When Norman Borlaug won the Nobel peace prize in 1970 for his life-saving work on plant breeding, he commented that "hunger and peace never coexist". With one in every nine people on the planet still considered hungry, Borlaug's statement has never been as relevant as it is today. Using these statistics scientists, educators and regulators have said many times that the world must produce more food in the next 50 years than it has in the last 10,000 and that we are currently using resources 50% faster than the planet can sustain —and that GMO and gene-edited crops can help us tackle both challenges.

It's easy for well-fed consumers in the Western world, particularly environmental activists, to dismiss such a message, but the fact remains that developing nations in Africa and Asia stand to gain tremendously from innovations in crop biotechnology, because they face unique challenges the West doesn't.

Up-and-coming societies around the world have the opportunity to save their staple crops, protect their local environments and, most importantly, help their rural communities live better lives. But these nations need to utilize every tool science has made available—including genetic engineering technologies that remain controversial and poorly understood by most consumers.

A primer on GMOs

Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) can be defined as plants, animals, or microorganisms whose genetic material (DNA) has been altered in a way that does not occur naturally by mating or natural recombination. As defined by the World Health Organization, this gene technology is often called “modern biotechnology”, “recombinant DNA technology” or “genetic engineering”. It allows individual genes to be transferred from one organism into another, between unrelated and related species.

For aeons, humans have been genetically enhancing other organisms through the practice of selective breeding. The sweet corn, seedless watermelon and delicious chickens at the supermarket, and the variety of vegetables growing in our home gardens are all examples of how humans have selectively enhanced desirable traits in other living organisms.

Genetic engineering breaks down natural barriers

Genetic engineering techniques now allow scientists to insert specific genes into a plant or animal without having to go through the trial-and-error process of selective breeding. Genetic engineering is therefore extremely rapid compared to selective breeding. How is this done? Gene transfer technology is simply a sophisticated version of a cut-and-paste operation. Once the desired gene is identified in the native organism's genome, it can be cut out, transferred to the target plant, and pasted into its genome. Once the new gene has been introduced, the plant can be bred to create a new strain that passes the gene from generation to generation.

In agriculture, the development of genetically modified crops helps solve the problem of low-yielding plants crippled by insects or weeds, providing solutions that break through natural barriers that limited traditional breeding practices. For example, the widely used herbicide Roundup kills any plant that it touches. Monsanto, now owned by Bayer, has genetically modified soybeans and other crop plants to create "Roundup Ready" strains that are not affected by Roundup. By planting Roundup Ready seeds, a farmer can control weeds by spraying Roundup right over the crop. The crop is completely immune to the herbicide, but the weeds are eliminated.

Roundup Ready seeds reduce production costs and increase yield, so food becomes less expensive. Other scientists have inserted genes that produce a natural insecticide into corn plants to eliminate damage from corn borers, and a variety of anti-fungal genes can be inserted into crops as well. There really is no limit to what can be done with this technology.

Another way of protecting tomatoes against fungi or viruses is to breed them so that they become resistant to these pests. However, if conventional methods were used to do this, it would be years before a tomato plant with the desired level of resistance appeared on the market, a process that already takes at least a decade due to testing for safety, efficacy and regulatory approvals.

This is why agricultural scientists focus on genetic analyses. By looking at the genome of a young plant, analysts can tell whether or not it has the characteristics that make it a suitable candidate for breeding. This allows scientists to produce high-quality seeds and deliver them to tomato growers and nurseries all over the world much sooner than was possible with traditional plant breeding. It’s also possible to make continual improvements to properties like firmness and taste. The “Intense” tomato developed by Bayer Crop Science, for example, retains its juice even when you squeeze it. That makes it ideal for fast food chains, where the last thing you want is a tomato slice that turns your sandwich or burger soggy.

Furthermore, Argentina, one of the one of the earliest adopters of GM technology is today the third largest exporter of biotech crops most notably soybeans after the United States and Brazil – which is set to surpass the U.S. as the largest producer. A study published in 2016 estimates the benefits of biotech crops to be worth $127 billion since its introduction 23 years ago. Sixty percent of this figure went to producers, 26% to the government and 8% to seeds’ companies. These figures further demystify the mendacious claim that seeds' firms benefit disproportionately instead of farmers. Unsurprisingly, China, the world’s most populous nation, understands the importance of genetic engineering and food security when ChemChina in February 2017 acquired the Swiss biotech giant Syngenta for $43 billion and this should not sound surprising as the Chinese are becoming wealthier by the day, ergo, their eating habits change

CRISPR continues the biotech revolution

Despite it's proven ability to boost sustainable agriculture, genetic modification has not been well received by many consumers around the world. To help allay fear about “unnatural” foods, scientists are turning to novel, cheaper, and even faster new breeding techniques (NBTs). Rather than taking DNA from a different organism to change a new plant, genome or gene editing allows scientists to improve crop plants by editing or deleting the plant's existing genetic material.

