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GM Crops: Ethical issues, health concerns query new food technologies

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 Genetically Modified Tomato

Genetically Modified Tomato

The quest to tackle the challenges of feeding the ballooning global population has led to the development of some innovative ideas in the agricultural sector, where biotechnologists are currently trying to boost productivity in plants and animal. One such effort has resulted in the adoption of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO) technique. But though it looks on the surface, as it promises, to effortlessly increase food production, the idea has been at the centre of controversies. Some individuals and groups around the globe say the disadvantages inherent in the project far outweigh the advantages. Interestingly, both parties are backing up their positions with scientific evidences.

Those canvassing the use of GM crops believe it is a veritable tool to tackle poverty and hunger in rural areas, as well as increase farmers’ income, since productivity is higher with GM crops, which demand less production techniques, and uses enhanced methods to monitor the health of plants.

Recently, the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) said GM crops are now commercially planted on about 100 million hectares in some 22 developed and developing countries, with Argentina, Brazil, China and India being the largest developing-country producers of transgenic crops.

It also stated that the choice of GM crops varies among the developing countries, with insect resistant cotton being the most important commercially produced transgenic crop in Asian and African countries, while herbicide-resistant soybean, followed by insect-resistant corn are predominant in Latin America.

Foods or products derived from these crops have been declared safe for human consumption by such international bodies as the International Council for Science (ICSU) and World Health Organisation (WHO). They argued that these crops could potentially produce more food with fewer chemicals and higher nutritional value than crops produced using traditional cropping systems.

Joy Okpuzor, a professor of cell biology and genetics, at the University of Lagos, explained that GM crops are those crops, whose DNA had been altered from its original form to a desirable new trait from another crop or organism, using genetic engineering. These traits include, resistance to chemicals, improvement of nutrient profile, reduction in spoilage and pests, as well as, being able to withstand the effects of environmental conditions.

She noted that the earliest genetically modified crops, which include soybeans, cotton and corn, are widely consumed in most parts of the world. And they have helped to improve food security in areas, where genetically modified crops are widely grown to boost agricultural products.

Okpuzor is of the opinion that any nation unable to provide food security for its population, despite availability of arable lands should not dabble into the debate on genetically modified crops, as a country must be able to feed its population first before it can pick and choose.

She said: “The United States of America, where this technology has been in existence since the 1990s, can boast of food security, as they have reached the level, where the people can make choices. But despite this, a lot of genetically modified crops abound in most of their stores and they enjoy more patronage than organic foods. Some people pay more attention to the aesthetic appeals of food crops more than anything else. In most developed nations, the regulation requires that genetically modified crops be labelled in order to let the people make choices.

“All these traits in crops are geared towards ensuring availability and stability, and subsequently having an enormous impact on food supplies. The list of what genetic engineering could do is almost unending, when there is a will to improve agricultural raw materials and other products that could be available to feed other industries.

Genetically modified foods could ensure food safety and quality. Genetically modified crops with high nutrient profile could help to mitigate the impact of crops traditionally having low amounts of a particular food nutrient, thus improving the people’s health. Crops with high Vitamin A content, such as maize and rice have been introduced into the markets and have helped to address the incidence of vitamin A deficiency. It has been established that long-term use of genetically modified crops is not in any way more risky than crops produced using traditional breeding systems.

“In terms of economic empowerment for rural farmers, availing them the opportunity of planting genetically modified crops would result in better outcomes for the crops, thus culminating in increase in their economic power and standard of living. A good example of genetically modified crop is Bacillus thuringiensis (BT), cotton planted by small farm holders in China, India, Pakistan and some developing countries. The BT cotton has the attributes of resistance to important insect pests, especially cotton bollworms, thus improving the income generation of these small farm holders and indirectly creating stability in the family.”

One organisation that has been campaigning against the deployment of GM crops in Nigeria is Health of Mother Earth Foundation (HOMEF). While providing historical background, Nnimmo Bassey, Director of HOMEF, said it was 20 years ago that a genetically modified crop was commercialised for the first time in the USA for human consumption.

“It was a GM tomato variety called the Flavr Savr,” he explained. “It failed in the marketplace and its commercialisation ceased in 1997. That failure has been followed by numerous other failures in the past two decades. The biotech industry has made several attempts to commercialise a wide range of GM varieties since the 1990s. However, it quickly encountered stiff opposition. For instance, in Europe, strong opposition against GM foods took root since the end of the 90s and is still strong as of today,” he said.

