Over the last 2 decades, rice has become one of the most important staple crops for sub-Saharan Africa. Estimates show that average consumption of rice has tripled over the last 3 decades, from 9.2 million metric tons (Mt) in the early 1990s to 31.5 million Mt in 2018, with West and Central Africa accounting for nearly two-thirds of this share. The demand for rice, however, has placed an enormous economic burden on African countries, whereby they spent over USD 5.5 billion per year on rice imports over the past few years. To address this challenge, over 32 countries have established National Rice Development Strategies to increase local production and to achieve rice self-sufficiency. Several of these countries have shown policy interest to use modern biotechnological advancements, including gene editing, to ensure increases in rice productivity and reduce food imports, in the context of extreme climate vulnerability and acceleration of the effects of biotic and abiotic stresses. This review article examines the role of biotechnology in African countries’ efforts to achieve rice self-sufficiency, particularly the potential for genome-editing technologies toward the genetic improvement of rice and to Africa’s nascent research programs. This article notes that while gene editing offers important advances in crop breeding, like genetic engineering, it faces some persistent sociopolitical challenges and low societal acceptability. As such, international partnerships advancing genome editing in Africa’s rice-subsectors development could benefit from adopting key principles from “responsible research and innovation” to help these projects achieve their potential, while bringing about more inclusive and reflexive processes that strive to anticipate the benefits and limits associated with new biotechnologies as they relate to local contexts. Such an approach could create the necessary political space to test and assess the benefits (and risks) related to adopting gene-editing technologies in Africa’s rice sectors.
Over the past 2 decades, rice has become one of the most important staple food crops for sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) that plays a vital role for food and income security (Futakuchi et al., 2021; Ibrahim et al., 2021). The demand for rice has increased alongside rapid population growth, urbanization, and changing consumer behavior and diets on the continent. However, Africa’s rice imports exceeded USD 5.5 billion per year, an enormous economic burden that became particularly apparent during the 2007–2008 global food crisis (Arouna et al., 2021). Following this period, multiple African countries with assistance from various development partners established their National Rice Development Strategies (NRDS) to increase local production and to achieve rice self-sufficiency, assisted by the Coalition for African Rice Development (CARD) initiative.1 Today, 32 African countries have NRDS in place devoted to developing their respective rice subsectors through a combination of measures. These include increased availability of climate resilient, high yielding varieties, with good grain quality and market value; improved access to modern production technologies and appropriate postharvest technologies, such as drying, storage and milling facilities, packaging, and market access; and enhanced capacity of key institutions and actors engaged in rice research, value chains, and development activities.
Various actors view advances in crop breeding, such as molecular markers and genome editing, as one of the most viable options to ensure sustained increases in productivity in the context of extreme climate vulnerability and acceleration in biotic and abiotic stresses (Taranto et al., 2018; Ali and Wani, 2021; National Biosafety Authority of Kenya, 2022). Rice production is especially susceptible to such biotic and abiotic stresses, ranging from virulent pathogens that can wipe out 50%–80% of yields to extreme temperatures, submergence, drought, and salinity, which further threatens food production (Ismail and Atlin, 2019; Siddiq and Vemireddy, 2021). Most currently used conventional and marker-assisted breeding approaches to developing high-yield rice varieties with tolerance to abiotic stresses and resistance to common diseases and pests have proved challenging, expensive, and time-consuming due to the complexity involved in dissecting the crop’s polygenic traits and their response mechanisms to multiple stresses (Siddiq and Vemireddy, 2021). In the last few years, breeders and biotechnologists initiated employing genome-editing approaches to generate rice varieties that synergistically improve grain yield potential and enhance resilience to maintain their performance despite the adversities of climate change (Biswal et al., 2019; Jamaloddinn et al., 2021; Karavolias et al., 2021; Fiyaz et al., 2022).
Gene-editing technologies induce DNA modifications at targeted genomic locations to alter biological activities of crops, through gene-silencing (or knocking down of specific undesirable genes or traits), gene activation, or overexpression (to enhance stress-responsiveness) with or without the permanent insertion of any foreign DNA (Karavolias et al., 2021). Among the tools that have been used to edit rice genes are the transcription-activator-like effector (TALE) nucleases and the clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats (CRISPR/Cas) being used to address various stresses, such as host plant resistance (Biswal et al., 2019; Jamaloddin et al., 2021). Zinc finger nucleases and meganucleases technologies have also been used in breeding of various crops. Among these new tools, the CRISPR/Cas9 system is commonly used and is often presented as relatively more efficient and accessible (Ribeiro et al., 2020).
