Crispr techWith the rise of biotechnology, CRISPR gene editing is on the cusp of eliminating global poverty. CRISPR research began in Asia, the U.S. and Europe, but has since spread to Africa. Gene editing in humans offers a promising resolution for eliminating disease, but it is still undergoing research and development. In agriculture, however, it is already showing more promise. These are four ways CRISPR gene editing could transform and eliminate global poverty.

Although humans have been altering the genes of plants and animals through selective breeding, CRISPR is different in that it does not combine the DNA of different organisms. In CRISPR, a section of one species’ DNA is deleted or altered. This is a different process than with GMOs where insecticide is taken from the soil and inserted into the crop.

4 Ways CRISPR Gene Editing Could Eliminate Global Poverty

  1. Farmers in Africa could breed better livestock. The dairy cow that survives in hot tropical climates, known as the Ankole-Watusi, produces far less milk than the Holstein breed. Holsteins are better off in moderate climates and their productivity is a result of naturally occurring mutations that breeders have aimed for over the course of many years. Scientists at the Centre for Tropical Livestock Genetics and Health at the University of Edinburgh are working with scientists in Africa to study ways to edit the genes of the tropical cow and boost their milk production to that of the Holsteins. At least 80 percent of the world’s poor living in rural areas are smallholder farmers, with livestock being a pivotal component of both their nutrition and income.
  2. Gene editing could improve crop yield. “Africa’s population is expected to more than double by 2050.” In a climate where the yield of basic cereals is five times less than in North America, food production and supplying the demands of the growing population is going to be a challenge. For 40 percent of Africans, the cassava plant is an important food source. While the crop represents security because of its ability to withstand drought, it also faces many issues. Cassava usually has a prevalent amount of toxic cyanide, which must be removed post-harvest. In combination with malnourishment, people who ingest cyanide can get konzo, a neurological disease that affects around 100,000 people in poverty each year. Scientists at the Genomics Institute are working to reduce the cyanide levels in cassava through CRISPR. Unfortunately, diseases like brown streak can wipe out a farmer’s entire field. Scientists in Africa are also exploring ways to make the plant more disease-resistant, so the crop yield will be sustained and improved.
  3. CRISPR may be humanity’s hope in eliminating malaria. In 2017, malaria was the cause of death for at least 435,000 people around the world with 93 percent of all cases occurring in sub-Saharan Africa. CRISPR could change the three species of mosquito most responsible for the disease’s transmission either by making all offspring male and eliminating the species or by adding a gene that makes the mosquito resistant to the malaria parasite. Not only could this cure malaria but it could stop other illnesses carried by the Aedes aegypti mosquito, such as dengue, yellow fever and Zika. Although the technology is already effective in labs, inserting it into the world could redesign the entire ecosystem, which comes with a heavy burden on the hands of the scientists involved.
  4. New diagnostic methods can easily hunt down the correct genetic sections. Such diagnostic tests could eliminate the spread of diseases like Lassa fever as well as provide a better means of cancer detection. This year, the Lassa fever in Nigeria has killed 72 people and is only expected to get worse. A CRISPR-based test could reduce the death rates of many diseases in impoverished regions. Scientists in Africa are also hoping that these new diagnostic tests could lower the death toll of cervical cancer in Africa where the disease is typically diagnosed too late.

Gene-edited crops are expected to hit the Western market in the next year or so, but Africa is just beginning to see the effects. CRISPR gene editing could transform and eliminate global poverty on a massive scale. With rising population numbers, climate change and urbanization, it’s important that agriculture adapt. The benefits of this technology, which could save the lives of millions of people, should be equally accessible to those in developing countries. These four examples show the ways that CRISPR’s research could eliminate global poverty.

Isadora Savage
Photo: Pexels

west African Farmers
Swedish technology company and social enterprise Ignitia has teamed up with Business Call to Action (BCtA) to send tropical weather forecasts via text message to 1.2 million small-scale west African farmers by the end of 2017.

The BCtA is backed by the UNDP and encourages businesses to include poverty-level populations and help to achieve sustainable development goals.

