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   Home   >   Features   >   201312   >   Otokunor’s Lens: GMO’s; The Fears, Facts, Politics, Economics and the Future

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Otokunor’s Lens: GMO’s; The Fears, Facts, Politics, Economics and the Future
 
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13-Dec-2013  
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GMO - THE BASICS
Over the past weeks, the debate on Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) has taken centre stage in studios and online media discussion with so much being thrown into the public domain.

The Convention People’s Party (CPP) attempts to be leading a crusade against GMOs in Ghana albeit amidst misinformation, distortions and the lack of facts to back their arguments. Having closely monitored arguments posited by some speakers and groups on the matter, let me use this space to bring to bear a deeper perspective on the ongoing discourse on GMOs.

A case in point is the obvious confusion or for want of a better expression the seemingly distorted information flying around, which might have misinformed a friend on Facebook, when he posted a few days ago, “What is GMO? I don’t know but i hear it is some cancerous seed which poses threat to both man and crops. I hear our parliament is in the process of passing a bill which will legalize this dangerous seed in Ghana. Let’s discuss this issue thoroughly to avoid buying diseases for ourselves.” This post really got me thinking about the number of people who share same fears with the author of the post.

To begin with, Genetically Modified Organism (GMO) is an organism whose genetic material has been altered using genetic engineering techniques or Biotechnology. Organisms that have been genetically modified include micro-organisms such as bacteria and yeast, insects, plants, fish, and mammals. GMOs are the source of genetically modified foods, and are also widely used in scientific research and to produce goods other than food. The term GMO is very close but different from the technical legal term, 'living modified organism' (LMO). The LMO is defined in the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, as any living organism that possesses a novel combination of genetic material obtained through the use of modern biotechnology.

Biotechnology in plant agriculture has come to mean the process of intentionally making a copy of a gene for a desired trait from one plant or organism and using it in another plant. The result is a GMO (genetically modified organism). Genetically modified organism (GMO) is commonly used to describe the terms genetic modification, biotechnology, biotech seeds, genetic engineering, but it simply means that a change has been made to the DNA of an organism.

The early farmers chose plants that grew well and demonstrated resistance to disease, pests, and shifting weather patterns. Ever since, farmers have bred, crossed, and selected plant varieties that were productive and useful. These ancient farming techniques have now be complemented, supplemented, and perhaps supplanted by an assortment of nuclear and molecular tools that allowed for the deletion or insertion of a particular gene(s) to produce plants, animals and microorganisms, with novel traits, such as resistance to briny conditions, longer "shelf-life," or enhanced nutrient content. A change in a plant's genetic sequence changes the characteristics of the plant. Such manipulation of genes (genetic engineering) results in a genetically modified organism or GMO.

Furthermore, these techniques have allowed for the introduction of new crop traits as well as a far greater control over a crop's genetic structure than previously afforded by methods such as selective breeding and mutation breeding which also results in other forms of GMO’s.

Genetically engineered or biotech seeds have become popular in recent years because of the level of sophistication involved in the breeding process, and the technology employed. This has led to the limiting of the common name (GMO) to only the biotech seeds or products.

To date, most of the development of GM crops dubbed "first generation crops" have aimed at benefiting farmers, the bottom lines being increased yield, resistance to pests and diseases, and decreasing the use of herbicides. Over 80% of the soybeans and 40 percent of the corn grown in the U.S. is genetically modified. Worldwide, close to 1 billion acres are planted in GM crops, mostly corn and soy for animal consumption.

THE HISTORY OF GMO AGRICULTURE
The history of genetic modification in crops started 10,000 years ago. In that era, Human beings began with crop domestication using selective breeding. In the 1700’s, farmers and scientists began inter species cross-breeding of plants. Between the 1940s and the 1950s, breeders and researchers sought out additional means to introduce genetic variation into the gene pool of plants. Researchers developed a more precise and controllable methods of genetic engineering to create plants with desirable traits in the 1980s. The first GMOs were introduced into the market in the 1990s.