Despite the lauded promise of genome editing to generate useful genetic traits to develop varieties more widely adapted to areas with less favorable climate and soil conditions, such as in SSA contexts (Ismail and Atlin, 2019; Karembu, 2021), various critical scholars raise concerns over their use. Wilson (2020) argued that gene-editing methods, much like genetic modification (GM) techniques, are prone to introducing unintended traits in crops, entailing statistically significant differences in genetic characteristics than the intended purpose, such as yield potential, seed germination, weed suppression ability, pest resistance, tolerance of abiotic stresses, and so on (p. 252). Critics also highlight that the same highly mutagenic techniques used in GM, such as agrobacterium infection or the gene gun to alter target genes, are utilized in gene editing (Wu et al., 2009; Rivera et al., 2012). Accordingly, such techniques can create several unintended mutations throughout the genome, whose full implications on the performance of crops remain unknown (Schnurr, 2019; Wilson, 2020). However, recent research demonstrates that risks associated with the use of gene editing are comparable to risks of conventional breeding methods currently in use (e.g., Pixley et al., 2022). Moreover, meticulous gene editing, high-density sequencing, and extensive testing in target environments can help to mitigate some risks while ensuring that new varieties proposed for release only carry targeted mutations.
An increasing number of African countries have shown policy interest in the use of gene-editing technologies to address food security, reduce food imports, and increase the competitiveness of various products of the agricultural sector (Federal Republic of Nigeria, 2020; Republic of Kenya, 2020).2 Like GM technologies, however, there are some sociopolitical challenges with regard to fully embracing genome-edited innovations in Africa and most African countries are only slowly progressing in implementing functional regulatory frameworks (Komen et al., 2020; Paarlberg, 2022). Critical scholars and advocacy groups raise concerns about not only potential physical off-target hazards from gene editing such as genomic instability and cytotoxicity but a spectrum of socioeconomic issues including loss of food and seed sovereignty, entrenchment of intensive agriculture and corporate power through patent regimes, and little consideration for local farming practices and conditions (Helliwell et al., 2019; Lassoued et al., 2019; Montenegro de Wit, 2020 ).
This article contributes to the evolving literature and (contested) debates about genome-editing technologies in SSA by examining 3 key questions relevant to the development of rice subsectors on the continent. These are as follows: (1) What are some key activities currently underway in Africa to achieve rice self-sufficiency and what role can biotechnology play in these endeavors? (2) What added-value might genome-editing technologies offer to genetic improvement of rice and to Africa’s nascent research programs, and what challenges are they likely to face? and (3) How might international partnerships advancing genome-editing employ key principles from “responsible research and innovation” (RRI) to achieve more meaningful impact for Africa-specific contexts?
This article argues that incorporating RRI or similar approaches in both national regulatory frameworks and crop improvement programs can help to achieve their potential, while bringing about more inclusive and reflexive processes that strive to anticipate the benefits and limits associated with new biotechnologies as they relate to local contexts (see Schnurr and Dowd-Uribe, 2021). Such an approach could create the necessary political space to test and assess the benefits (and risks) related to adopting gene-editing technologies in Africa’s rice-subsectors.
2. African rice self-sufficiency efforts and role of biotechnology
Rice consumption in SSA has more than tripled over the last 3 decades, from 9.2 million metric tons (Mt) in the early 1990s to 31.5 Mt in 2018 (Ibrahim et al., 2021). Meanwhile, domestic rice production has only risen steadily during this time, from about 6 million Mt per annum in the 1990s to 16 million Mt of milled rice in 2016, leading to a supply gap that is met through imports (Japan International Cooperation Agency and Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa [JICA and AGRA], 2008; Soullier et al., 2020). The trends in rice production, consumption, and imports, however, show significant regional differences, with West and Central Africa (WCA) producing more than twice the amount of rice compared to East and South Africa (ESA; Figures 1 and 2). This is partially because a majority of WCA countries have long-standing national rice development efforts that date back to the mid-1960s (Futakuchi et al., 2021), which made rice an important staple crop since. Between 2000 and 2022, WCA saw exponential increases in rice production (211%) and consumption (208%), but a reduction in self-sufficiency from 52% to 45%, leading to an increase in imports by 182% for the same period3 (Figure 1). Similarly, both production and consumption substantially increased in ESA (Figure 2), with respective increases of production by 140% and consumption by 166%, while self-sufficiency also decreased, from 58% in 2000 to 51% in 2022. The greater increase in rice imports in both regions reflects faster increase in demand associated with population growth, enhanced economic conditions, and increased urbanization and shifts in consumer preferences (Arouna et al., 2021), and this increase in imports is notably higher in ESA (262%). The enormous investments in SSA (USD 5.5 billion on rice imports) to bridge this gap in demand reflect the dire need for boosting local production through accelerated breeding using modern tools to replace the predominantly old and obsolete varieties, proper management technologies for higher yields and competitiveness with import quality, and conducive policies.
Following the 2007–2008 global food crisis, multiple countries with support from the CARD initiative took measures to boost local rice production. From 2008 to 2018, CARD stimulated investments of approximately USD 9 billion in 23 rice-producing countries to double rice production and achieve self-sufficiency (Arouna et al., 2021).4 Production gains in these countries, however, mainly came from an expansion of cultivated areas with modest increases in productivity. Furthermore, investments in the rice sectors have had little to no impact on reducing import dependency, still exceeding 70% for some African nations that participated in the CARD program, including Benin, The Gambia, Cameroon, Niger, Kenya, Ethiopia, and Mozambique (JICA, 2018; Ibrahim et al., 2021).