Founded in 2010 as a physics and meteorologist research team, Ignitia offers weather forecasts to prepare west African farmers for inclement weather.

The company has since developed algorithms that provide weather forecasts to 3,400 small-scale farmers in Ghana – with an 82 percent level of accuracy, compared to the 39 percent standard, according to Ignitia .

Here’s how it works: Ignitia’s weather forecasts are reported through Iska as text messages and are sent directly to small-scale farmers throughout tropical regions. Each forecast is tailored to a specific farmer’s crop location via an automated application that finds its GPS coordinates.

Farmers receive these forecasts by subscribing to an SMS service for $0.04 per day that can be paid in installments or from pre-paid credit on a mobile phone. This equals less than two percent of a farmer’s total expenditures, according to The Guardian.

Iska offers warnings of heavy rains and dry spells, specific start and end dates for the rainy season and provides two-day forecasts to west African farmers daily, in addition to a monthly outlook report and two six-month seasonal reports.

About 40 percent of the world’s population lives in the tropics where most livelihoods come from small-scale farming, with sub-Saharan African farmers seeing the lowest yields in the world.

Since tropical weather conditions can change drastically in a short amount of time, monitoring crops can be a tricky task for farmers. Changes in weather patterns and the unpredictability of severe weather make traditional farming methodologies less dependable.

Iska’s short-mid and long-range forecast messaging offers these farmers a vital way of adapting to climate change. The Guardian reports that at least 20 percent of yields are lost due to weather, but meteorology updates like the ones Iska provides can help increase a farmer’s income by 80 percent.

In West Africa, Iska demonstrated an 84 percent accuracy rate during the 2013 and 2014 rainy seasons, according to Ignitia.

“With Iska, smallholder farmers receive the vital information they need to mitigate risk and create resilience. In doing so, farmers are able to increase yields and improve their livelihoods, year after year,” said Liisa Petrykowska, Ignitia’s chief executive officer.

Ignitia has provided over six million weather forecasts to 80,000 small-time African farmers and plans to expand its services to 20 other countries throughout Southeast Asia, Central America and other regions of Africa.

Kelsey Lay

Sources: Ignitia 1, Ignitia 2, Ignitia 3, The Guardian
Photo: Times Higher Education

Nigeria is home to 35 million small farmers, 80 percent of whom hire laborers to help cultivate their fields. However, a shortage of labor combined with the expense of maintaining their land leads to vast under-cultivation, late planting and lost profits.

Access to better farming equipment would combat the labor shortages, but Nigerian farmers by and large cannot afford individual tractor ownership. The country lags an estimated 750,000 tractors behind the global average of tractors per 100 square kilometers of farmland.

A new company, Hello Tractor, believes they have a solution. Introducing a “smart tractor” designed for versatile use on small farms, Hello Tractor offers their product for $3,500, about the cost of cultivating 16 small farms in Nigeria.

Smart tractors are networked to the company’s cloud software, which connects tractor owners with farmers in need of equipment. Much like ride-sharing organization Uber, Hello Tractor’s sharing economy is designed to supply farmers with a low-cost, efficient alternative to time-consuming traditional labor.

“It takes about 40 days of manual labor to prepare the land,” said Jehiel Oliver, Hello Tractor founder. “Our tractors do it in eight hours.”

As with Uber, the Hello Tractor system operates by way of mobile technology, as the company clearly outlines: “A farmer simply sends a text requesting tractor service and our powerful software pairs that request with the nearest Smart Tractor owner in the market.”

Tractors then arrive within days of the request and enable farmers to complete the required labor 40 times more quickly than they would have been able to without tractor service. Farmers also use mobile banking to pay smart tractor owners for services, approximately one third of the cost of hiring manual laborers.

Hello Tractor asserts their smart tractors will enable higher land utilization as farmers more efficiently cultivate land, leading to a 25 percent increase in income and improved food security for Nigerian communities. The company believes that by its second year, use of smart tractors will enable 27,000 farmers to plant and harvest crops in a more timely and cost-effective manner.

They also estimate that 715 smart tractor owners and 2,500 service jobs will be created by the second year, offering those jobholders increased earning potential.

