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In Egypt, Genetic Crop Modification Is On Hold

ASSIUT, Egypt—Government researchers have made two advances that could increase the national production of wheat in a country that is sometimes cited as the world’s largest wheat importer. One advance involves a new compound that would be used to treat wheat seeds. The other involves the genetic manipulation of the wheat seeds themselves.

The researchers at the National Research Center (NRC), a research institution affiliated with the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research, obtained a patent for the new compound, which includes microorganisms that the researchers say could increase wheat yields in arid and semi-arid regions by as much as 68 percent.

“The new compound would contribute to increasing wheat productivity by making it possible to plant wheat in completely arid lands,” said Wafaa Haggag, head of the Center’s Agricultural Research and Biology Division and the head of the research team.

The compound will increase production by reducing stresses on wheat as it grows and increasing the concentration of raw protein and carbohydrates in wheat grains. It will also help to inhibit bacteria and viruses in the soil that attack wheat and increase plant resistance to disease.

The five-member research team treated the seeds with the compound before they were planted to get the maximum possible benefit. The plants were also sprayed with the compound after germination to form a layer on the leaves, which improved growth and protected against the effects of climate change and other environmental stresses, the researchers said.  Experiments were conducted during two agricultural seasons on two of Egypt’s wheat types grown in the Sinai Peninsula and in the Beheira governorate north of Cairo; places known for their drought conditions.

The results of experiments with both new techniques, which were published in the journal Gesunde Pflanzen, detail how the researchers developed the compound and changed the genetic material of the seeds. The scientists concluded that the genetic engineering and the application of the compound, used together, can increase wheat yield by 68 percent.

Wheat cultivation in the arid desert of Assiut, south of Cairo (Photo by: Tarek Abd El-Galil).

Egypt is one of the countries most at risk for desertification due to its climate and geography. Eighty-six percent of Egyptian land is classified as very arid and the other 14 percent is classified as arid. Only four percent of land is suitable for agriculture, according to the Desert Research Center, a governmental center under the Ministry of Agriculture and Land Reclamation.

Egypt consumes  17 million tons of wheat per year, but produces no more than 9.6 million tons. This means any improvements in the agricultural yield of wheat can have a large effect in feeding the country and keeping food costs down. (Read the related story: “Small Wheat Grains Swell into Big Controversy“).

Researchers at the National Research Center have used genetic engineering to increase wheat production and support the country’s food security. Although their new compound won a patent, they are not yet able to produce it because it is currently illegal to manufacture genetically modified products in Egypt. Indeed, with the new research, Egyptian scientists have stepped into a global controversy about “genetically modified” foods. Egyptian law on the subject is not clear.

“To date, there is no legislative law that organizes and regulates the production, circulation and use of genetically modified organisms or the control of genetic engineering research,” said Rasha Ali, a researcher at the Department of Biochemistry for Plant Protection at the National Center for Research. “This keeps all the research in this field in drawers,” she added.

A law was drafted and proposed in 2016, but it has yet to be debated by parliament.

Ali believes that the existence of such a law will not only contribute to the legitimization of research, it will also change the attitude of many who refuse to use genetic engineering in agriculture for fear of public-health hazards or dangers to the environment.

“Agricultural crops, which have incorporated genetic engineering technology into their cultivation, are undermining the ecological balance because the genes that the modified crop seeds are injected with lead to the proliferation of certain species of non-beneficial bacteria,” said Thabet Abdel-Moneim, director of Assuit University’s Center of Environmental Studies.

Internationally, advocacy groups that object to the introduction say they are fearful that genetically modified products might cause diseases, especially cancer. Scientist working with genetically modified crops counter that any such danger is unlikely, theoretical and has not been proven in any study. They point out that wheat has been genetically modified for thousands of years by breeding for certain characteristics, even if laboratory modification is a new development.

European countries generally ban the use of genetic engineering in food products, while United States regulators have been more apt to permit the use of genetic engineering in crops and food.

“There is still no scientific evidence of the health and environmental damage caused by genetic engineering used in agriculture,” said Hussam Abu Al-Nasr, a professor at Assiut University’s Faculty of Agriculture. He pointed out that Egypt already imports genetically modified crops.

“We do not have the luxury of refusing to adopt this technology as the number of hungry people in the world rises,” said Abu Al-Nasr. “We have to go ahead with research and find solutions to any potential damage that might rise from using this technology.”

Ahmed Murad, a professor and former president of the Agricultural Research Center’s Institute of Food Technology, agrees with Abu al-Nasr on the need to legislate the use of genetic engineering in agriculture.

“Egypt’s needs to apply agricultural genetic engineering is of utmost necessity in light of the continuous increase in population, decline in green areas and climate change,” he said


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