As of 2019, CARD entered a second phase (2019–2030), with aims to further increase rice production in SSA to achieve an annual production of 56 million Mt over a period of 12 years (CARD, 2022). An additional 9 new member countries have joined CARD, reaching a total of 32 African nations.5 With support from CARD, these respective countries have formulated their NRDS, some of which are still under development for Phase 2 of the initiative, as focal policy frameworks to boost their rice sectors.6 In their respective NRDS, countries outline their strategic priorities for achieving rice self-sufficiency through actions in 4 key areas: (1) target agro-ecologies with highest suitability for rice cultivation, or currently growing rice, with yield-enhancing technology packages; (2) take a value chain approach to upgrade the rice sector, by promoting modern postharvest processing and milling, marketing, and trade; (3) facilitate the capacity development of key actors engaged in the rice sector, including researchers, extension officers, farmers, and traders; and (4) undertake South–South Cooperation with Asian countries that have substantial experience in rice farming, as well as other global South partners (see JICA and AGRA, 2018; CARD, 2022).
For multiple CARD member countries, especially in West Africa, their NRDS are situated within broader, long-standing domestic rice development efforts and bilateral assistance that date back to the mid-1960s and 1970s (Futakuchi et al., 2021). For instance, the National Agricultural Research and Extension Systems (NAREs) in Mali, Senegal, Guinea, and Sierra Leone, Côte d’Ivoire, and Libera fostered rice research starting the mid-1960s to develop improved rice varieties adapted to West Africa’s diverse rice production systems, including irrigated, rainfed lowlands, and rainfed uplands. These countries established the West Africa Rice Development Association7 a few years later in 1971, now AfricaRice, to coordinate and strengthen rice research at the regional level to enhance genetic diversity and improve yield together with better crop management (Ibrahim et al., 2021; Husson et al., 2022).
Over the years, the collaborative efforts between AfricaRice, the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) and NAREs, and other partners have resulted in the release of over 600 rice varieties adapted to the agroclimatic conditions in major rice-producing SSA countries (e.g., Arouna et al., 2021; Futakuchi et al., 2021). Some of the reasonably successful among these varieties, based on their performance (moderately high-yielding, early maturing, and relatively tolerant to major abiotic and biotic stresses)8 and popularity among farmers in uplands, are the New Rice for Africa (NERICA) varieties (Mohapatra, 2019). NERICA varieties are the result of interspecific crosses of the improved Asian varieties—Oryza sativa tropical japonicas and Oryza sativa indica, with the Oryza glaberrima African rice species (Futakuchi et al., 2021). Their adoption in some countries has increased over recent years, from about 15% of farmers growing NERICAs in the early 2000s to 50% by 2014, largely due to different policy measures taken following the 2008 food crisis to reduce rice import dependency (Arouna et al., 2021). Indeed, most CARD country members promoted the adoption of released NERICA9 and other varieties under their first NRDS between 2008 and 2018, which also contributed to the expansion of areas under rice cultivation in rainfed upland and to lesser extent, in lowland ecosystems (see CARD, 2022 for NRDS documents).
Whereas these rice-producing countries will continue to promote the use of NERICAs and other types of varieties released so far (e.g., Indica varieties), there is growing policy interest in the application of biotechnology to fast track the development of modern resilient varieties adaptable to climate change and weather variability. For instance, Kenya and Nigeria have recently released their updated regulatory guidelines for the application of genetic engineering and genome-editing technologies in crop improvement, recognizing both safety concerns surrounding their use as well as their potential to contribute to the genetic improvement of crops in terms of adaptation, climate resilience, high yield potential, and grain and nutrition qualities (Federal Republic of Nigeria, 2020). Various other countries are working toward developing their national biosafety guidelines for regulating gene editing and genetically modified crops (Tripathi et al., 2022). Among these are South Africa, Sudan, Ethiopia, Ghana, Burkina Faso, and Zimbabwe. For these countries, genome editing is a part of national food self-sufficiency plans, and regulatory streamlining is part of those efforts. Nigeria’s regulatory guidelines state that:
…Nigeria has adopted an approach to the regulation of gene editing and products thereof such that where the gene editing requires the use of recombinant DNA sequences or the gene edited product has a novel combination of genetic material (e.g., uses a recombinant DNA which remains in the final product), the product will be classified as a GMO and will be regulated as such. On the other hand, where the gene editing or the product thereof does not lead to or does not have a new combination of genetic material (e.g. does not use a recombinant DNA or uses a recombinant DNA which is removed in the final product), a non-GMO regulatory classification is applied. (Federal Republic of Nigeria, 2020, p. 6)
Kenya follows these same guidelines, whereby varietal products that have insertions of foreign genes, or where the research and developmental phase of a product starts with a GMO, will be regulated under the national Biosafety Act (National Biosafety Authority of Kenya, 2022, p. 12). At the same time, products that had been modified by inserting genes from sexually compatible species, or processed products whose inserted foreign genetic material cannot be detected, will not be regulated under the Biosafety Act. These regulatory measures, however, still largely focus on regulating product-based technical risks and do not adequately address important sociopolitical concerns, which can slow down progress on the technological development and implementation of gene-edited crops in Africa. As discussed further in the following, adopting RRI principles in policy frameworks and crop improvement programs could help biotechnology advances achieve wider benefits in Africa’s rice sectors.