Hello Tractor also hopes to establish a lasting, sustainable system in Nigeria and other sub-Saharan countries. With farming resources often supplied by organizations dependent on grants and public funds, in Nigeria such equipment is limited in scale and impact. Oliver’s company hopes to promote economic growth from return on smart tractor investments and increased crop yields that will propel the nation toward greater self-sufficiency.

Based on Hello Tractor’s work, Oliver has been selected as a 2015 Echoing Green Fellow. Over the course of the next two years, fellows will receive funding ranging up to $90,000 to advance the implementation of their visions. Fellows also have the opportunity to participate in leadership development events and benefit from mentorship by top business professionals.

Oliver spoke fervently about Hello Tractor’s work: “We utilize technology to meet real needs for people that have been highly marginalized. These are women farmers who are living on, in some instances, two dollars a day or less. They have families.”

“For us to be able to bring technology to this population, to improve livelihoods, is powerful,” he continued. “And in a sustainable way. We’re really excited about it. We’re passionate about the cause.”

Emma-Claire LaSaine

Sources: Hello Tractor, USAID, Echoing Green, ChicagoInno
Photo: ChicagoInno

Recent progress in Africa’s agriculture sector faces a number of potential threats according to Dr. Agnes Kalibata, the president of Alliance for the Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA). Kalibata, formerly the Rwandan Minister of Agriculture and Animal Resources, cites global climate change as African agriculture’s biggest threat if it’s not met with increases in further investment.

Thanks to recent financing in the form of development aid, agriculture insurance and foreign direct investment (FDI), many African farmers have developed the means to overcome the formidable climatic and economic conditions that threaten food access for hundreds of millions of people. But Kalibata says that without sustained investment, Africa’s food needs, which are set to triple by 2050, could prove unattainable.

“[Climate change] is eroding the momentum we had gained in terms of getting farmers to use improved seeds and buy fertilizers,” said Kalibata. “If a farmer puts his small savings into seeds and fertilizers and loses the whole crop, that’s the end of his whole career … Farmers are getting less rain, it’s more irregular and it’s beginning to affect their production and undermine the investment they are making.”

In a policy paper presented at the development finance summit in Addis Ababa earlier this month, AGRA estimated that the value of African agricultural output could increase from $280 billion to $800 billion by 2030. In order for the sector that employs around two-thirds of Africa’s population to realize this possibility, potential investment needs to be substantially increased and diversified.

One such opportunity for American investment comes in the form of agriculture insurance, which people and countries are increasingly relying upon to withstand conditions out of their control, such as natural hazards and climate-related disasters. Because agriculture is a high-variable venture, particularly in the harsh environments of sub-Saharan Africa, farmers are often left without the means of recovering lost investments or repaying debts associated with past loans. Insurance coverage enables those farmers to participate in riskier but more lucrative activities, like diversified harvests or mechanization.

Investment in African agriculture comes with economic and moral implications that reach deeper than the immediacy of food insecurity. Access to reliable sources of food is essential for countries in the early stages of economic development and, once established, can empower people and countries to achieve previously unattainable levels of security and self-determination.

“Agriculture is everyone’s business: national independence depends on its development because it enables us to escape the scourge of food insecurity that undermines our sovereignty and fosters sedition,” writes The New Partnership for Africa’s Development CEO Ibrahim Assane Mayaki in the United Nations’ Africa outlook. “[It] is the sector offering the greatest potential for poverty and inequality reduction, as it provides sources of productivity from which the most disadvantaged people working in the sector should benefit.”

The Food for Peace Reform and Electrify Africa Acts introduced earlier this year mark a number of Congressmen’s sustained efforts to make African development a focus of U.S. foreign policy. But in order for Africa to meet its future agricultural needs, investors and donor organizations will need to take further steps to establish infrastructure, mechanization and resistance to climate-related challenges. Those investments in food security could help to deliver increased opportunities for the African and American economies alike.

Zach VeShancey

Sources: The Guardian, AGRA, United Nations
Photo: Flickr

Continued sectarian violence in Nigeria resulted in the widespread abandonment of farms. Conflict spreads throughout the country, affecting the agricultural season in rural and often isolated regions. This led to dramatic decline in household food stocks. In addition to farming, the conflict limits “off-season livelihood activities” such as fishing.