Farmers have intentionally changed the genetic makeup of all the crops they have grown and the livestock they have raised since domestic agriculture began 10,000 years ago. Every fruit, vegetable and grain that is commercially available today has been altered by human hands, including organic and heirloom seeds.

In the late 20th century, advances in technology enabled us to expand the genetic diversity of crops. For years, universities, governments and corporate research scientists went to lengths under huge budgets to investigate and refine this process. A major result has been GM seeds that maintain or increase the yield of crops, while requiring less land and fewer inputs, both of which lessens the impact of agriculture on the environment and reduce costs to farmers.

For example the history of maize has evolved with the availability of hybrid maize in the 1930s and the planting of GM crops in the mid-1990s. Due to the insect resistance and/or herbicide tolerance of GM corn, more and more of it was planted. Contrary to popular belief, the development and increased usage of GM corn has not changed the physical appearance of maize.

Rather, what has changed due to modern plant breeding are size, consistency, seed performance, yield, the number of ears per stalk, and the position of the ear and the leaves on the stalk. Currently, a plant has only one ear located about waist high (the height of a combine blade), and its leaves grow at a more upright angle to better catch sunrays and rain. A century ago, farmers planted about 8,000 corn plants per acre. Today they plant about four(4) times as many plants per acre.

Commercial sale of genetically engineered foods began in 1994, when Calgene first marketed its Flavr Savr delayed ripening tomato. To date most genetic modification of foods have primarily focused on cash crops in high demand by farmers such as soybean, corn, canola, and cotton seed oil. These have been engineered for resistance to pathogens and herbicides and better nutrient profiles. GM livestock have also been experimentally developed, although as of September 2013 none are currently on the market.

History of breed modification in Ghana
The GMO technique is not new in Ghana and it perhaps predates independence.

The first President of Ghana, Dr Kwame Nkrumah attempted to use agricultural wealth as a springboard for the country's overall economic development. One of the key development policies he used was to promote research into GMO and produce disease and weather resistant breeds, as well as generate food crops that are high yielding breeds, for a sustained agricultural development and enhanced food security. This policy led to the establishment of the Ghana Atomic Energy Commission in 1963, National Research Council (now CSIR) and Ghana Academy of Sciences to conduct research into genetic and nuclear engineering on most of the available domestic food organisms.

The popular Nungua Black Sheep is a GMO (LMO) produced by the Legon Agriculture Research Station at Nungua in the early 1960’s and remains the most widely produced in Ghana and some parts of the sub-region. It is highly productive in terms of its meat yield and remains the most robust in terms of disease and weather resistance.

PUBLIC OPPOSITION TO GMO’s
There have been various forms of opposition to GM foods since it major commercial introduction in 1996. In the developed economies the production of GMOs are highly regulated and commercially produced and marketed by multimillion dollar multinationals. But like in every economic venture with high yielding returns, conspiracy theories can never be alienated. These conspiracy theories have led to very brutal public outcry in the US and some parts of Europe. Some of the protests are grounded in firm religious believes, others on morality and some on the economic implications.

The moralist view or Ethical concerns of GMOs

The moralist looks at GMOs from the perspective of evaluating safety and weighing potential risks and benefits.

They talk about potential risks to the environment and wildlife. Some argue that genes may "escape" and find their way into other members of the species or other species. Imagine the trouble if herbicide-resistant genes found their way into weeds. GM crops could compete or breed with wild species threatening biodiversity. They have raised questions like what are the risks to birds, insects and other non-target species that come into contact with or consume GM plants.

In 2005 Brewer Anheuser-Busch threatened to boycott rice from Missouri if Ventria is allowed to set up its "biopharming" practices there. Again, the concern is the potential that the GM rice could cross-pollinate other crops and introduce foreign genes and proteins into the human food chain.