3. Added-value of genome-editing for genetic improvement of rice and potential challenges
Over the past decades, conventional breeding techniques including molecular and mutation breeding led to considerable progress in developing the modern rice varieties currently being used by farmers, with higher yield potential, better grain quality, resistance to pests and diseases, and tolerance to most weather and soil adverse conditions, including drought, floods, salinity, nutrient deficiencies and toxicities, and temperature extremes (Ismail et al., 2007; Ismail et al., 2013; Yamano et al., 2016). However, these conventional breeding techniques normally take many years, generally 10–15 years, in part due to the complexity of important agronomic traits and the need to eliminate any undesirable genes from donor parents—commonly known as linkage drag, when undesirable genes from donors are closely linked with genes of interest. As a result, the process requires several generations of selfing and backcrossing to eliminate them before a new variety is commercialized.
Genome editing speeds up the selection of novel alleles as more genes underlying important economic and agronomic traits become more widely available through genome sequencing and functional genomics. Specifically, genome-editing tools provide new and simpler tools to fast-track rice breeding to develop improved varieties, such as the use of CRISPR/Cas9 system and its variants, which can reduce the time required to conventionally develop an improved variety by nearly two-thirds (Pixley et al., 2022). These methods enable scientists to introduce mutations in plant genomes with high precision, resolving several problems usually encountered when using conventional breeding methods, including the need for several subsequent generations to reach a final product for field testing. Genome editing also allows simultaneous editing of several genes, which further shortens the time to combine desirable alleles for multiple traits. These techniques can produce improved varieties over a few generations, substantially accelerating progress in breeding (Zafar et al., 2020; Nasti and Voytas, 2021).
Considerable global efforts have gone toward developing climate resilient rice varieties using gene-editing tools. While such varieties do not specifically target Africa’s growing contexts, they are nonetheless expected to have positive spill-over effects for the continent. Further, as these crop development initiatives are still at early stages, it could take many years before new varieties become within reach of smallholder farmers in SSA. Here, we present a few research case studies, where gene editing tools have been used effectively in rice breeding to enhance resistance to diseases, improve tolerance of abiotic stresses, and increase grain yield and quality (Tabassum et al., 2021).
Bacterial leaf blight is one of the most devastating diseases of rice, leading to serious yield losses in Asia and Africa. Resistance to this disease is attributed to large numbers of genes that are effective against specific races of the pathogen (Yu et al., 2021). For example, the recessive allele of xa13 gene that encodes a plasma membrane protein confers resistance to some races, while the dominant allele confers susceptibility, and the two alleles differ by one amino acid residue in the coding region, yet resistance requires alternation in the promoter region leading to variable expression of the two alleles. CRISPR/Cas12a has been used efficiently to produce disease-resistant genotypes (free of foreign DNA), developed in few generations, saving considerable time in breeding than using conventional methods (Yu et al., 2021). Another approach used to develop bacterial blight resistant rice genotypes involves targeting a set of genes called SWEET genes using the CRISPR-Cas9 system. The pathogen causing this disease secretes certain effectors called TALEs that binds to the promoter of sugar transporter genes of the host, that is, SWEET genes, which when expressed, make the host plant susceptible to the disease. CRISPR-Cas9 was used to introduce mutations in the promoters of these SWEET genes leading to the development of breeding lines that showed strong bacterial blight resistance in paddy trials (Oliva et al., 2019).
CRISPR/Cas9-mediated genome editing was also used effectively to develop rice varieties resistant to tungro disease caused by tungro viruses. Tungro is one of the most economically important rice viral diseases limiting production in large areas of South and Southeast Asia. Novel mutations through gene editing created tungro resistant rice lines that are free of off-target mutations, with agronomic performance akin to original varieties (Kumam et al., 2022).
Gene-editing technologies have also been used to improve abiotic stress tolerance in rice for drought, salinity, and osmotic conditions, as well as in other crops, such as maize, wheat, and tomato. For example, manipulation of the abscisic acid dependent or independent signaling and receptor genes led to significant changes in drought responses in rice, including changes in leaf morphology, number of stomata, transpiration rate, and reactive oxygen species and their scavengers, leading to improved drought tolerance and grain yield. Several studies also showed that knocking out of transcription factors (TFs) that negatively regulate abiotic stress tolerance-related genes increased tolerance of several abiotic stresses, including drought, salinity, and osmotic stress, highlighting the effectiveness of targeting TFs for improving abiotic stress tolerance in rice (Ahmed et al., 2021; Tabassum et al., 2021).
