The Future of Plant Breeding in Africa: An Interview With Dr. Rita Mumm

By Sara Boettiger, Head of Global Public Affairs, Science & Sustainability
Nov 29, 2021 8:35 AM ET

By 2050, earth's population is expected to exceed 9 billion people. Sustainability is about more than just protecting our current planetary boundaries, it's also about our ability to meet the needs of the next generation of humans. How we continue to improve plant breeding will play an important role in our efforts to sustainably feed the planet.

To talk about how plant breeding can help us unlock a more sustainable future, I reached out to my colleague Dr. Rita Mumm. Dr. Mumm is a scientist, educator and entrepreneur who has spent her career pushing the edge of innovation in plant breeding in many different ways.

You’ve likely eaten the fruits (or vegetables) of her labor. Over the past 30 years, she has developed some of the first insecticide- and herbicide-resistant corn. Her work has improved testing systems and breeding strategies to help plant breeders bring new innovations to market. Today, Dr. Mumm supports the training of future plant breeders as a Professor Emeritus at the University of Illinois and Education and Training Lead for the USAID Soybean Innovation Lab. She champions plant breeding in Africa through her role as Director of Capacity Development and Mobilisation for the African Orphan Crop Consortium (AOCC) (they focus on DNA sequencing of traditional African crops), Director of the UC Davis African Plant Breeding Academy (AfPBA) (they train active plant breeders in ways to be more efficient and effective in developing new crop varieties). In addition, she continues to support the seed industry worldwide as Principal at the consulting firm GeneMax.

Here, Dr. Mumm talks about how the industry has changed, how new technologies like CRISPR are an essential part of a sustainable food secure future, and the importance of the African Plant Breeding Academy.

1. How have you seen the plant breeding industry change over the last 20 years? Can you describe some of the pivotal moments or breakthroughs in plant breeding that stand out to you from your career thus far?

I had the good fortune to enter the seed industry at a time when biotechnologies were first being considered for plant breeding. As a graduate student at the University of Illinois, I studied ways to maximize the utility and value of molecular markers in plants with Professor John Dudley, who was a pioneer in the field. Molecular markers, which are simply “addresses” along the chromosomes, allow plant breeders to track which genes are involved in the expression of key traits for new crop varieties. This technology helps breeders choose parents (the particular plants from which new traits will be taken), one of the most critical decisions in plant breeding, and help identify progeny (new plant offspring) with the greatest genetic promise, accelerating the breeding pipeline. This and other DNA-based technologies have created the plant breeding industry as we know it.

Since the early 1990s, the ways in which we’ve applied these technologies have advanced greatly, helping us develop improved climate-smart crops and get new varieties into farmers’ hands more quickly. Today, we know even more about how genes work, allowing us to create improved crop varieties with traits wanted and needed by farmers, consumers, and other stakeholders in the value chain.

Plant breeding can help us adopt more climate-smart practices and address the needs of farmers – Genetic Modification (GM) and CRISPR are two DNA-based technologies that make this possible. GM or “genetically modified” traits have been developed in response to farmer needs for control of pests (like insects and weeds) and have become mainstream in crops like corn, soybeans, cotton, and canola. CRISPR can do even more, facilitating precise, directed genetic changes in a plant’s genome.

2. What makes CRISPR so revolutionary?

At its core, CRISPR allows us to improve all kinds of crops for all kinds of traits in a way that is faster, cheaper, and can be applied more broadly than other GM approaches. Thanks to faster development times, CRISPR facilitates innovations that would otherwise take years, maybe decades, to accomplish with traditional plant breeding.

Consider nutrient-boosted beans with high levels of iron and zinc, high-temperature tolerant tomato, cassava with reduced anti-nutritional factors, and corn resistant to devastating Maize Lethal Necrosis disease. Whether making crop varieties more productive, more resistant to extreme weather, less susceptible to diseases, or more nutritious, CRISPR is a powerful tool that is “democratizing” the field of Trait Development.

Traditional GM (genetically modified) traits have much higher costs during the initial scientific discovery phase, and additional costs associated with regulatory approval. Developing improved varieties with CRISPR is cheaper than relying on GM. That means that we can use CRISPR to develop foods that have a much smaller potential market, lowering the barriers to entry. This makes it possible for even small or non-profit organizations to develop new varieties to improve nutrition or farmers’ income in small markets with unique sets of agronomic circumstances.

3. Can you share more on how you’ve been involved with CRISPR or other gene-editing technologies in your own career?

Much of my career in crop improvement has been focused on optimizing development of improved varieties through use of new technologies. Today, I focus on preparing and enabling the crop improvement workforce around the world to meet food and nutritional security goals through my work with the African Orphan Crop Consortium (AOCC) and the African Plant Breeding Academy (AfPBA). The AfPBA has equipped 150 plant breeders from 29 countries to utilize genomic information and technologies in over 225 national breeding programs across Africa.

One new initiative of the AOCC that I’m excited about is the AfPBA CRISPR Course, which will enable teams of scientists in Africa to deliver improved crop varieties that farmers will want to grow and consumers will want to eat. Using banana as a model plant, participants will get first-hand experience in all aspects of the gene editing process, enabling them to create new sources of essential traits. Participants will then be networked with AfPBA plant breeders to facilitate a path to market for gene-edited traits in preferred crop varieties.

Based in Nairobi Kenya, this intensive program will bring together up to 20 participants during three two-week sessions. We anticipate five cohorts over the next five years, empowering 100 scientists across the continent. Course graduates will also be mentored in setting up gene editing facilities and operations at their home institutions, expanding the reach and impact of gene editing across the continent.

