Dr. Florence Wambugu, the CEO of Africa Harvest will receive an honorary doctorate from the University of Bath (UK) in July. She provides her perspective on the success of Kenya’s genetically modified sweet potato and the effect it has had on the agricultural biotechnology in Kenya and the African continent.
It is fascinating to see the kind of debate the GM sweet potato in Kenya elicits. Opponents of the GM technology often frame the issue as a failure. This assertion is a veiled attempt at showing that the technology cannot or has not worked for Africa. I beg to differ.
I was first involved with the GM sweet potato in 1991 when USAID was offering a post doctoral fellowship, specifically targeting a young PhD researcher with a background in virology and a particular interest in root or tuber crops. I had just completed my PhD at Bath University, UK. My PhD focused on the control of sweet potato virus. At the time – and probably even now - the global average sweet potato yield per hectare was 14.7 tons; Kenya’s was only 4.8. The opportunity presented by USAID was undeniably the “next logical step” for me. I later became part of a team that took advantage of Monsanto’s royalty-free technology transfer program.
For three years, valuable pioneering work was initiated as I preoccupied myself with trying to establish if the new technology of gene transfer could be used to develop a sweet potato feathery mottle virus resistant potato. In 1994, after completing my bench-work, I returned to Kenya as the Director of the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA), a position I held for seven years. It was during that time that the GM sweet potato technology transfer to KARI occurred.
What has been framed a “failure” has in fact been great success. Three major successes stand out:
1. Ensuring the transgenic trials were carried out in accordance with international standards: Being the first GM crop variety in Sub-Saharan Africa was a milestone, but the pioneering nature of the project demanded adherence to strict international standards that stretched all involved. The trials were carried out following consultation and in close collaboration with the very communities that likely to benefit from the final product. Again, there was no resistance or destruction on trials, confirmation of a strong foundation of what is happening today;
2. Facilitating Capacity building: Many Kenyan scientists were trained under the project, and have led the county to patriotically support the potential benefits associated with GM technology. Kenyan scientists have been at the forefront of advocating a home-grow approach that will promote improvement and increase productivity of local crops. The quality of debate during the passage of Kenya’s Biosafety Bill leaves no doubt why Kenya is a centre of science and technology in the region;
3. Development of the institutional framework in Kenya: The KARI now has a bio-transformation lab where skilled scientists can carry out further research in future. KARI and the lab are now in a position to form vital collaborations on related scientific work. For example, KARI is a critical partner to the Africa Biofortified Sorghum (ABS) Project. Kenya is also a beacon of light in the region with regard to biosafety. Organizations such as Kenya plant Health Inspection services (KEPHIS) have developed relevant expertise and experience out of the GM sweet potato project. KEPHIS monitors all field trials, collects and analyses data to ensure compliance with internationally accepted standards;
4. Facilitate future win-win partnerships support: The GM sweet potato project paved the way for Kenya and the region to benefit from relevant scientific collaborations that through the Bio-transformation lab and new scientific personnel attract research funding and address Kenya specific agricultural issues. The number of similar projects today, attests to the success of the GM sweet potato project;
5. Biosafety law in Kenya: Kenya which is one of a few African countries conducting research in genetic modification. Last year, Parliament overwhelmingly passed a law to govern the technology. Since laws do not happen in a vacuum, one can assume that the passage of the law is one of the unrecognized successes of the GM sweet potato project.
I cannot emphasize enough the fact that the research carried out on the sweet potato was pioneering work. It was the first major initiative to explore the possibility of commercial genetic transformation of the sweet potato. Before the study was initiated, there wasn’t even an official genetic transformation system in existence that could be used in the transformation of sweet potato.
The gene construct used to drive coat protein (CP) mediated transformation had not been used anywhere else in the world. It is important to understand that the RC strain used to develop the CP gene used was a universal strain implying that it was not specific to Kenyan sweet potato varieties or to Kenyan research altogether. The discovery and original sequencing of the RC strain was conducted by the team of Prof. Jim Moyer of North Carolina State University and funded by the International potato Centre (CIP).
After the sequencing, the work of Prof. Moyer was taken up by Prof. Roger Beachy of the Washington State University (now the Danforth Centre) whose twofold challenge was to confirm whether the CP gene could be of commercial value and protect the sweet potato against sweet potato feathery mottle virus (SPFMV).
I therefore became the third scientist to have gene custody by the time I became involved in the project, and with expertise and technology from Monsanto our challenge was to insert a viable CP cloning site into the gene construct thus paving the way for a successful transformation system.
Perhaps the final nail in the frequent depiction of the GM sweet potato as a “failure” came when Kenya passed the Biosafety Bill early this year. Further afield, Africa is making giant moves to adopt biotechnology as a tool to raise agricultural productivity, farm incomes and cause economic development and social transformation. The debate in Africa is shifting from the safety of biotech to what crops and traits will be useful for the countries.
Unlike other regions like the US, Europe and Asia, where a more regional approach to biotech regulations is adopted, in Africa, it is still a country by country approach which makes the progress less visible. In 2008 Burkina Faso commercialized cotton and Egypt corn, joining South Africa, which has commercialized corn, cotton and soya beans.
My personal estimate is that in the next two to three years, three to five new African countries have commercial GM crops, more than double the current number. At least three countries will have GM trials planted and another three to five will be establishing trials. If this is not progress – sparked by the GM sweet potato, the first GM crop in sub-Saharan Africa – somebody needs to define progress for me.