Finally, gene-editing tools have been applied to improve attainable grain yield. Grain yield, quality, storability, and nutritional quality are the important characteristics of rice varieties for food, nutrition, and market competitiveness. These traits are quantitatively inherited and controlled by multitudes of genes and regulatory elements in the genome. The major determinants of grain yield in rice are panicles per unit area, grains per panicle, and grain weight. Knocking out genes that are known to negatively regulate these traits using gene editing can significantly improve grain yield in rice, when pyramiding the null mutants of these genes. Gene editing was also used to modify other traits, including prolonging seed and grain storability and enhanced fragrance—which are important market traits. The CRISPR/Cas9 system has also been used to develop rice varieties with improved nutritional quality—expressing health-promoting amino acids and low accumulation of toxic heavy metals such as reduced cadmium uptake into grains, as well as low glycemic index and resistant starch (Mishra et al., 2018; Tabassum et al., 2021; Sukegawa et al., 2022).
These studies and others10 demonstrate the value of gene editing to develop varieties of food crops that are more resilient to abiotic and biotic stresses, with better yield potential and grain quality and require less agrochemicals, especially for the control of pests and diseases (Wang et al., 2014). Scientific findings from these studies are useful for emerging genome editing research projects across Africa for addressing local challenges (e.g., Karembu, 2021; Karembu and Ngure, 2022). The evidence could be used to assess the validity of desirable varietal traits in specific contexts as well as to build collaborative (South–South) partnerships to advance biotechnology and genomics research and development on the continent and to share technology expertise (International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications, 2021). Despite the potential benefits of gene editing, there remain considerable challenges to transfer their scientific findings into feasible policy actions and eventual large-scale uptake by small-scale farmers in the global South.
Globally, societal acceptance of these technologies is proving to be slow and difficult, facing strong opposition from various quarters as well as regulatory hesitancy and uncertainty (Anders et al., 2021; Paarlberg, 2022; Pixley et al., 2022). Public concerns surrounding gene editing are as much a function of perceived potential physical risks as it is about ethical and political contentions over the purpose and motivations of technology development, cost, and accessibility issues that arise from intellectual property and space to explore alternatives (Stilgoe et al., 2013; Harfourche et al., 2021). These concerns are equally relevant for modern plant breeding efforts in Africa’s rice sectors and raise important socioeconomic issues that should be considered in national policy processes, such as NRDS and biosafety regulatory frameworks as well as in donor-funded crop improvement programs of national systems.
Montenegro de Wit (2020), for instance, challenges popular claims that CRISPR will make (or has made) genome editing more “widely accessible to the world community” (p. 10), given that its commercial development remains tightly bound up in patents and license agreements. Although CRISPR was first developed in university contexts for nonprofit research use, these institutions, namely, Berkeley and the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, have all filed patent rights to its applications starting about 10 years ago, as has some of the world’s leading agri-corporations, such as Corteva Agri-Science and Bayer Crop Science (Clapp and Ruder, 2020). Critics point to these intellectual property trends to pull at the edges of the affordable, easy, and open to-all discourse surrounding CRISPR (Brinegar et al., 2017; Montenegro de Wit, 2020). While some agri-corporations may provide free access to their gene-editing applications to research institutions in developing countries under humanitarian licenses, as Corteva has done with the IRRI, there remain concerns that breeding efforts are likely to be top-down, offering predetermined or “tailored” varietal traits, with little input from farmers and civil society on the diversity of crops or socioeconomic considerations that matter in local contexts (Montenegro de Wit, 2020). The CGIAR together with partners, however, recognizes the importance of bottom-up approaches and has recently launched the Excellence in Breeding program that seeks to prioritize and focus attention on local factors in regional and national breeding programs including socioeconomic context, adaptation (biotic/abiotic stresses and maturity duration), market needs, and consumer preferences, leading to the development of the concept of market segmentation to ensure impact at scale (Hunt, 2022).
Critics also argue that the expansion of agri-corporations into genome-editing research and development will reinforce a path dependency for seed systems that favor productivist farming and corporate interests (Bronson, 2015; Helliwell et al., 2019). Already, agri-corporations hold enormous power and control over food and agricultural systems, as evident with farm input markets, often setting the terms of how commodities are grown and at what cost, as well as the ways in which they are processed and marketed (Clapp et al., 2021). Some of these key (political) contestations over issues of power and control over food systems and their implications for equity and sustainability are often not captured in existing scientific risk assessment frameworks governing agricultural biotechnology applications. Most current regulatory approaches, including new guidelines for gene editing put forth by Nigeria and Kenya, focus mainly on biophysical agronomic risks and human health concerns, while offering little scope for broad ethical reflections on the motives of research and innovation, or space to absorb the debates and controversies surrounding them (Stilgoe et al., 2013, p. 1569).