This coupled with a predicted shortened growing season to create a potentially devastating food crisis. Consequently, Nigerian government reported as many as one million people facing food shortages in the coming months.

The Islamist insurgency in northern Nigeria, which began in 2009, has forced more than 365,000 people to flee their homes and farms. Agriculture generally serves as the primary means of support. Moreover, as refugees, these families have little opportunity to independently replenish their food supplies. According to The Guardian, “violence linked to the Boko Haram insurgency has caused 60 percent of farmers to leave the fertile region.”

In addition to low production, this conflict led to disruption in trade routes. Those managing the trade fear security, for the products and their lives. As production declines, the prices for staple food rise. These prices rose an estimated 10 percent from last year and more than 30 percent from the five-year average.

Alone, this lack of production has led to serious food shortages. Now, the strain of drought-induced food shortage threatens a full-scale crisis. According to The Nigerian Meteorological Agency, the national agricultural sector depends heavily on rain, “with the bulk of its produce cultivated in the north and central regions.” Weather forecasters predict the rainy season to begin in June, though it typically starts in May. In addition, the rain season may end before September. The result: a severely shortened growing season. With a population of 160 million to feed, Nigeria prepares this looming food crisis.

Refugees and farmers affected by the drought cannot afford the drastic rise in prices. Without an independent stock of food, though, these individuals must rely on the market.

In response, farmers are encouraged to use early maturing seeds to help generate a shorter planting season.

However, as Ibrahim Mota of the Dawanau Grain Traders Union shared recently, “Seeds, no matter how sophisticated, have to be planted by humans to germinate.” The Famine Early Warning Systems Network continues to monitor the food supply in this region, encouraging the Nigerian government to alleviate the burden of this conflict on farmers. Without details on the exact tactics to mitigate conflict, families live in constant risk of acute food security.

– Ellery Spahr

Sources: The Guardian
Photo: India Times

Africa is a continent rich with natural resources and the world’s largest share of uncultivated land; however, it remains home to more than one-third of the world’s extreme poor. With proper and efficient agricultural techniques, African farmland has the potential to not only feed itself, but the world.

Many rich nations are now looking to invest in African farmland for their future food security, but not everyone is happy with such land deals. Skeptics are referring to this trend as “farmland grabbing;” others are trying to make sense of it through research on the key trends and drivers of the acquisitions and its impact.

A study conducted by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization in partnership with the International Fund for Agricultural Development and the International Institute for Environment and Development found that factors underpinning land acquisitions are food security concerns, government consumption targets of biofuels, rising agricultural commodity prices and policy reforms in many African countries.

In spite of the controversial investment phenomenon, poverty and inequality still remain “unacceptably high and the pace of reduction unacceptably slow.” Africa’s farmers in particular, face many barriers to accessing the inputs they need, including limited accessibility to seeds and fertilizers and extension services, high transport costs, especially for small farmers, obscure and unpredictable trade policies that raise trade costs as well as costly and often dangerous border crossings and inefficient distribution services that hamper regional trade in food.

In 2013, almost one-third of African countries grew at more than 6 percent, with government investment in production of mineral resources and agriculture constituting the bulk of economic growth. The World Bank has noted that use of updated seeds and technologies in Africa’s agricultural sector could easily double to triple crop yields. Calestous Juma, author of “The New Harvest: Agricultural Innovation in Africa,” also listed innovations in mobile communication, crop insurance, and post-harvest loss reduction as key to raising agricultural productivity.

With the use of agricultural innovations integrating political, social and environmental initiatives that can achieve sustainable growth, the potential for Africa’s agricultural production is enormous. According to Mark Beaumont, Director of the Global Forum for Innovations in Agriculture, “Africa has the ability to produce all the food it requires for itself and, if carried out correctly, most of the food the rest of the world needs too.”

– Rifk Ebeid

Sources: All Africa, The National, IFAD, Financial Times, World Bank, Forbes, World Bank
Photo: Defence Web