They also mention the potential risk to public trust, generated in part by industry refusal to label GM foods as such.

The religious view of GMOs

There have been variable religious sentiments and concerns raised by various religious groupings on the commercial consumption of GMOs. Most of these grouping engage in mass anti-GMO campaign to garner public support for their belief.


Judaism

There is no consensus in the views of Jewish religious leaders, scholars and commentators on whether Jews can eat GM food products or engage in research in the area of GM food technology.

One perspective emphasizes that humanity was created in God's image and this means that humanity can "partner with God in the perfection of everything in the world," and therefore Jewish law accepts genetic engineering to save and prolong human life as well as increase the quality or quantity of the world's food supply.

Other perspectives hold that GM food technology is a violation of Kilayim, the mixed breeding of crops or livestock, and that because God made "distinctions in the natural world", Jews must honour them.


Islam

There are varying perspectives in Islam. A seminar of Islamic scholars in Kuwait on genetics and genetic engineering in October 1998, concluded that although there are fears about the possibility of the harmful effects of GM food technology and products on human beings and the environment, there are no laws within Islam which stop the genetic modification of food crops and animals. In 2003, the Indonesian Ulemas Council (MUI) approved the importation and consumption of genetically modified food products by Indonesian Muslims.

However, some argue that based on the Quran, that there is no need for genetic modification of food crops because God created everything perfectly and man does not have any right to manipulate anything that God has created nor to tamper with it.


Christianity

In 2004, the Church Environmental Network, representing members of the Anglican church of South Africa, spoke out against the South African government's backing of genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

However in 1999, after two years of discussions, the Vatican's Pontifical Academy for Life stated that modifying the genes of plants and animals are theologically acceptable.

There are other minority churches who also frown on GMOs because they see it has and act against God. For example, The First Church of Christ Scientist don’t take any form of pharmaceuticals, perhaps because they believe most of these pharmaceuticals have been modified from their original organic sources as created by God. They view all other GMO’s in that light; hence abhor its indulgence by her members.

· Rastafarianism
The Rastafarian Movement as a whole has no central authority, but a Rastafarian Code of Conduct which was ratified in July/August 2008 at a meeting in Jamaica of the Nyah Binghi Order (one of the three houses of the Rastafarian movement) defines GM foods as not Ital; Meaning it is not worthy for consumption by the Rastafarian.
But, all this religious concerns remain very subjective, and not based on any factual, scientific or practical experience. Even within the same religious settings, members disagree on what really is religiously required of them in relation to GMOs.

The Economist view of GMOs
Those who oppose GMOs from the economic standpoint are few and have not been able to push their arguments into the limelight. For example in their claim to a potential socio-economic effect, they argued that small-scale farmers could be negatively impacted by the market dominance of a few powerful seed companies. Some worry about the potential loss of traditional farming practices such as collecting, storing, and replanting seed.

Perhaps, the most significant of their issues, is the concern about the proprietary nature of biotechnology slowing basic research, and patent protection that may hinder the entry of GM foods into developing countries as has been the case with pharmaceuticals.

HUMAN HEALTH AND GMO’s

Opposition to GMOs claim that there is a potential that allergy-producing genes will be inserted into unrelated foodstuffs. Since GM foods are not labelled, a person could suffer a potentially fatal allergic reaction, e.g., an allergenic Brazil nut gene was transferred to a soybean variety, but the resultant modified crop was never released to the public.

Un approved GM products may inadvertently enter the human food supply as evidenced by the settlement earlier this month between Syngenta and the U.S. government over the accidental sale of unapproved GM (Bt10) corn seed to farmers. If the GMO regime of a country is not well regulated, there are possibilities that unscrupulous scientist may produce GM crops with proteins that may harmful to the human health. For example, It is alleged that traces of gluterin, a protein often used in cosmetics, perfumes and pomades have been found in some GM foods in some countries. So like any other scientific invention, lack of proper regulations can lead to negative implication of human health.