Overall, there has been significant progress in rice-breeding efforts to develop varieties with higher productivity potential that can concurrently withstand multiple biotic and abiotic stresses, using molecular markers and genome-editing technologies. Such climate resilient rice crops are especially crucial for Africa, where widespread and intensifying effects of climate change put agricultural production and food security at risk. However, there remains some persistent concerns surrounding the use of gene-editing technologies, including unintended genomic mutations in crops, patent regimes that might undermine their affordability and accessibility as well as problems with fit in smallholder farming contexts. These tensions suggest a need to consider some guidelines from RRI or similar approaches for nascent gene-editing programs and national regulatory frameworks to help bring about more reflexive and inclusive processes through the life cycle of new biotechnologies as they relate to local contexts.
4. Considerations for RRI in nascent agricultural biotechnology programs in Africa
As more African countries put in place policy frameworks to support biotechnology research activities,11 the process is expected to create an enabling environment to fast-track genome-editing breeding approaches in SSA. Indeed, several research groups are currently employing genome editing in Africa, using CRISPR/Cas system for several staple food crops to improve yield potential, nutritional quality, tolerance of abiotic stresses, and resistance to common pests and diseases (Karembu and Ngure, 2022). The main target crops include maize, banana, sorghum, wheat, and cassava. These nascent gene-editing research efforts, however, could face opposition like genetic engineering efforts in Africa, involving sociopolitical controversies and low societal acceptability, which has slowed down and, in some cases, halted the adoption of biosafety legislation (Komen et al., 2020).
Considering that gene-edited breeding programs in Africa are still in early design stages though, donor programs, researchers, and policymakers must consider incorporating interactive processes that are more conscious of and responsive to the needs, capacity, and values of diverse societal actors, particularly target beneficiaries. Such efforts can help realign gene-editing technologies to become more embedded in local breeding programs and integrated farming systems and to achieve their potential impact more effectively. One effective pathway is to adopt relevant RRI principles (Macnaghten, 2016; Biddle, 2017; van Lente et al., 2017,; Regan, 2021). The need for RRI in agricultural biotechnology, including gene editing, has also been highlighted by several scholars (Tricarico et al., 2020; Anders et al., 2021; Harfourche et al., 2021).
RRI evolved out of the technology assessment field to guide the responsible design of technological innovations based on the principles of inclusiveness, anticipation, reflexivity, and responsiveness that consider the needs and values of diverse societal actors and in ways that move beyond managing product-based technical risks (Stilgoe et al., 2013; van Est, 2017; van Lente et al., 2017). Frameworks for RRI stress inclusion efforts that encourage engagement of diverse stakeholders at early stage of innovation design and on a continuous basis, to ensure that the development of new technologies is coproduced using diverse types of knowledge (Regan, 2021; Wakunuma et al., 2021). These authors also call for anticipation of potential social and ethical impacts, including preparing for questions of uncertainty (in multiple forms), such as purposes, motivations, trajectories, and directions of innovation (Stilgoe et al., 2013). RRI frameworks also guide initiatives to foster reflexivity on their broader goals, key assumptions, and interests, as well as to be responsive to adapt to changing situations and consequences, based on stakeholder feedback (Eastwood et al., 2019; McCampbell et al., 2021).
A few scholars have used RRI and similar tools to demonstrate the possibility of designing more responsible agricultural biotechnology programs in Africa (Biddle, 2017; Ndlend Nkott and Temple, 2021). Biddle (2017) takes the Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA) Project as a case study to discuss the types of RRI institutional arrangements that might allow for responsibly designed genetically engineered crops with (potential) beneficial effect for end users. WEMA was established in 2008 as a public–private partnership (PPP) between the African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF); the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre; Monsanto (now part of Bayer); the NAREs in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania Mozambique, and South Africa; the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation; the Howard G. Buffett Foundation, and the U.S. Agency for International Development.
The specific RRI characteristics of this initiative, according to Biddle (2017), comprise developing crop varieties (drought-tolerant and insect-resistant maize) that target a genuine humanitarian problem (and recognized as such in the local context), bred for stress-prone environments (which reduce the need for extensive inputs), and made available to smallholder farmers at affordable prices (p. 34). AATF was able to negotiate with Monsanto to facilitate the company’s patented drought-tolerant and insect-resistant traits royalty-free to local seed companies that sold WEMA seeds to farmers at lower prices, arguably addressing some public concerns about the restrictive impact patent licenses in agricultural technology. Further, WEMA’s breeding efforts were largely conducted in local contexts together with NAREs that had some autonomy to develop site-specific varieties that are more adapted to local agro-ecologic conditions (Schnurr, 2019). Moreover, WEMA’s efforts contributed to the release of over 120 conventionally bred maize hybrids, known as DroughtTEGO, in the 5 countries as well as in Ethiopia and Nigeria (Jonga, 2022).
