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Africa: Crops / Food

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Ongoing Research, Regulations In Development

Regulatory status of gene editing of crops has not been determined in any country.

No African nation has passed unique regulations for gene-edited crops. It is considered a fertile region for gene editing to address a wide range of issues, including malnutrition, crop failure linked to climate change and hunger.

Transgenic GMOs are strictly regulated throughout the continent with only a few countries moving ahead with field trials or the introduction of transgenic (GMO) crops. It is anticipated that gene-edited crops will, at least initially, fall under established GMO rules in most countries, although several nations have either adopted or are in the process of adopting more flexible legislation regulating GMOs and gene-edited crops and animals.

South Africa, Sudan, Nigeria and Kenya all have approved and/or have field trials for various GMO crops but none has yet adopted specific regulations of agricultural gene editing.

  • In 2016, South Africa’s Department of Science and Technology completed an expert report on the regulatory implications of new breeding techniques (NBTs) but has not announced any gene editing regulations.
  • Nigeria’s 2015 Biosafety Act includes a framework for authorizing the release of GMOs, but does not address gene editing, although lawmakers are considering an amendment on gene editing and gene drives.
  • Kenya’s National Biosafety Authority (NBA) is drafting guidelines to regulate gene-edited products. The NBA received two gene editing applications in 2018 that focused on the improvement of banana and yam. 

Nine other African countries have genetic engineering (but not gene editing) agricultural research underway with numerous crops at various stages of development: Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Ethiopia, Ghana, Malawi, Mozambique, Swaziland, Tanzania and Uganda.

Products/Research

  • Less toxic cassava: The Innovative Genomics Institute is attempting to use CRISPR to reduce the amount of toxic cyanogenic glucosides in cassava, thereby reducing the incidence rate of the toxico-neurological disease konzo.
  • Virus-resistant cassava: Researchers in the US and Uganda are attempting to improve the tolerance of cassava against Cassava Brown Streak Virus using CRISPR. Field trials underway in Uganda and Kenya of cassava developed with a gene editing technique called RNA interference (RNAi) that would resist both Brown Streak Virus and Mosaic Virus.
  • Disease-resistant bananas: International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) in Nigeria is developing bananas resistant to banana bacterial wilt, fusarium silt and banana steak virus, a process expected to take until at least 2023.
  • Virus-resistant bananas: International Institute of Tropical Agriculture researchers are developing banana varieties resistant to banana streak virus.
  • Disease-resistant yam: Being researched in Kenya.
  • Disease-resistant maize: Maize Lethal Necrosis (MLN) Disease project in Kenya, involving Corteva Agri-Science and the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), is developing maize varieties resistant to maize lethal necrosis, a viral disease causing serious crop loss.
  • High-protein sorghum: University of Queensland researchers, along with collaborators in Africa, developed a variety of sorghum (a common grain used as a major food source in Africa) with increased protein, but it is not approved.
  • Parasite-resistant sorghum: Kenyatta University in Kenya is developing sorghum varieties resistant to striga, a parasitic plant, using CRISPR.
  • Cacao research: Pennsylvania State University researchers used CRISPR to begin developing cacao with properties that will help African farmers produce more, including resistance to Cocoa Swollen Shoot Virus (CSSV), a common and devastating cacao disease in West Africa.
  • Banana research: IITA in Kenya studied gene editing in the banana to identify genes important for disease-resistance and heat-tolerance.

Regulatory Timeline

2019: Senegal drafts a revised Biosafety Law that could expedite the approval process for certain genetically engineered  products, but it is unclear how long the evaluation and approval process will take until the revised law is adopted.

2019: African Union considers harmonizing biosafety regulations to foster development of biosafety regulatory systems and tools and improve access and utilization by AU member-states.

2019: Nigeria signs amended NBMA Act, which expands the role of the National Biosafety Management Agency.

2016: South Africa’s Department of Science and Technology commissions an expert report on the regulatory implications of NBTs, which recognized that NBTs may be more precise than transgenics and may thus require a lower/different level of regulatory scrutiny. No regulatory amendment has yet been formally proposed.