Giving reasons why GM crops should not be allowed in Nigeria, Bassey said that in 2000 field trials with a variety of GM potato in Bolivia, centre of origin of potato, were stopped in the face of public opposition. In the same year, GM potatoes were withdrawn in the US due to commercial failure, while in 2002 a number of African countries rejected GM food aid and in 2004, GM wheat was withdrawn from the market due to commercial reasons. “China suspended commercialisation of GM rice in 2011 and the US did not proceed with wide commercialisation of such products either. The failure to market GE staple food in the past 20 years have been very notorious,” he said.

Bassey said that maize, rice and wheat are the staple food of more than two thirds of the world’s population, but presently, no wheat and rice have been legally commercialised in the human food chain. The GM crops that have been commercialised are soya, maize, oilseed rape and cotton, but most of these products are not intended directly for food, but for animal feed purposes.

“For instance, GM maize is strongly resisted in many countries like Mexico, centre of origin of maize, where a Federal Court in 2013 ordered that two of the main Mexican authorities for the authorisation of GM crops must abstain from granting permits of release of GM maize, whether on commercial or experimental basis. While most GM crops are planted for animal feeds, those targeted in Nigeria are for our foods. Among the targeted crops is cassava, a staple for most citizens.

“The few crops commercialised during the past decades were composed only of two traits, and their area of cultivation has been limited to a handful of countries. Over 90 per cent GM crops are being grown in six countries only and these are the USA, Brazil, Argentina, India, Canada and China, with the USA alone accounting for 40 per cent.

“In any case, in the two decades of GM crops commercialisation, about 95 per cent of staple crops, which have been commercialised, are insect resistant or herbicide tolerant. The push for the introduction of these type of GM staple crops has been led either directly by the big biotech corporations that developed the product or their subsidiaries.

“None of these traits, however, provide any benefit to the consumer, and none of them as of today has managed to win the heart of the majority of the consumers. For instance, even in the US, the cradle of GM crops, a poll conducted by the New York Times, in 2013, concluded that three-quarters of Americans expressed concern about genetically modified organisms in their food, with most of them worried about the effects on people’s health. The reality of such scepticism has forced the biotech industry to desperately seek to widen its market in Africa. The claim that Europe is influencing Africans to reject GMOs is nothing other than cheap blackmail,” the HOMEF boss said.

On her part, Okpuzor argued that with the fears expressed by environmental biologists about global warming, concerning plants and crops, which hitherto were considered unfit for farming, genetic modification of such crops could lead to increased availability of oxygen with proportionate decrease in carbon dioxide emission, thus contributing to a decrease in global warming.

“As genetically modified crops contribute to a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions and general environmental protection, it is envisaged that better air quality and water would be sustained, while creating general healthy environment and indirectly impacting on the overall well being of individuals,” she explained.

The professor, however, acknowledged that genetically modified crops are not without risks, though each crop should be assessed individually, as emerging new techniques with shorter timeline for results deal with these concerns. “For example, there are fears that the transfer of antibiotic resistance genes could lead to the production of “superweeds” that are capable of overtaking farmlands, but scientists researching in this area claimed this is unlikely in the case of soy.

“Some people believe that allergic reactions in the population have increased tremendously, since the introduction of genetically modified crops. This was adduced to genetic modification, which often adds or mixes proteins not indigenous to the original animal or plant, with a propensity to cause new allergic reactions in the body. Having said this, available food choices generated from genetically modified crops presents the opportunity to pick and choose till an appropriate choice is made.

“It is believed that one major setback of genetically modified foods is it effects on the biodiversity. This technology has a potential to harm some organisms in the ecosystem. If certain pests are removed from an ecosystem, there is a concomitant withdrawal of food source for certain species of organisms. Genetically modified crops may also be toxic to some organisms, resulting in their reduced numbers or they eventually become extinct.
Some people have expressed disgust at the unusual taste presented by genetically modified foods.”

The cell biologist noted that while people that have acquired a particular taste over time, as a result of generational gap would complain, but a child raised in this new generation, who was brought up eating foods from genetically modified crops would have nothing to complain about, because that is the only taste he or she knows. In any case, a hungry man cares less about the taste of food, as he is more interested in quelling hunger than anything else.

“GM crops may create avenues for new emerging diseases to be prevalent in a population,” Okpuzor said. “This may be possible, judging from the fact that these crops are modified using viruses and bacteria. Consequently, it is believed that this may impact human health negatively. As the threat to human existence continues to face us daily, some countries or emerging militant groups may exploit genetically modified crops or products as a powerful weapon against their enemies. These genetically modified products have the capability to kill large numbers of individuals in the world by engineering harmful diseases.