The PPP arrangement in WEMA is emblematic of most donor-funded crop breeding programs in Africa and gene-editing projects for rice will likely adopt similar organizational structures. Despite its successes, however, WEMA faces criticism about its “top-down” governance structure and potentially unequal power relations between different stakeholders as well as incongruencies between its “biotechnology bundle” of inputs that require credit and the realities facing smallholder farmers (African Centre for Biodiversity, 2015; Whitfield, 2016; Schnurr and Dowd-Uribe, 2021). While RRI approaches may not be able to resolve concerns over governance arrangements in such projects, which might be one of RRIs’ weaknesses, they can help to improve communication between actors, as demonstrated by the WEMA case study. This can potentially engender more inclusive deliberative processes in the development and implementation of agricultural innovations, which are able to make a meaningful impact for specific contexts (Biddle, 2017; McCampbell et al., 2021).
RRI principles are also applicable at more microlevels in rural communities, where a few crop improvement programs are starting to test genome-editing technologies. In Madagascar, for instance, Ndlend Nkott and Temple (2021) explain the socioeconomic conditions under which CRISPR-CaS9 could be accepted for the creation of rainfed rice varieties in the country. At the producer level, the authors find that farmers generally grow a mix of varieties, on average 2 varieties per farm, as a strategy for managing risks (e.g., diseases, low yields), that could arise from the use of a single variety. While introducing an elite CRISPR rice variety might address these stress risks, there needs to be more transparent communication and reflections on the effects of the innovation on agriculture biodiversity and its disruption on long-standing farming practices that safeguard producers against risks. Other crucial considerations that will determine the transferability of genome-edited crops across smallholder farming contexts include strengthening seed value chains and organizational structures, such as extension systems and farmer groups to help link producers to new information including input and output market access, technologies, and other resources (Ndlend Nkott and Temple, 2021; Schnurr and Dowd-Uribe, 2021).
None of the rice studies discussed in the preceding section considered RRI principles or similar approaches, likely because they are still at early stages of testing gene-editing tools in laboratory settings. However, there is similarly an opportunity for these research initiatives to incorporate inclusive and reflexive practices at the early stages of technology development. Beumer and de Roij (2023) draw insights from the literature on inclusive innovation (Heeks et al., 2014) to distinguish multiple levels at which inclusion can occur in research projects developing gene-edited crops to benefit smallholder farmers in the global South. At the most basic level, there needs be an intention to meet the needs of a target group, that is, smallholder farmers, which may entail involving them early in the research process to identify key priorities and how the resulting technology can best reach them (Beumer and de Roij, 2023).
At more advance levels of inclusion, research project teams continue to work with smallholder farmers to test gene-edited varieties during field trials. Furthermore, projects also start to engage institutional structures to help build local capacity for gene editing, such as through training workshops and collaboration with local scientists while mobilizing resources to promote inclusive practices in crop breeding programs more broadly (Beumer and de Roij, 2023). The authors examined 18 gene-editing projects that took some measures to adopt inclusive practices but found that only a few took more ambitious steps of inclusion—by giving farmers a voice in the selection of crops and traits as well as in creating more favorable socio-economic structures (p. 12).
Overall, insights from RRI and similar literature on inclusive innovation offer useful guidance on what it takes to facilitate greater inclusion and reflexivity in the design and implementation of nascent agricultural biotechnology programs in Africa. However, there are concerns that RRI frameworks may not be able to significantly affect political processes and institutions to bring about responsive and inclusive dialogues in some global South contexts, where representative democracy and accountability cannot be taken for granted (Macnaghten et al., 2014). Further, limited institutional capacities, budgetary constraints, and fewer numbers of researchers in low-income countries such as those in Africa may pose further challenges to implementing RRI. International partnerships advancing genome-editing research programs may address some of these gaps by working more closely with grassroots organizations and community groups that are usually already engaged in promoting social innovation on the ground (Wakunuma et al., 2021). Collaboration with such partners must be initiated at early product design stages to ascertain end-user priorities long before gene-edited crops are introduced in farmer fields.
The growing demand for rice in SSA has seen an increase in policy initiatives aimed at developing domestic rice sectors through various measures, including through the use of modern high-yielding varieties to help achieve self-sufficiency in rice. Considering Africa’s agriculture sectors’ extreme vulnerability to the impacts of climate change, including the acceleration of biotic and abiotic stresses, innovative breeding tools like gene editing have a potential to increase the genetic gain for rice and to improve resilience of rice farming. Rice is exceptionally suitable for improvement through genome editing, given the availability of genome sequences of numerous rice varieties at high density, abundance of genomic resources, and the extensive knowledge being accumulating on traits and genes of agronomic and adaptive values as well as its economic and political importance (Ali et al., 2021; Siddiq and Vemireddy, 2021).