2016: The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) develops a draft
regional biosafety law
, but it is still undergoing evaluation and approval.

2015: Nigeria signs Biosafety Act regulating the handling and use of genetically engineered crops, requiring mandatory labeling of products or ingredients.

2013: African Science Academies in Ethiopia issues statement supporting biotechnology, saying “biotechnology-enhanced tools and products can play a significant and positive role in meeting Africa’s dire need and persistent challenge to break the seemingly perpetual cycle of hunger, malnutrition, and underdevelopment.”

2009: Kenya Biosafety Act 2009, which includes clauses on labelling GMOs, passes.

2009: Senegal Biosafety Law, which outlines the approval process for genetically engineered crops, adopted.

2008: South Africa’s Consumer Protection Act No. 68 of 2008 requires GMO labels on food.

2003: Nigeria ratifies Cartagena Protocol, which oversees the transport and use of organisms modified by biotechnology.

2001: Nigeria establishes National Biotechnology Development Agency (NABDA) to promote, commercialize and regulate biotechnology products.

1998: South Africa’s National Environmental Management Act No. 107, which strictly regulates GMOs with “foreign” DNA (transgenes), passes.

1997: South Africa’s Genetically Modified Organisms Act No. 15 defines a GMO as “an organism the genes or genetic material of which has been modified in a way that does not occur naturally through mating or natural recombination or both” and requires risk and environmental impact assessments.

NGO Reaction

NGOs, many with connections with European advocacy groups, have been very active throughout Africa in discouraging the adoption of GMOs, and it is expected they will redirect their opposition to gene-edited crops as research progresses and various countries consider regulations.

The African Center for Biodiversity (ACB) and the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa (AFSA) are among the most vocal opponents of biotechnology on the continent. ACB has proposed indefinite bans on gene editing. In 2019, AFSA has called on governments to “abandon all activities supporting the introduction of GMO seeds or seeds derived from new biotechnologies” including gene editing.

South African lobby group, Biowatch, has argued that genetic engineering is “controversial” with “dubious economic advantages”. Biowatch is funded by multiple anti-GMO organizations, most based in Europe.

In Ghana, scientists urged anti-GMO groups to accept gene editing, especially with climate change threatening to impact cacao production, but multiple farmer and agriculture organizations, many linked to global and European anti-GMO environmental groups, have supported the government’s decision in 2020 to prohibit GMOs.

Various anti-capitalist advocacy groups in Nigeria, led by the Health of Mother Earth Foundation (HOMEF), which has links to global anti-biotechnology groups including Canada’s ETC Group and the London and Boulder, CO-based Global Greengrants Fund, claims that embracing biotechnology will lead to western control of the African food economy.

Additional Resources

 

Click on a country (eg. Brazil, US) or region (eg. European Union) below to find which agriculture products and processes are approved or in development and their regulatory status. The regulations on genetically engineered crops and animals are emerging out of the regulatory landscape developed for transgenic GMOs.

World single states political map

European Union

European Union

Brazil

New Zealand

New Zealand

United States

United States

Australia

Australia

Canada

China

United Kingdom

United Kingdom

Israel

Argentina

Argentina

Japan

Mexico

Russia

Chile

Uruguay

Paraguay

India

Africa

Ukraine

Southeast Asia

Southeast Asia

Central America

Central America

Colombia

Norway

Ecuador

Agriculture Gene Editing Index
Compare Regulatory Restrictions Country-to-Country

Gene editing regulations worldwide are evolving. The Gene Editing Index ratings below represent the current status of gene editing regulations and will be updated as new regulations are passed.

Colors and ratings guide
 

Regulation StatusRating
Determined: No Unique Regulations*10
Lightly Regulated8
Proposed: No Unique Regulations†6
Ongoing Research, Regulations In Development5
Highly Regulated4
Mostly Prohibited2
Limited Research, No Clear Regulations1
Prohibited0
Lightly Regulated: Some or all types of gene editing are regulated more strictly than conventional agriculture, but not as strictly as transgenic GMOs.
*Determined: No Unique Regulations: Gene-edited crops that do not incorporate DNA from another species are regulated as conventional plants with no additional restrictions.