Gene editing burst onto the scene with the development of two tools called Zinc Finger Nucleases (ZFNs) and transcription activator-like effector nucleases (TALENs). These enzymes can be engineered to create accurate double-stranded breaks at targeted DNA sites, thereby creating mutations or allowing for insertions of DNA sequences.

While these remain useful gene-editing tools, a more affordable, precise and efficient way of editing species has been developed: CRISPR-Cas9. This novel technique, unlike ZFNs and TALENs, utilizes an RNA-guided nuclease to efficiently engineer genomes and has become an invaluable tool in plant biotechnology. Put simply, CRISPR possess three essential elements: an enzyme that mimics a pair of scissors, snipping the strands of the DNA double helix; a guide RNA, which informs the scissors where to snip; and a component that locks the scissors into place after the snip.

Improving orphan crops

This gene-editing technology could help Africa address one of its biggest challenges: rescuing its so-called "orphan crops,” which provide a large portion of the calories produced and consumed by developing nations on the continent. Despite their role as staple foods in the region, they receive little attention from plant breeders. There have been myriad studies using CRISPR-Cas9 to improve cereals, crops such as wheat, maize and barley, but there have been very few comprehensive studies on sorghum and millet to date, despite their nutritional importance production could increase significantly, enabling the continent to produce, consume and even export these crops in large quantities. Meanwhile, these gene-edited crops would require less land, water and fewer chemicals, thereby reducing carbon emissions. 

These developments can't come soon enough. Africa's population is projected to skyrocket to 1.7 billion by the year 2030, while Nigeria, currently the continent’s most populated country, is expected to surpass the USA by 2050 to become the third most populated nation, with a population of 400 million by mid-century. Despite these projections, there has been no acceleration in food production to mitigate the potential food crisis on the horizon, nor the nutritional dearth currently bedevilling most of the consumed food staples on the continent.

Anti-biotech activists block innovation in Africa

A cadre of influential Western environmental activist groups have mendaciously ganged up on science and innovation with allegations that GMO and gene-edited foods are not safe to consume. This opposition is based largely on the naturalistic fallacy and prevents the technology’s introduction to Africa's farms. Many people find this idea very compelling; after all, we humans are part of nature, so why not consume foods in their natural state? But the argument, whether applied to our food or to other aspects of life, is dead wrong.

Consider cooking. It isn’t natural, but allows us to extract far more nutrients from our food and is one of humankind’s greatest inventions. Or consider pasteurization, an unnatural process that has saved countless millions of lives by killing the bacteria that are present in purely “natural” milk and other products. Suffice it to say that there is nothing wrong with modifying our food to make it healthier, safer or just tastier.

Moreover, plant breeders often utilize brute-force (and very unnatural) tools like x-rays, gamma rays and powerful chemicals to alter the DNA of plants, a technique known as mutagenesis. Some of the resulting man-made mutations alter genes in ways that produce desirable agricultural traits: higher yields, nicely shaped fruits, or the ability to grow in adverse conditions such as drought or other harsh environments.

These beneficial mutations can then be combined with beneficial traits in other strains but only by crossing (or mating) the plants. That type of “natural” breeding takes a lot of time, often five to 10 years for each crop, that Africa can't spare. This approach was widely implemented before the recombinant DNA revolution of the 1970s and it remains a useful tool to plant breeders. But scientists have more technologies at their disposal now, and relying exclusively on traditional plant breeding techniques makes little sense.

Critics also contend that genetic modification and gene editing don't always achieve the desired result, for example failing to imbue a crop with disease resistance. While correct, this argument doesn’t justify the wholesale rejection of genetic engineering, it just means that GMO and gene-editing technology can be applied in other ways.

Consider Golden Rice, a variety of rice that has been genetically modified so that it naturally produces beta carotene, which humans metabolize to produce vitamin A. Golden Rice has the potential to reduce vitamin A deficiency, which blinds  250, 000 - 500, 000 people around the world every year.

Perhaps the most popular argument against GMOs and crop gene editing is that they’re just stealth methods to allow big agricultural corporations to sell more pesticides; Bayer's Roundup Ready crops are the typical example. Regardless of the arguments about herbicides, the fundamental problem is that this is a gross generalization: just because certain activist groups don’t like RoundUp Ready soybeans doesn’t mean that Africa should be denied access to all genetically engineered crops.

Moreover, gene editing through CRISPR-Cas9 has greatly reduced the cost of developing new crops, thereby creating new competitors to the established biotech seed companies that are developing a wide variety of new crops. This is significant in places where scientific research can be onerous, which includes countries across Africa, where local, independent scientists are working at a fevered pace to battle food insecurity.

Excluding a few innovative countries, Africa has largely been prohibited from utilizing crop biotechnology to improve its food security. This is already totally unnecessary, but it would be a shame if such a policy continued across the continent as gene editing makes it cheaper and easier to address the challenges African agriculture faces. With a ballooning population and climate change threatening to exacerbate the destructive impact of malnutrition in the developing world, genetic engineering is needed now more than ever. It's time for Africa to embrace it.