Despite the promise of genome-editing technologies, their implementation to develop new varieties is likely to face sociopolitical challenges to transfer these scientific findings into feasible policy actions and eventual large-scale uptake by farmers. Concerns over gene editing range from potential physical off-target hazards, such as genomic instability and cytotoxicity, to farmers’ loss of food and seed sovereignty, to an entrenchment of intensive agriculture and corporate power through patent regimes (Helliwell et al., 2019; Wilson, 2020). One recommendation to increase the social acceptability of gene-editing technologies would be for national regulatory frameworks and crop improvement programs to consider adopting key principles from RRI to help design such innovations in ways that are more conscious of and responsive to the needs, capacity, and values of target beneficiaries. The literature on RRI and similar scholarship offer a road map that could help most gene-editing rice programs in Africa adopt some basic inclusion practices to at least achieve their potential of meeting farmer’s and market needs, as well as social acceptance. Projects that seek to achieve meaningful impact at scale, both in terms of reaching large numbers of smallholder farmers and enhancing social acceptability, would have to adopt more ambitious steps in their level of inclusion for stakeholders and engagement with institutional structures (Beumer and de Roij, 2023). More transparent and interactive processes could also help to open up political spaces to test and assess the benefits (and risks) related to adopting gene-editing technologies in Africa’s rice-subsectors.
Data accessibility statement
All data relevant to the paper are included in this article, and further data related to searches will be available from the submitting author on request.
We would like to thank Ajay Panchbhai for useful comments on the conception and design of this manuscript. We are also grateful for excellent feedback we received from participants at the workshop Genome Editing and the Future of Food in Africa. Special thanks go to Brian Dowd-Uribe, Joeva Rock, and Matthew Schnurr whose comments helped to sharpen our analysis. Thanks also to two anonymous reviewers for their valuable feedback.
This research is funded by the CGIAR International Rice Research Institute. AMI is associated with this grant.
The authors declare no competing interests.
Both authors were involved in every stage of manuscript development: conception and design, drafting, editing, and revising.
Coalition for African Rice Development (CARD) was established in 2008 as a join initiative by the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), and New Partnership for Africa Development (NEPAD) with the objective of doubling rice production in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) from 2008 to 2018. CARD has since broadened its organizational membership to include donor agencies such as the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and World Bank, regional organizations such the African Development Bank, and CGIAR centers such as Africa Rice and the International Rice Research Institute (see https://riceforafrica.net/).
To date, at least 18 countries already have in place some regulatory frameworks for transgenic crops, that is, biosafety regulations (AUDA-NEPAD, 2019). Apart from Nigeria and Kenya, however, most countries do not have regulatory measures for genome-editing techniques and products.
Self-sufficiency is usually calculated as the ratio of production and consumption or using the production as the percentage of consumption. Production depends on harvested area and yield per unit area, while consumption usually calculated based on the population and per-capita consumption. Some models also use certain adjustments (see Van ort et al., 2015, pp. 39–49).
The 23 member countries of CARD that joined since 2008 are Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Guinea, The Gambia, Togo, Mali, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Central African Republic, DR Congo, Rwanda, Madagascar, Kenya, Mozambique, Tanzania, Ethiopia, Zambia, and Uganda.
New member countries that joined Phase 2 are Angola, Burundi, Chad, Congo Republic, Gabon, Guinea Bissau, Malawi, Niger, and Sudan.
Member countries benefit not only through technical support but through facilitation to funding resources and collaborative opportunities, from growing institutional partners who have committed bilateral and multilateral grants and loans as well as other technical support to the respective countries (see JICA and AGRA, 2018).
West Africa Rice Development Association was established by 11 West African countries with assistance from the United Nations Development Programme, the FAO of the United Nations, and the Economic Commission for Africa (ECA).
However, not all these characteristics are found in one single New Rice for Africa (NERICA) variety.
Countries adopting NERICA varieties in SSA include Benin, Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Mali, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Togo, Uganda, Kenya, and Madagascar.
Other examples include targeted changes in specific genes or regulatory sequences to improve the cold storage tolerance and processing quality in potato by slowing the formation of reducing sugars (Clasen et al., 2016) and increase resistance to powdery mildew in wheat through deactivation of susceptibility genes using gene editing, eliminating the need for heavy use of fungicides to control this disease (Wang et al., 2014).
Currently, at least 18 African countries have developed policy frameworks to support biotechnology research in crop breeding, while 11 countries have approved their commercial release, mainly for GM crops (AUDA-NEPAD, 2019).
How to cite this article: Shilomboleni, H, Ismail, AM. 2023. Gene-editing technologies for developing climate resilient rice crops in sub-Saharan Africa: Political priorities and space for responsible innovation. Elementa: Science of the Anthropocene 11(1). DOI: https://doi.org/10.1525/elementa.2022.00145
Domain Editor-in-Chief: Alastair Iles, University of California Berkeley, Berkeley, CA, USA
Guest Editor: Joeva Sean Rock, University of Cambridge, United Kingdom
Knowledge Domain: Sustainability Transitions
Part of an Elementa Special Feature: Genome Editing and the Future of Food in Africa