†Proposed: No Unique Regulations: Decrees under consideration for gene-edited crops that do not incorporate DNA from another species would no require unique regulations beyond current what is imposed on conventional breeding.

Crops/Food:
Gene editing of plants and food products. Research and development has mostly focused on disease resistance, drought resistance, and increasing yield, but more recent advances have produced low trans-fat oils and high-fiber grains.
Animals:
Gene editing of animals, not including animal research for human drugs and therapies. Fewer gene edited animals have been developed than gene edited crops, but scientists have developed hornless and heat-tolerant cattle and fast-growing tilapia may soon be the first gene edited animal to be consumed.

Rating by Country / Region
Click each column header and arrow to sort the countries / regions

Swipe right/left if all columns aren't visible

Country / RegionFood / CropsAnimalsAg Rating
Japan888
Brazil101010
Canada888
Russia555
Argentina101010
Israel1057.5
Australia888
China555
US1047
Chile1015.5
New Zealand444
Ukraine111
Central America666
Paraguay101010
Uruguay666
India666
UK222
Mexico111
EU222
Colombia1015.5

Global gene editing regulatory landscape

The regulations on genetically engineered crops and animals are emerging out of the regulatory landscape developed for transgenic GMOs. Regulations across 34 countries where transgenic or gene edited crops and animals are commercially allowed (as of 12/19) are guided in part by two factors:
 
 
Whether the country has ratified the international agreement that took effect in 2003 that aims to ensure the safe handling, transport and use of living modified organisms (LMOs) resulting from biotechnology that may impact biological diversity, also taking into account potential risks to human health. It entered into force for those nations that signed it in 2003. It applies the ‘precautionary approach as contained in the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development. The US, Canada, Australia and Chile and the Russian Federation have not signed the treaty.
 
 
Whether regulations are based on the genetic process used to create the trait (conventional, mutagenesis, transgenesis, gene editing, etc.) or the final product.Transgenic crops and animals (aka GMOs) are product regulated in many countries including the US and Canada, while the EU, India, China and others regulate based on how the product is made. There is almost an equal number of countries with product- and process-based regulations. It’s not clear how much this distinction matters. It’s somewhat true that countries with product-based regulation have more crops approved and the approval process is more streamlined, but there are contradictions. For example, Brazil and Argentina have emerged as GMO super powers using different regulatory concepts, while there is no GMO commercial cultivation in Japan, North Korea, and the Russian Federation, which employ product-based regulations. How this will effect gene editing regulations is also unclear. For example, Japan, which has no commercialized GMOs, is emerging as a leader in the introduction of gene edited crops.
Agricultural Landscape
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Gene editing is a set of techniques that can be used to precisely modify the DNA of almost any organism. It is being used for applications in human health, gene drives and agriculture. There are numerous gene-editing tools besides CRISPR-Cas 9, which gets most of the attention because it is a comparatively easy tool to use.

Gene editing does not usually involve transgenics – moving ‘foreign’ genes between species. It also refers to a specific technique in contrast to the general term GMO, which is scientifically ambiguous, as genetic modification is a process not a product. Most gene editing involves creating new products by deleting very small segments of DNA (sometimes in agriculture called Site-Directed Nuclease 1 or SDN-1 techniques), which can silence a gene or change a gene’s activity. Countries are evaluating whether or not to regulate this type of gene editing, since it is so similar to natural mutations. The GLP’s Gene Editing Index ratings reflect the regulatory status of SDN-1 techniques, which are the most liberally regulated and will generate most products in the near term.

To develop different products, gene editing can change larger segments of DNA or add DNA from other species (a form of transgenics sometimes in agriculture called SDN-2 or SDN-3 techniques). While many countries are not regulating or lightly regulating SDN-1 techniques, most are moving toward tightly regulating or even restricting SDN-2 and SDN-3.

For more background on the various gene editing SDN techniques, read background articles here and here.

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