Gene Editing Solution to Reducing Losses Due to Soybean Rust
The sound of a rooster in rural Malawi is not just a signal for day break. For the majority of farmers in the country, it is a call to return to the field in a tireless effort to make ends meet. It is a reminder of how hard work leads to their daily survival.
All year round, the moderate Malawian farmer toils to produce enough for food and family income. One cash crop that most Malawian farmers rely on is soy bean.
The crop is increasingly becoming popular with a decline in returns from tobacco, Malawi’s main cash crop, due to the global anti-smoking lobby.
Monica Kathumba from Katsache Village in Traditional Authority Kachere in Dedza district is a soy bean farmer in Malawi. She has been farming for over 20 years.
She has cattle, a bicycle and ably fends for her family through soybean farming
“I have been a soybean farmer since I got married. Soy farming has transformed our lives. We are now able to pay for school fees for our children,” said Kathumba.
For the years she has been working on this one-acre piece of land, she has been harvesting 250 kilograms of soybeans or more. But in the immediate past season, she only reaped 50 kilograms from the same land.
What went wrong?
A strange disease. She can only describe it but cannot name it.
She is counting the losses just like Agnes Charles from neighbouring Ntcheu district.
This year’s soybean farming has left her with record losses due to soybean rust.
From a piece of land where she reaped 750 kilograms of soy beans the other season, she harvested 200 kilograms (four, 50 kilograms’ bags of soybean).
“This is disheartening. These losses have negatively affected my wellbeing,” she said.
Billed as the next big thing, soybean is one of Malawi’s leading alternative cash crops to tobacco—the major export commodity and hard currency earner.
While tobacco accounts for more than 50 percent of all foreign currency receipts, soy, though at nine per cent brings in an estimated U$30 million or more with the opportunity to double in the next couple of years, all factors being equal.
Despite its huge potential, the soybean value-chain has remained inert, with little being done to stimulate output in terms of yield and quality.
And in the 2022-2023 crop season, soybean farming faced further upheaval following soy rust outbreak which has left the majority farmers in the cold.
Soybean rust disease, caused by the fungus Phakopsora pachyrhizi, is one of the major threats to soybean production in Africa. While it is rife elsewhere, it has been relative in Malawi, save for the 2022/2023 season. It hit harder than ever before.
The fungus’ spores are easily blown by the wind, spreading over long distances.
Dr. Kingdom Kwapata, a lecturer in genetics and biotechnology at Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources-LUANAR, estimates that soy rust has the potential to reduce the total production for Malawi by 60 to 80 percent.
This could be a huge economic loss for Malawi, an agro-based economy.
“In Malawi our soy yield is between 400 and 700 kilograms per hectare. But there is potential of 3,000 to 4,000 kilograms harvest per hectare,” said Dr. Kwapata.
Soybean rust is one major pathogen that attack all varieties of soybean.
Charles Kayenda is a soybean farmer from Bvumbwe in Thyolo. He is down cast.
“I noticed that the soybean leaves were being attacked. It was strange. We tried treating the crop with chemicals but to no avail. We have no yield,” Kayenda said.
But while soybean farmers in Malawi are still grappling with whether to stop soy production owing to this experience, a solution could be out soon from within.
Gene editing. A scientific process that seeks to modify genes of living things to improve their function and then use that to treat genetic or acquired diseases.
Dr. Kwapata says he is currently working on how gene editing in soybean can help improve crop production and disease resistance in Malawi.
Malawi, he says, is among countries that are going to participate in gene editing under the African Plant Breeders Association program.
Having been tried elsewhere, he says the method is safe and affordable for Malawi.
“We will go on to look into creating a new soybean variety that is resistant to soy bean rust which has been a major problem this year and has significantly reduced yield. We are developing a variety that will be resistant to this disease and eventually help in increasing yield (again) in Malawi,” added Dr. Kwapata.
LUANAR Plant bleeding expert Professor James Bokosi, agrees that gene editing will help Malawi out of the current socio-economic predicament.
Professor Bokosi says unlike genetic modification, which introduces foreign genes into a living organism, gene editing simply alters existing genes.
“Gene editing reduces the controversies that were there with the GMOs. This new technology does not transfer new genes into a crop but simply rearranges the genes ensuring that those genes that are not helping us are not expressed. Instead, it helps keep the genes that are good are expressed,” said Bokosi.
Professor Bokosi was the lead expert in the development of the disease resistant GMO cotton, BollGard 2, currently being used in Malawi.
Kenya is one of African countries that have made advances in this research.
The African Union (AU) is pushing for the adoption of biotechnology to achieve its Agenda 2063 on making the continent food secure in the wake of failing rains occasioned by the increasing effects of climate change.
Professor Olalekan Akinbo head of the AU-Nepad Centre of Excellence in Science Technology, says gene editing has proved to produce crops with superior genes that withstand drought and produce more yield as compared to the conventional varieties.
“If Malawi gets quality seed, then the amount of money that government spends purchasing seed will be reduced. Farmers will also use little land but be able to get higher yield. This is the technology that is being tried in some African countries,” said Professor Akinbo.
The ministry of agriculture is the policyholder for agriculture issues in Malawi.
Before the introduction of genetically modified cotton, there was debate on the environmental safety of the science. It was approved amid resistance partly because it is not a food crop. How will genetically altered soybean, a food crop, be perceived?
Acting National Research for Legumes. Fibres and Oilseeds in the Department of Agricultural Research in the Ministry of Agriculture, Dr Justus Chintu says Malawi must try technologies that will increase production in the wake of weather shocks.
“It takes a lot of time to develop a new seed using the other means. But using gene editing, it shortens the time that it takes to develop a new seed. This is a good opportunity for Malawi as a country in as far as developing right varieties,” he said.
Seed Traders Association of Malawi Secretary General, Nemussi Nyama, says, as end users, farmers should be involved in the whole process so they understand what it is all about, so that products have the buy-in of the farmers.
“Farmers are always open to adopting technologies that benefits them. But there is what we call farmer participation. Let’s use the same way with gene editing,” he said.
Dr. Lillian Chimphepo, biosafety regulator in the Department of Environmental Affairs in Malawi, says Malawi is ready to adopt the technology and that the country has the necessary framework to regulate it. She says her office will, however, review results of all related-studies to make decisions appropriate for Malawi.
“If we are convinced the new technology abides by all our regulations, we give a nod. We will also look into the gene editing hoping it meets our standards,” she said.
Soybean farmer Charles Kayenda is optimistic that such scientific interventions would help the socio-economic well-being of both growers and he government.
“The fact that (this seed) is disease resistant is one aspect that makes it even more welcome,” said Kayenda.
The huge potential of soybean to improve the income and livelihoods of smallholder farmers and the Malawi economy in general gives us a wakeup call to protect the crop from abiotic and biotic stresses like the soybean rust disease.
While the gene editing trial is under way, farmers hope the new varieties, once released, will work to turn around their fortunes and put more money in their pockets. But as it is, it remains a dream for Malawi.
After all, given the lessons from the lengthy technical and bureaucratic processes leading to the approval of gm cotton, it may take many years before genetically edited soybean is in the soil of the Malawi farmer.
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