On the other hand, research has shown that Food from GMOs is digested in the body the same as food from non-GM crops. Hundreds of studies have and continue to demonstrate that GMOs do not present any health risk; they do not cause new allergies or cancers, infertility, Attention Deficit/Hypersctivity Disorder or any other diseases. In the years that farmers have grown crops from GM seeds (since around 1994), there has not been a single documented instance of harm to human health resulting from genetic modifications, including new allergic reactions.

Biotech crops currently available on the market are the same from a compositional and nutritional standpoint as their non-GM counterparts, for example, GM corn is the same as non-GM corn. Tests have shown with confirmation by the US Food and Drug Administration review that GMOs are nutritionally the same as non-GM crops, including the same levels of key nutrients like amino acids, proteins, fibre, minerals and vitamins.

There are rather several potential benefits to human health and wellbeing. Genetic engineering could be used to remove genes associated with allergies, e.g., the blocking of the gene that produces the allergenic protein in peanuts.

The insertion of genes into crops such as rice and wheat can enhance their nutritional value, e.g., Golden Rice is modified to contain Vitamin A and pineapple have also been modified to contain lycopene, which helps prevent lung and prostate cancer.

Genetic modification could be used to produce healthier foods, e.g., by eliminating trans-fats or caffeine.

Genetic engineering could be used to develop pharmaceuticals and vaccines in plants called “pharma crops." This can decrease the risk of adverse reactions and enable faster vaccination of large populations. For example, Last year, the California Rice Commission advised the state Food and Agriculture Department to allow Ventria Bioscience of Sacramento to grow 50 hectares of GM rice near San Diego. Ventria planned to grow two types of rice modified with synthetic human genes-one to make human lactoferrin to treat anemia and the second to produce lysozyme to treat diarrhea (Dalton, Rex: "California Edges towards Farming Drug-producing Rice," Nature 428: 591, 2004)
But, the California Food and Agriculture Department denied Ventria's request after rice growers expressed concern that international customers would refuse their rice out of fear of contamination.

INB Biotechnologies (Philadelphia) is developing a nontoxic anthrax vaccine through the transgenic modification of petunias; which causes the plant to manufacture new proteins, which when eaten prompt the development of anti-anthrax antibodies. So, instead of "eat your peas," the imperative will be to "eat your petunias"

THE POLITICS OF GMOs
Opposition to GMOs and science in general across the world has hitherto been a matter of political interest, usually led by corporate, religious and political actors. Journalist Marc Gunther has highlighted the conspiratorial narrative about GMO technology favoured by some corporate supported anti-GMO activists. Marc Gunther has recounted the extent to which corporate and political sponsorship for anti-GMO activism has driven most of the campaigns across the world.

But come to think of it, the introduction of GMOs into any country has its own political and business implications. Those supplying fertilizers to government, suppliers of pesticides, weedicides and insecticides will be taken out of business.

Political actors who may be hunting for avenues to make some political capital, may take advantage of such issues and join the protest without necessarily pointing out cogent reasons for their opposition.

Some countries, as well as some counties and communities across the world have banned some specific GMO food crops. These bans were purely based on the fact that those crops were not well researched or were not approved by their regulatory agencies. For example, Luxembourg and Portugal banned Novartis Bt maize. Whiles, Greece and France banned AgrEvo HR rapeseed.

Other religious nations have completely banned the commercialisation of GMO food crops too, but surprisingly, none of them did it because of some factual, scientific or practically experienced health reason. For example: Algeria and some Several protestant regional church organisations in Germany namely; Hannover, Hessen und Nassau, Sachsen, Protestanic Church of Westfalen, Protestanic Church in Berlin-Brandenburg, Church Province of Sachsen who have banned GE crops from their land:
 
 
 
Source: Peter Boamah Otokunor Economic Policy Analyst and a trained Agriculturist peter.otokunor@gmail.com
 
 
 

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