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By Uchechi Moses
When he won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970, Norman Borlaug remarked: “hunger and peace never coexist”. That reinforces the apophthegm that a hungry man is an angry individual.
With a world plagued by hunger aggravated by other human conditions, there is no better time to consider available dynamics and solutions to the food crisis facing the world today. GMO foods offer some gratifying menus. Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are organisms (i.e. plants, animals or microorganisms) in which the genetic material (DNA) has been altered in a way that does not occur naturally by mating or natural recombination. It is often referred to as “modern biotechnology”, “gene technology”, “recombinant DNA technology” or “genetic engineering”. It allows selected individual genes to be transferred from one organism into another, also between nonrelated and related species. Foods produced from or using GM organisms are generally referred to as GM foods. This apt definition is given by the World Health Organisation.
GM foods debacle is a raging issue around the world, coming at a time when one, in nine persons, around the globe, is hungry. We need to find better ways to feed the world: hunger, health, a growing population, the need to farm sustainably – are some of the issues facing our planet. In the next 50 years the world must produce more food than in the last 10,000 years. However, we are currently using resources 50% faster than the planet can sustain. How do we meet the challenge while protecting nature, helping people in rural communities, live better lives, and satisfying consumers who demand greater variety, quality and quantity of food? Coming down to our country, Nigeria, her current population is estimated at 186 million which has – wait for it – been projected to balloon to 400 million by mid-century, less than 33 years from now.
For a very long time, humans have been genetically enhancing other organisms through the practice of selective breeding. Look around you: the sweet corn, fortified cassava, nutritious rice and seedless watermelons at the supermarket, the healthy hens at the poultry, and your neighbour’s gardens are all examples of how humans have selectively enhanced desirable traits in other living things; yes, we have selectively enhanced desirable traits in other living things. Genetic engineering techniques now allow scientists to insert or remove specific genes into a plant or animal without having to go through the trial-and-error process of selective breeding. Genetic engineering is therefore extremely rapid compared to selective breeding. How is this done? Gene transfer technology is simply a sophisticated version of a cut-and-paste operation. Once the desired gene is identified in the native organism’s genome, it can be cut out, transferred to the target plant, and pasted into its genome. Once the new gene has been introduced, the plant can be bred to create a new strain that passes the gene from generation to generation (Gene or DNA cloning).
There are a variety of techniques used to modify plants and animals through genetic engineering. For example, there is a widely used herbicide that kills any plant that it touches. The manufacturers have genetically modified soybeans and other crop plants to create what is called “Roundup Ready” strains that are not affected by Roundup. By planting ‘Roundup Ready’ seeds, a farmer can control weeds by spraying Roundup right over the crop. The crop completely ignores the herbicide, but the weeds are eliminated. Roundup Ready seeds reduce production costs and increase yield, so food becomes less expensive. Other scientists have inserted genes that produce a natural insecticide into corn plants to eliminate damage from corn borers, and a variety of anti-fungal genes can be inserted as well.
The list goes on and on – there really is no limit to what can be done. Let’s say you are a tomato farmer whose crops are threatened by Tuta absoluta. Each year, you spend large sums of money for pesticides to protect your crops. A biotechnology company introduces a new strain of tomato plant that produces a natural pesticide, making it resistant to the moth. By switching to this new strain, you could avoid both the pest and the chemical pesticides traditionally needed to fight it. Furthermore, not long ago, tomatoes, botanically known as Solanum lycopersicum, were severely attacked by pests, which was nicknamed “Tomato Ebola” for obvious reasons. This moth destroyed swathes of tomato farms around the country, affected farmers’ income and even shut down a factory. Prices skyrocketed and stew, a favourite staple, suddenly became the preserve of the rich. Government together with a surfeit of agricultural institutions scampered for solution(s); albeit, short-term. However, if conventional methods were used to do this, it would be years before a tomato plant with the desired level of resistance appeared on the market (mind you it takes circa 10 years for a GM strain to be introduced into the market. This is due to testing, efficacy and regulatory approvals).
That is why agric-biotechnological experts are focusing on genetic analyses. By looking at the genome of a young plant, analysts can tell whether or not it has the characteristics that make it a suitable candidate for breeding. This gets things done a lot faster than conventional crossbreeding would, through such way we could produce high-quality seeds and deliver them to say tomato growers and nurseries all over the world. Breeding activities are not just about building up resistance in the tomatoes, though. It is also possible to make continual improvements to properties like firmness and taste. The “Intense” tomato is one example of this because it retains its juice even when you squeeze it. That makes it ideal for fast-food chains, where the last thing you want is a tomato slice that turns your sandwich or burger soggy. China’s ChemChina in February last year bought the Swiss agric giant Syngenta for $43 billion, the same company bought Israeli agro specialty firm ADAMA Agricultural Solutions. This should not sound surprising as the Chinese are becoming wealthier by the day and their eating habits have changed. Higher incomes resulted in demand for quality food, a characteristic of GM foods.
