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.
- 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.
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.
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.
- Genetic Literacy Project’s FAQ on gene editing
- Will Africa embrace CRISPR gene editing and the next phase of the biotech revolution?
- USDA Biotechnology Annual 2020: West Africa