According to the US National Human Genome Research Institute, Genetic engineering which is linked to biotechnology is the process of using recombinant DNA (rDNA) technology to alter the genetic makeup of an organism. It involves the direct manipulation of one or more genes. Most often, a gene from another species is added to an organism’s genome to give it the desired phenotype.
In Nigeria, the Open Forum for Biotechnology (OFAB) is at the forefront of the promotion of the application of safe biotechnology in Nigeria, leading genetically modified (GM) foods. Nigeria has recently recorded tremendous progress as it approved in 2019, two genetically modified (GM)crops, BT Cotton and BT Cowpea which are not only pest-resistant, but their adoption by Nigerian farmers have drastically reduced the use of pesticides, and significantly increased harvest yields at unprecedented levels. Dr. Rose Gidado, Country Director of the Open Forum for Biotechnology (OFAB therefore projected in 2020 that with the approval and adoption of BT Cowpea by Nigerian farmers, Nigeria could increase its exports earnings by $638 million within a period of six years.
Whereas Nigeria has just begun to tap into the success story of genetic engineering in the production of GM crops through the application of agricultural biotechnolgy, some other countries are applying genetic engineering in greater and more specific terms.
The issue of improving the tastes and flavours of common fruits has come under consideration. Recently, Emma Woollacott Technology of Business reporter for BBC News writes:
The application of Genetic Engineering goes beyond ensuring food security to the enhancement of agricultural products for the improvement of nutritional value
Prof Harry Klee of Florida University’s horticultural sciences department is working to understand the chemical and genetic make-up of fruit and vegetable flavours – focusing on the tomato.
“The tomato has been a long-term model system for fruit development. It has a short generation time, great genetic resources, and [is] the most economically important fruit crop worldwide.
“It was only the second plant species to get a complete genome sequence – a huge help in studying the genetics of an organism.”
Plant flavour is a complex phenomenon. In the case of a tomato, it stems from the interaction of sugars, acids, and over a dozen volatile compounds derived from amino acids, fatty acids, and carotenoids.
Prof Klee wants to identify the genes controlling the synthesis of the flavour volatiles, and using this to produce a better-tasting tomato.
“It’s not quite at the stage where we have completed assembling the superior flavour traits into a single line, but we expect to be there in another year or so,” he says.
It is possible to use genetic modification (GM) to improve flavour by importing genes from other species, but in much of the world produce created this way is banned.
Pairwise is using gene-editing technology to create new varieties of crops like raspberriesHowever, other forms of genetic manipulation are more widely accepted. US firm Pairwise is working on new fruit and vegetable varieties by using CRISPR – gene-editing technology licensed from Harvard, the Broad Institute, and Massachusetts General Hospital. Rather than taking genes from other species, like GM, CRISPR involves tweaking existing genes within the plant by cutting and splicing.
“We’re making very small changes in one or two pieces of DNA,” says Pairwise co-founder Haven Baker.
Such gene-editing is considered “non-GM” in most of North America, South America and Japan. However in Europe, where genetic modification is highly contentious, it is considered GM and is kept under strict regulation.
Having left the EU, the UK has launched a consultation on using gene editing to modify livestock and food crops in England.
- What is gene editing and why is it controversial?
Even in the US, where views are less entrenched, some growers are wary of genetic modification.
“We are not fans of it at all. While sometimes innovation done right maybe does work well, we believe in tradition and not necessarily messing with things – and going back to nature and the way nature functions,” says Mr Fubini.
But some innovations would be extremely difficult without intervention at the genetic level.
One of Pairwise’s first products, expected in a year or two, will be a seedless blackberry it says will have a more consistent taste than traditional varieties. It is also working on a stoneless cherry.
All this could be done through traditional breeding techniques, but as fruit trees take years to mature it would be a very long-term project.
“Some of the fruits we’re interested in, like cherries where we want a pitless cherry, theoretically you could do it with breeding but it would take 100-150 years,” says Mr Baker.
“The products we want to make and we think consumers want are not achievable in our lifetimes with conventional breeding, it’s just too slow.”
Some in the agriculture business are combining old and new techniques. US-based organic seed firm Row 7, runs breeding programmes to develop new and better-tasting produce.
Its seed suppliers use traditional cross-pollination techniques, along with genomic selection – the ability to examine molecular genetic markers across the plant’s whole genome – to predict traits such as flavour with reasonable accuracy.
In addition, it has a network of 150 chefs and farmers that evaluate its work.
“This community evaluates varieties that are still in development, providing feedback on their potential in the field and in the kitchen,” says chief operating officer Charlotte Douglas.
One of its flagship products is Badger Flame beet; bred to be eaten raw and sweet without being earthy.
“This variety would have gotten lost, were it not for the advocacy of chefs and growers. It’s expanding our understanding of what a beet can be, introducing new opportunities for exploration,” says Ms Douglas.
Kale’s strong taste is too much for some: we could soon see kale that tastes like lettuce
Some plants might be lumbered with the wrong kind of flavour. Take kale, for example, although the leafy green is nutritious, its powerful flavour can be off-putting.
Mr. Baker and his team at Pairwise, are working on a sweeter and gentler plant.
“Kale is very nutritious, but people don’t like to eat it. So we’ve used genetic engineering to produce leafy greens that have better nutrition, but that taste like the lettuces we’re used to,” he says.
In the case of kale, strong flavour is seen as a disadvantage, but generally speaking, flavour tends to go hand-in-hand with nutrition.
“Breeding for flavour means breeding for deliciousness; it means breeding for nutrition because more often than not when you are selecting for complex flavour you’re also selecting for nutrient density,” says Ms Douglas.
“It means breeding in and for organic systems – the type of farming that produces the best possible tasting plants; it means breeding for more diversity.”
The World health organization considers GM foods to be generally safe. It stated as follows that:
“GM foods currently available on the international market have passed safety assessments and are not likely to present risks for human health. In addition, no effects on human health have been shown as a result of the consumption of such foods by the general population in the countries where they have been approved. Continuous application of safety assessments based on the Codex Alimentarius principles and, where appropriate, adequate post-market monitoring, should form the basis for ensuring the safety of GM foods”
In Nigeria, The National Biosafety Management Agency (NBMA) has the statutory responsibility of ensuring the safe application of genetic engineering for human consumption with all related issues of biotechnology and biosafety as they affect plants, animals, and the environment. Dr. Rufus Ebegba is the Director-General of the NBMA.
Additions taken from:
How farmers and scientists are engineering your food By Emma Woollacott How farmers and scientists are engineering your food – BBC News