However, even with all these developments, various groups have ganged up against science and innovation by “claiming” that GM foods are harmful, therefore not fit for consumption. GM foods are being abhorred and the process(es) maligned. This analogy is wrong. Firstly, there is the argument that “natural” is always better, whether it be applied to your food or to other aspects of life. Many people find this idea very compelling; after all, we humans are part of nature, so why not consume foods in their natural state?
This argument is not helpful for many reasons, too many to list here, but a few would suffice. Let us start with cooking: It sure is not natural, but cooking allows us to extract far more nutrients from our food, and is one of man’s greatest inventions. Or consider pasteurization, an unnatural process that has saved countless millions of people from death by killing the bacteria that are present in purely “natural” milk and other products. Suffice it to say that there is nothing wrong with modifying our food to make it easier to digest, healthier or just tastier. The fact that some genetic modifications fail to do any of these things does not make GMOs or GM Foods bad, it just means that GM technology can be applied in other ways. What about the cassava fortified with Vitamin A, which has helped millions of families on the lower strata of the economic scale (who are the highest consumers of staple crops) to get the food and improve their eyesight?
The other argument against GMOs, perhaps the more emotional one, is that they are just a stealth method to allow big agricultural corporations to sell more herbicides and pesticides. This is not exactly out of place: for instance, Monsanto’s RoundUp Ready crops are engineered to allow farmers to use more of the herbicide glyphosphate. Regardless of the arguments about herbicides, the fundamental problem with this argument is that it is gross over-generalization: just because you do not like RoundUp Ready soybeans does not mean that all GMOs should be banned. As the National Academy of Sciences of the United States concluded in a report published earlier this year, “It is the product, not the process that should be regulated.” Now consider Golden Rice, a variety of rice that has been genetically modified so that it naturally produces beta carotene, which humans metabolize to produce vitamin A. Golden Rice has the potential to reduce vitamin A deficiency, which has devastating effects in parts of the world where children struggle to get enough nutrition, a deficiency in the vitamin affects between 250, 000 and 500,000 people around the globe.
However, organic farming has been thrown up as the answer. What is often missed is the labour intensiveness of organic farming; the materials are scarce and very limited in supply; hence, organic fruits and vegetables are expensive. Also, it is almost impossible to feed big cities like those in say the US only with organic. Maybe you can feed Kiribati, Fiji Island, or Luxembourg with subsistence organic farming BUT not a country like Nigeria. So, how do we expect organic farming to feed the nation? What kind of magic are we going to perform? Also, agricultural land in Nigeria is a problem. We have land but we still do not have land. Yes, we have abundant land in South West but most landowners have made it practically impossible to farm. What about the North Central with its perennial communal crises, South-South with the massive degradation that has gone on for a generation, or the densely populated South-East? Let us not mention the massive desertification North of the Niger. So, there is no enough land to practice farming in SW, SS and SE despite the availability of abundant massive land in the regions.
Again, do you realize organic farmers intentionally grow fungi and bacteria in soil to get high yield? Some of these microorganisms are dangerous to health; hence, there are rules farmers follow in order not to transfer those organisms to the plants. Farm workers must be careful not to be infected. Will an average, unconcerned, Nigerian farmer want to follow the preventive rules? GM producers have been accused of “injecting” bacteria into crops, however, this is false as there are good and bad bacteria. An example is the bacteria in the human gut that aids digestion thereby preventing potential gastro-intestinal diseases like peptic ulcer or Zollinger-Ellison syndrome. Further examples lie in the use of bacteria in probiotics, which aid digestion or lactose free dairy products (most Africans are genetically affected with this condition); ironically organic farmers have no issue with this, so tell me why should GM companies not modify plants by injecting bacteria (GOOD) to make them good?
In closing, using the words of the science website Genetic Literacy Project: “science trumps ideology”. Nigeria needs GM technology and its benefits as we lack food security. Nonetheless, there are safety concerns with every innovative technology just like in the pharmaceutical industry. However, we should not throw the baby with the bath water. GM technology is needed now than ever with the agricultural revolution, increasing population, climate change and economic diversification going on in the country today.
Uchechi Moses writes from the Department of Genetics and Biotechnology, Akwa Ibom State University