy in a sustainable way.

The South African authorities have taken what we believe to be a failed approach to plant genome regulation. In October 2021 the government classified plants with an edited genome as genetically modified crops. This is based on his interpretation of the definition of a genetically modified organism in a A 25-year-old law rather than on the latest scientifically sound risk analysis considerations.

As experts in plant biotechnology, we fear that such a regulatory approach will significantly impede the development of improved crops for South African farmers. This will create an unnecessary regulatory burden on bioinnovators. This will hamper local investment for domestic research and development as well as public sector projects. Local entrepreneurs who seek to increase the resilience of local crops to the climate or develop special products for niche markets through genome editing will be thwarted by the need to attract disproportionate funding to enforce existing regulations.

Technological schedule

Plants are improved by creating genetic changes that lead to beneficial traits. Traditionally, breeders have achieved this by crossing different varieties of the same plant species. These approaches alter many genes; the result is that traditionally bred plants contain both beneficial and harmful traits. Removing unfavorable signs before a crop can be commercialized is an expensive and time-consuming process.

In the 1980s, transgenic genetic modification technologies were developed. They depend on DNA fragments of one species integrated into the genome of the culture. Such genetically modified (GM) plants are strictly regulated internationally. In South Africa legislation The management of these plants came into force in 1999. The use of GM technology in South Africa – and other countries – has been very successful.

For example, this led to South Africa has doubled its corn yieldwhich makes it a net exporter of this commodity. It promotes food security and also brings in foreign income, which reduces the country’s trade deficit.

But the rules governing GM plants are difficult: only large agricultural biotech companies have the resources to commercialize them. This is done in order to eliminate the risk that GM plants containing new DNA are harmful to health or the environment.

Because of this, all GM plants licensed for commercial use in South Africa come from a small number of international companies. In the last three decades, no product developed locally has been implemented, despite the fact that South Africa was the first to adopt this technology. This hinders the development of new crops and the improvement of traditional crops, especially for new and natural farmers in sub-Saharan Africa.

That’s why new tools, such as genome editing, are so exciting. They can be used to introduce genetic changes to improve yields in a fraction of the time required using conventional methods. Some forms of genome editing are transgenic in nature, while others are not because they do not involve the insertion of foreign DNA into the plant.

This approach mimics the effect of traditional plant breeding, but is very focused on introducing only beneficial traits. For example, genome editing is used for production peanuts, soybeans and wheat that do not produce allergens.

It works well. Although the technology has only been available for ten years, some genome-produced cultures have already been introduced to the market in some countries, including soybeans and tomatoes which are more useful for human consumption.

A regulatory approach is proposed

Regulators around the world have adopted as well a process or product based approach to regulate the safety of GM crops. A process-based approach examines how the crop was obtained; a product-based approach explores the risks and benefits of GM culture in each case.

We believe that a product-based approach makes the most sense. This is because a process-based approach can lead to the strange situation where two identical plants are governed by very different rules just because they have been manufactured by different methods. The additional regulatory burden imposed by this approach will also hamper innovation in the development of new crops.

Our approach would mean that any plant with extra DNA inserted into the genome would be managed as a GM plant. Plants without additional DNA and that are no different from traditionally bred organisms should be regulated as conventionally grown crops.

This is the most rational way to regulate these different types of organisms, as it adheres to the principles of scientifically sound risk analysis and good governance.

Many countries among them Argentina, China, Japan, USA, Australia, Brazil and Nigeriaadopted this approach.

A scientifically sound risk analysis must return to the essence of regulation: specific risk thresholds must be determined by regulatory triggers. South Africa needs to revise the rules for genetically modified plants

Back to top button