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Experts to issue genome editing guideline in September

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Guide cited as vital for crops like Teff

By Muluken Yewondwossen

The implementation of genome editing will allow significant improvement in orphan crop production and productivity, experts underline.
As genomic experts signal, the genome editing guideline is expected to be fully developed by the beginning of the coming Ethiopian New Year.
In the past few years, experts have been engaged on different initiatives to come up with the draft guideline to allow the research and implementation of genome editing, a new technology that helps to improve the biodiversity particularly the agriculture sector.
Regarding the guideline reviewing process, senior experts from the Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) and Bio and Emerging Technology Institute have been keenly involved in the matter. Likewise through other sessions, senior experts from the Program for Biosafety Systems at International Food Policy Research Institute also took part in the review.
As the experts cite, several international workshops and validation workshops have been carried out to come up with the final draft.
The guideline preparation considers a benchmark of Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa from Africa, and India and Vietnam from Asia, USA, Canada and Argentina from North and South America, and European Union.
The Biosafety proclamation that was amended in 2015 was set as the benchmark for the development of the guideline.
Under the initiative to come up with legal bandage, the capacity building at EPA and formation for center of excellence has been considered as a nucleus center to control the scheme, identify the strategy of focus area on the issue and to provide training.
The hub is expected to be a Holetta Agricultural Research Center, which is one of the well-established facilities in the continent.
“We have already developed the Ethiopian genome editing advocacy strategic plan,” stated Firew Mekbib, Professor at Haramaya University and well known researcher in the agricultural sector.
The EPA of Ethiopia is undertaking an in house review to issue it in the coming very few months, according to officials at the authority.
According to the information that Capital obtained, the final validation workshop has been conducted a few weeks ago for the upcoming guideline.
The genome editing projects that do not have the required data will be regulated under biosafety proclamation 896/2015 article six which is stated as a special permit.
The objective of the guideline is to provide technical guidance to applicants and the authority on which genome editing organisms and or products to regulate under the proclamation.
The guideline will legitimize the technology to be tested and developed.
There are ongoing genome editing projects on sorghum, tef, brassica carinata and coffee.
Senior experts like Firew stated that the genome of any organism is imperfect that can be edited to near perfection.
As experts who are involved on the sector opine, teff will be the first product to test the genome editing guideline in Ethiopia.
Firew argued that a country that endorses a given technology should solve its own problem. Putting that to consideration, applying this new technology on teff is crucial to avert lodging, which is a major challenge for teff production and productivity, and there is need to come up with a semi-dwarf type of teff variety.
As experts show, lodged teff has low seed quality, yield loss up to 25 percent and is difficult to mechanize the farming practice.
Lodging substantially affects teff productivity since the plant has a tall and slender stem. Different researches indicated that when fertilizer is applied to increase the productivity of the crop, stems of tef grow taller and become even more susceptible to lodging, resulting in significantly reduced quantity and quality of grain and straw.
Firew recalled that there were several researches carried out to solve the problem for the past several years while the result was very low but under genome editing dwarf teff shall be available.
Gene confers lodging resistance in teff have been already identified by researchers mainly by Ethiopians like Getu Beyene, abroad.
“The legal framework will be tested on teff and will also have a policy implication since the issue is of main concern to the government and Ethiopia as a nation,” Firew said, adding, “Teff, which is a staple food for over 100 million people in eastern Africa, is an orphan crop and not an international crop like wheat or maize. Therefore, any other body may not solve our problem due to that the role of the government and a strategy is a must and it would be a breakthrough to open the door for other orphan crops of Ethiopia.”
The Ethiopian Biodiversity Institute, Africa’s largest and oldest seed bank, holds 6,000 different accessions of teff.
Genome editing technology can also develop new sorghum varieties resistant to striga which would significantly improve the yield.
Experts claim that Ethiopia is the origin of sorghum and that it is the second in terms of production and fourth in terms of area in the world.
Currently, 10,000 accessions are in Ethiopia gene bank.
In northern, northwest, west, central, some part of southern and eastern part of the country, about 1.8 million hectares are said to be covered by sorghum annually with the involvement of five million farmers. This means that one third of the Ethiopian population is dependent on it.
According to Alemu Terfessa (PhD), one of well-known researchers and Coordinators on the Ethiopian Sorghum Improvement Program at Melkassa Agricultural Research Center, Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research, on average the grain’s productivity is 23 quintal per hectare, while there is a yield of over 60 quintal per hectare with improved seeds.
Annually, the country produce over 40 million quintal of sorghum.
It takes fourth place in terms of production and area after teff, maize and wheat.
Regarding utilization more than 72 percent is sourced as of food for households rather than raw material for industrial production like other African nations and other countries.
There have been different research initiatives that targets to improve the productivity of the grain that have borne fruit, while further researches are also being conducted with collaboration of different partners.
“The sorghum production and productivity target from 2020-2030 aims to boost the output that is currently over 60 quintal in research fields,” Alemu said.
In Africa, Kenya, Malawi and Nigeria have already issued a gene editing guidelines.
Firew said that regarding genetically modified organisms technology, Africa has been a follower and has been forced to become a dumping spot, “Nonetheless, we have to catch up on genome editing.”
Regarding conventional breeding schemes, through its research hubs Ethiopia has released 1,490 different improved verities for the past seventy years.

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