The ABS project decision to utilize the GM is best explained through a conceptual understanding of the research and development process. The technology development phase (that involves genetic engineering) focuses on bringing together the different characteristics or traits together into an ideal sorghum plant. These traits are:
- Improved protein quality
- Enhanced protein digestibility
- Increased Vitamin A
- Elevated bioavailability of Iron and Zinc
Technology development can be either through GM or conventional breeding. On the other hand, the product development phase takes the ideal sorghum plant and transfers its traits into locally adapted varieties that are suitable for the different climates and environments in Africa. This phase utilizes conventional breeding or marker-assisted breeding, where genetic markers help speed up the breeding process. Therefore, the project has deployed both GM and conventional breeding in its processes.
In the technology development phase, genetic engineering offers substantial advantages over conventional breeding. The complex genetic makeup of the ABS product determines that genetic engineering would be a lot faster, more accurate and offers more flexibility than conventional breeding in bringing together the right combination of genes that expresses the targeted traits. At the project’s inception, it was estimated that genetic engineering would accomplish this in three to five years in comparison to 10 to 15 years by conventional breeding.
The sorghum family of plants has a limited variation of traits.
For conventional breeding to work, it would require the reproductive combination a high protein quality variety, high protein digestibility variety, high Vitamin A variety with an elevated Iron and Zinc bioavailability variety. This option is already compromised because there is no natural sorghum variety with any meaningful amounts of Vitamin A. Also, protein digestibility and bioavailability of Iron and Zinc is generally poor across all varieties. In addition, other related species such as millet and Johnson grass do not have these traits.
Therefore, the traits have to be sourced elsewhere thus really limiting conventional breeding. For example, the genetic makeup of a carrot is significantly different compared to sorghum. Therefore, the carrot pollen carrying the Vitamin A trait cannot fertilize the sorghum panicle thereby making conventional breeding useless in this situation. Thankfully, through genetic engineering, the ABS project has sourced its genes from plant sources and one from a common bacterium.
Furthermore, conventional breeding often results with both desired and undesired traits. In some situations, genes are interconnected or work together with other genes to produce a certain trait in a plant. In reproduction, they may be inherited as a bundle and it may not be possible to separate and remove the undesired genes with the respective undesired traits from the final product. In genetic engineering, such a situation is entirely avoidable and the geneticist has the flexibility and accuracy to insert the right genes into the ideal plant.
The ABS project has already created the ideal plant expressing the desired traits in the first phase. In the next phase, the product will be going through the biosafety and regulatory requirements to prove that it is safe to both humans and the environment. The regulatory environment in Africa is changing as more countries adopt and build capacity in modern biotechnology and it is anticipated that the high regulatory costs associated with genetic engineering are likely to decline as the project progresses. Therefore, the project made the right choice of technology and it has set the trend for similar projects in Africa.