As negotiators from around the world meet at the UN Biodiversity Conference 7–19 December in Montreal, Canada, to finalize a new framework for protecting the planet’s biodiversity, African countries will focus especially on one thorny question: is the digitized DNA of a species the same as the biological species itself?
Millions of dollars could hang in the balance, and the answer may make or break the talks, as African countries have threatened not to sign a new agreement unless they can benefit from the bits and bytes of digital genetic code – known as digital sequence information, or DSI – stored in databases around the world.
“The Convention on Biological Diversity was seen as a way to help promote a ‘green economy,’ in which countries would benefit from their resources and therefore have a greater incentive to protect them. But while that sounded good in principle, it has been harder to put into practice,” says Anja Gassner, science and policy adviser for the Global Landscapes Forum.
And although the debate has revolved mainly around economic benefits – whether and how countries should be paid for the use of the digitized genetic sequence of a species to manufacture a new drug or some other product – Gassner says sovereignty over one’s natural treasures is just as important.
“For African countries to take full advantage of their genetic resources, they must have molecular biologists, research facilities and trained plant breeders who can put digital sequence information to use for the benefit of their own people,” she says. “Ensuring that technical assistance and training are provided should be a key element of any agreement.”
Low-income countries, especially those rich in natural and agricultural biodiversity, have long protested “biopiracy” – outsiders whisking biological samples away and using them to make products that are then patented and sold elsewhere, with no benefit to the country of origin or the local communities whose knowledge may have led the prospector to the samples in the first place.
In an effort to compensate countries in such cases, and also to create an incentive for protecting biodiversity, the 2010 Nagoya Protocol to the Convention on Biodiversity set out guidelines for access to genetic resources, as well as the fair and equitable sharing of benefits from their use. But the Nagoya Protocol applies to physical genetic material, and the field of genetics has gone high tech in recent years, with digital DNA sequencing and storage of that information in databases.
African countries are leading the drive to include digital sequence information in the Nagoya Protocol – essentially, to put the digitized genetic code on the same footing as the biological species. But many scientists fear that the bureaucracy involved in tracking and negotiating with the sources of millions of database entries could hamper investigation in key fields like medicine, as well as biodiversity conservation efforts that are supported by genetics.
African delegates have threatened not to sign the new framework for the Convention on Biodiversity, which will set targets through 2030, unless DSI is included in the Nagoya Protocol. The issue was controversial at preliminary talks in April and is likely to be conflictive in Montreal, too.
But Gassner looks beyond that either/or debate. DSI, she says, could help the many African countries that continue to battle high rates of malnutrition and anaemia, especially among children. The key, she says, is to help train African plant breeders and facilitate access to the genetic information and research facilities they need.
“Access and benefit sharing means more than just access to the data and economic compensation for its use,” Gassner says. “It also means countries having the ability to put the digital sequence information to use for the benefit of their own people and the rest of the world.”
The speed with which South African scientists sequenced the genome of the Omicron variant of the SARS-CoV-2 virus in late 2021 points to the possibilities for conducting and applying genetic research in the region. Food crops are an area ripe for such investigation, but many countries have a shortage of trained scientists and research facilities.
The African Orphan Crops Consortium (AOCC), founded in 2011, works to fill that gap by focusing on common garden crops that are rich in micronutrients but generally overlooked by crop-development experts. The goal is to harness the region’s agricultural biodiversity by sequencing the genomes of 101 “neglected” crops that, with further development, could boost families’ nutrition and farmers’ income.
“These genome data is essential for identifying genes that are important for productivity and adaptation to climate change and understanding how they act. Genomics-based studies of plant characteristics and evolution will enable scientists and plant breeders to devise breeding strategies that will lead to faster, more focused and more predictable crop-improvement programs,” says Ramni Jamnadass, principal scientist, who leads World Agroforestry’s genomic work and the AOCC.
So far, the AOCC has produced initial sequences of the genomes of more than 60 species, including moringa (Moringa oleifera), breadfruit (Artocarpus altilis), jackfruit (Artocarpus heterophyllus) and African eggplant (Solanum aethiopicum).
The research is accompanied by intensive training and mentoring of plant breeders through the African Plant Breeding Academy, which was launched in 2013 by the University of California, Davis, in collaboration with the AOCC and AUDA-NEPAD, the African Union Development Agency and support from various public and private institutions.
The academy is based at World Agroforestry, a CGIAR research centre, which has its headquarters in Nairobi, enabling it to work closely with African plant breeders and scientists. World Agroforestry provides laboratory facilities and also gives Africa’s top plant breeders access to cutting-edge plant breeding approaches and leading international experts.
“The work of the CGIAR centres that are based in Africa, supporting, engaging and prioritizing the needs and concerns of Africa, is central to achieve agricultural growth and food security,” says Akinwumi Adesina, president of the African Development Bank.
More than 110 academy graduates from 27 African countries are now working to improve over 100 crops. The newest addition to the curriculum, a course in CRISPR gene-editing technology, is scheduled for early 2023.
Academy alumni also played a role in establishing the African Plant Breeders Association (APBA), which brought together more than 400 plant breeders and students, 40% of them women, at its first meeting in Ghana in 2019. And the numbers of participating scientists continues to grow, as more than 600 participated, either online or in person, in the 2021 APBA Conference held in Kigale, Rwanda.
“These people are having an enormous impact on agriculture in their countries and in the region as a whole, not only through their work in developing improved crop varieties, but because they, in turn, help train the next generation of plant breeders,” says Rita Mumm, Director, Capacity Development and Mobilisation for the AOCC and Director of the African Plant Breeding Academy.
Some crops that are ripe for improvement are also crucial for global markets. Five of the world’s top cocoa-producing countries – Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana, Nigeria, Cameroon and Sierra Leone – are in Africa, where the global spread of a disease called “witches’ broom” several decades ago threatened the livelihoods of millions of farmers.
In 2010, the Mars candy company, an AOCC partner, financed a joint effort by public and private institutions and companies in various countries to sequence the genome of the cocoa tree, Theobroma cacao, making the data publicly available so scientists could develop varieties resistant to the disease. Since then, other Theobroma species have been sequenced, offering further opportunities for growers and chocolate manufacturers.
Natural selection of plants that are more resistant to disease or climate changes takes place over thousands of years, but with millions of people in Africa facing hunger and malnutrition, “the ability to speed the process up and understand the mechanism of the plant are very essential for the future of the planet,” Howard-Yana Shapiro, who led the cocoa-sequencing effort for Mars, said when the AOCC was launched.
“With a genetic map, we are able to choose the treasures in that information, whether it’s drought resistance, climate adaptability or nutritional value. This map will allow us to make decisions in a much faster manner and bring to the farmer, and then to rural consumers, a more nutritious set of plants that will help end the plague of stunting in children,” he added.
Increasing the number of microbiologists and plant breeders in African countries is not the only challenge. In a survey of 65 African plant breeders working on 73 different crops, most ranked a lack of financial resources as the greatest barrier to improving the region’s neglected crops. Market-related issues included problems with post-harvest management of crops and lack of consumer information, while limited access to genetic resources and to laboratory and field facilities were among the problems related to plant breeding.
Despite the challenges, scientists say the seeds of promise in orphan crops could bear fruit not only in Africa, but farther afield.
“African plant breeders are not only contributing to better nutrition and more sustainable food systems in their countries, but they also are countering the tendency of global markets to be dominated by a few main crops,” Jamnadass says. “Their emphasis on dietary diversity is important not just for consumers, but for the preservation of the planet’s biodiversity.”
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