4. Tell us about why you are championing plant breeding in Africa.

We need to pay attention to both the food security and growing population needs in Africa – they go hand-in-hand. Africa has the greatest concentration of population growth on the planet; its population is expected to quadruple in this century. Yet Africa is not feeding her people now. Hunger and malnutrition abound, with the FAO estimating that 21% of Africans are undernourished.

Stunting, a consequence of inadequate nutrition in the first 1000 days of life, affects a staggering 58.8 million African children under the age of 5, i.e., approximately 33%. Stunting is associated with impaired cognitive and physical development. And the impact is generational; stunted girls are more likely to become mothers of stunted children. Malnutrition not only robs human potential, but it also comes with significant economic costs to African countries due to reduced productivity in adulthood, lowering per capita GDP by an average of 13.5% (FAO, IFAD, UNICEF, WFP and WHO. 2019. The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2019.)

Feeding Africa is an urgent need, and plant breeding has the potential to address food security for growing populations.

5. An important part of plant breeding is identifying farmers’ needs and problem-solving to meet those needs. Can you tell us about your relationship with farmers and how you identify what would be of most value to them?

I love working with farmers. Early in my career, while employed with DEKALB Genetics, I regularly spent time talking with farmers to better understand the challenges they faced in maximizing their crop yields and profits while sustaining, or even improving, the productivity of their soil. Each summer, we invited farmers to our research station in Thomasboro, Illinois, to get feedback on current and new potential products we were working on. In fact, all the genetically modified solutions we were commercializing at the time focused on solving farmers’ problems, such as effective, low-cost, and environmentally safe weed control, and pest control that didn’t require toxic chemicals.

As a plant breeder, it’s critical to be in touch with the needs of your target market — first and foremost, that’s the farmer. If a variety is not adopted by farmers, it has no way to impact the market and zero potential to meet people’s needs.

Farmers’ needs can also reflect consumers’ needs. That’s especially true with smallholder farmers who are mainly producing to feed themselves and their families. Regardless of the market, it’s critical to give consumers a voice in which traits are needed in new crops. Things like flavor, appearance, nutritional content, and cooking qualities are all important considerations for consumers. To be impactful, an improved variety must represent a collection of traits serving the farmer, consumer, and other stakeholders in the value chain.

6. How do you adjust your approach to meet the needs of female farmers and consumers?

Understanding the priorities of women farmers is essential, especially in Africa where women comprise a large proportion of farmers and often have priorities that differ from men farmers. Women are often the key decision makers for which crop varieties to utilize, as they are the ones who grow, harvest, and cook foods for their families.

For example, women farmers are especially conscious of making the most of the year-round growing conditions in many parts of Africa, as an additional crop can bring in additional cash for the family. In other words, they care about crop varieties that have a favorable rotation between the rainy and dry growing seasons. Women may also be farming less productive ground due to land ownership rights that disproportionately favor men, so they can benefit from crop varieties with increased stress tolerance.

7. What role do you see private sector organizations like Bayer playing in the development of improved crop varieties and application of technologies such as gene editing?

I see partnerships between national programs in African countries, international not-for-profit breeding organizations, and the private sector as important to the adoption and realized benefit of the new, improved crop varieties. To have the needed impact, the plant breeding process needs to be expedited and proven technologies utilized to speed the delivery of improved varieties to farmers. The public sector, including national programs, represents public interests. International NGOs can provide services such as regional yield testing and DNA genotyping. Optimization of the breeding pipeline and effective use of technologies are areas in which I see the private sector as a key contributor. There is great potential for win-win public/private collaborations that can benefit the African people and African country economies.

One example of an impactful public/private partnership is the Modern Breeding Project, which involves Bayer, IITA, CIMMYT, and the CGIAR Excellence in Breeding Platform program to optimize the breeding pipeline for maize and soybean. Other crops not typically the focus of the private sector, that is, cowpea, banana, cassava, and yam, are also in scope. The collaboration focuses on, among other areas, software to undergird all aspects of the breeding pipeline to facilitate greater accuracy in testing, rigorous analysis of data, and maximal value from technologies employed.

Another example is the Corteva - CIMMYT collaboration in support of gene-editing solutions to the deadly maize disease, Maize Lethal Necrosis (MLN). Utilizing CRISPR approaches, the collaboration seeks to develop sources of high levels of resistance to the two viruses involved in expression of MLN and make them available to national programs.

8. You once said “hunger and malnutrition can be eliminated in your lifetime” to a graduating class of the African Plant Breeding Academy. Can you explain more behind this bold statement? What will it take to make this happen?

I firmly believe that hunger and malnutrition in Africa can be eliminated in the next decades. The African Plant Breeding Academy (AfPBA) and African Orphan Crop Consortium (AOCC) are two organizations I’ve been personally involved with working toward this end. At the AfPBA, I’ve seen so many bright, savvy, highly motivated plant breeders who are driven to eradicate hunger and end malnutrition in Africa, perhaps because they see the suffering caused by these maladies every day.

Since the launch of the AOCC in 2013, DNA sequencing has been initiated on more than 80 of the 101 African orphan crop species through the AOCC and its network. AfPBA plant breeders have published over 171 papers in peer-reviewed journals and have launched over 37 improved crop varieties, including new finger millets for Kenya and new groundnut varieties for Mozambique.

The saying ‘iron sharpens iron’ is certainly fitting to describe the outcome of the collaborations among AfPBA scientists. Through their collaboration, AfPBA scientists have secured over $13 million in additional external research funding for their national research and teaching university programs. These scientists are truly ‘movers and shakers’ in African crop improvement and I have no doubt they will continue in their efforts to stomp out hunger and malnutrition.

Plant breeding is not a ‘fast fix’. It requires time. But new technologies are helping us create improved varieties faster each day. Working together and collectively with others across sectors, I have no doubt AfPBA scientists will succeed at eliminating hunger and ending malnutrition in Africa.