“The production of medicines and vaccines has been one of the best celebrated uses of genetically modified crops and organisms. This is one of the reasons why we have cheap diabetic medicines and vaccines. The incidence of gene spilling and gene transfer is also among the fears expressed for genetically modified crops. In the case of gene spilling, if genes from genetically modified crops are not well contained within the crop and allowed to escape into the wild through insects and wind, there is the probability that this would have adverse effects on the ecosystem. Modified genes from genetically modified crops may escape into the wild and such genes, if resistant to herbicides, may cross into the wild weed population, producing weeds that might be difficult to control.”

She observed that in some developed countries, it is mandatory to label foods, when such are from genetically modified crops, though it is not full proof that there may not have been cross contamination with pollen from genetically modified crops in the wild.

According to her, the debate on genetically modified crops would continue to be an unending public discourse for a very long time to come. It is, therefore, of particular importance that considering the level of poverty in Nigeria, the country should not direct its energy towards issues that would not benefit the masses.

“It is pertinent that we focus on technologies that would bring not only food security, but also, creating employment for most of our unemployed youths, as this would eventually reduce the level of insecurity, while boosting food security in the land,” she said.

She is of the view that with the vast arable landmass at the disposal of the country, if every family were encouraged to use any available space to plant crops, the incidence of hunger in the land would be a thing of the past.

“Nigeria should focus on making food available to its people and for export. The multiplier effect is that the country would eventually move away from dependence on oil, as a major source of revenue and not be bothered whether oil price is up or down, as well as eventually reduce the rate of growth of militant groups,” Okpuzor said

Some institutions, such as USAID and philanthropic organisations like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, are supporting efforts to genetically modify rice and bananas with enhanced levels of Vitamin A. The ostensible aim is to prevent stunted growth and blindness in African children. Gates’ support of the creation of GM staple foods with nutritional traits derives from the fact that “in many developing countries, as much as 70 per cent of an individual’s daily calories come from a single staple food, making it difficult to consume enough vitamins and minerals”

But this argument does not hold water with Bassey. To him, that the GM crops could help tackle Africa’s malnutrition rate is not well stated, because rather than promote and support food sovereignty, the donor and supporting institutions want Africans to keep its diet based on one food product for most of the day. He would have preferred that they support the tapping of the enormous food diversity existing in African countries, such as fruits and vegetables, which are rich in vitamin A and other valuable vitamins.

Dr. Paul Ilona, Country Manager, HarvestPlus Nigeria, said it would not be appropriate to hastily castigate GMOs because understanding the arguments for and against it is critical. He explained that GMOs help to bring together genes that contribute to the productivity of a crop, as well as address specific challenges that cannot be conventionally addressed, using genes within a gene pool.

He said: “That is what makes scientists bring a gene from outside the pool and the result they get becomes a transgenic crop, also called a GMO. Thus, a potato carrying the gene from tomato becomes pomato. “For rice to be carrying a gene from wheat, that is transgenic because you are carrying the gene from different crops. But if you are crossing one rice variety with another rice variety to get an improved variety, that is not transgenic, it is the normal breeding process.”

In his opinion, the idea of transferring genes is not such a bad one, since the aim is to complement the deficiency in crops.

“But the question is: if you bring in this foreign gene into a new gene pool, does it interact well with other genes? Does it cause any negative effect on the consumers? This is where people’s fears remain valid. You shouldn’t give them what is not natural, because the gene you put there begins to interact and affect other systems in the body. You would not want that. That is why the argument of the anti-GMO group is solid.

“Interestingly, when Nigerians go to the supermarket to buy cornflakes, they prefer the imported ones. Yet they are oblivious of the fact that some of these may have come from genetically modified foods. This means some level of research must have gone in to show their safety level. Sometimes, we go into very blind arguments. However, it is better that when you go against a technology, you must have facts and basis, and this is where we sometimes go wrong. Sometimes, we address issues from a very myopic angle.

“People get vaccinated from time to time. But over 90 per cent of vaccines are genetically modified. Don’t we go for vaccines? Do you say because they are genetically modified you won’t be vaccinated? People should evaluate the potency in the technology and not go into blind arguments. This may be why the minister of environment came up to explain to Nigerians the need for us to understand the issues.”

“For scientists working in Nigeria, until we are able to show that GMOs have been tested and found to be safe, nobody should promote it. This is because it goes against the social values of consumers; it is not ethical enough. So, no one should propose to people, out of ignorance, a technology that may harm them. I don’t think that it is good.

“But then, would we say because vaccines are genetically modified, then children and adults should die? No, I think we should understand where GMOs have value, as well as where they don’t have. We shouldn’t just come up with blanket arguments,” he said.


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