Man ever since creation has evolved and survived well chiefly because of his instinct for survival which has hitherto driven him towards knowledge and research to fulfil his basic needs; Food, cloth and shelter and also to improve his environment and life generally.
For centuries, there has been scientific researches and projects aim at improving and increasing food supply to meet the food demand of the ever increasing world population. Earlier researches aim at achieving this include selective breeding involving artificial and natural selection as well as mutation breeding. With more advancement in knowledge and scientific research, there was the development of the most recent method of plant and animal improvement; genetic engineering or generic modification which is the direct manipulation of an organism’s genome using biotechnology. It is a set of technologies used to change the genetic makeup of cells, including the transfer of genes within and across species boundaries to produce improved or novel organisms called genetically modified organisms.
Over the last few decades there has been serious debate on ethics, acceptability and potential risk attached to making use/consuming genetically modified organisms. The argument for and against GMO has been overwhelming, and seems endless. If the world is to move on from the debate, benefit from GMO and reduce its risk, there have to be a non bias approach towards striking a logical mid point on the subject matter.
The earlier methods of plant and animal improvement; Selective breeding and mutation breeding.
In selective breeding the aim is to use animal breeding and plant breeding to selectively develop particular phenotypic traits (characteristics) by choosing which typically animal or plant males and females will sexually reproduce and have better offspring otherwise knows as crossbreed and hybrids in animal and plant respectively. It is largely artificial, but could be natural atimes.
Mutation breeding , sometimes referred to as ” variation breeding”, is the process of exposing seeds to chemicals or radiation in order to generate mutants with desirable traits (or lacking undesirable ones) to be bred with other cultivars . These knowledge was developed right after the 2nd world war in a concerted effort to find ‘peaceful’ uses for atomic energy . This was the second old order of plant improvement , after selection and From 1930 to 2014 more than 3200 mutagenic plant varieties were released.
The recent method of plant and animal improvement; Genetically modified organisms
According to the World Health Organization, “Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) can be defined as 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 and/or natural recombination. The technology is often called ‘modern biotechnology’ or ‘gene technology’, sometimes also ‘recombinant DNA technology’ or ‘genetic engineering’. Foods produced from or using GM organisms are often referred to as GM foods. Genetic engineering techniques allow for the introduction of new traits as well as greater control over traits than previous methods such as selective breeding and mutation breeding.
Advantages of genetically modification of organisms and results gotten so far.
The first crops to be realized commercially on a large scale provided protection from insect pests or tolerance to herbicides. Fungal and virus resistant crops have also being developed or are in development. This make the insect and weed management of crops easier and can indirectly increase crop yield. GM crops that directly improve yield by accelerating growth or making the plant more hardy (by improving salt, cold or drought tolerance) are also under development.
• Salmon have been genetically modified with growth hormones to increase their size.
• Genetically modified soybean has been modified to tolerate herbicides and produce healthier oils. In 2015, 94% of soybean acreage in the U.S. was genetically modified to be glyphosate-tolerant.
• Corn used for food and ethanol has been genetically modified to tolerate various herbicides and to express a protein from Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) that kills certain insects.
GMOs have been developed that modify the quality of produce by increasing the nutritional value or providing more industrially useful qualities or quantities.
• The Amflora potato produces a more industrially useful blend of starches.
• Cows have been engineered to produce more protein in their milk to facilitate cheese production.
• Soybeans and canola have been genetically modified to produce more healthy oils.
• The first commercialised GM food was a tomato that had delayed ripening, increasing its shelf life.
• Papaya was genetically modified to resist the ringspot virus PRSV. New York Times stated, “in the early 1990s, Hawaii’s papaya industry was facing disaster because of the deadly papaya ringspot virus. Its single-handed savior was a breed engineered to be resistant to the virus. Without it, the state’s papaya industry would have collapsed. Today, 80% of Hawaiian papaya is genetically engineered, and there is still no conventional or organic method to control ringspot virus.
• As of 2005, about 13% of the Zucchini (a form of squash ) grown in the US was genetically modified to resist three viruses; that strain is also grown in Canada.
• In 2011, BASF requested the European Food Safety Authority ‘s approval for cultivation and marketing of its Fortuna potato as feed and food. The potato was made resistant to late blight by adding resistant genes blb1 and blb2 that originate from the Mexican wild potato Solanum bulbocastanum.
• In 2013, the USDA approved the import of a GM pineapple that is pink in color and that “overexpresses” a gene derived from tangerines and suppress other genes, increasing production of lycopene .
• In 2014, the USDA approved a genetically modified potato developed by J.R. Simplot Company that contained ten genetic modifications that prevent bruising and produce less acrylamide when fried.
• In February 2015 Arctic Apples were approved by the USDA, becoming the first genetically modified apple approved for sale in the US. Gene silencing is used to reduce the expression of polyphenol oxidase (PPO) , thus preventing the fruit from browning.
Plants and animals have been engineered to produce materials they do not normally make.
• Cows and goats have been engineered to express drugs and other proteins in their milk, and in 2009 the FDA approved a drug produced in goat milk.
• Golden rice is a variety of rice (Oryza sativa ) produced through genetic engineering to biosynthesize beta-carotene , a precursor of vitamin A , in the edible parts of rice
• Golden banana, a version of the golden rice has also been recently produced.
Issues against genetic modification of organisms and proposed risk of GMO as argued by the Anti GMO groups.
Critics have objected to the use of genetic engineering on several grounds, that include ethical, ecological and economic concerns. Many of these concerns involve GM crops and whether food produced from them is safe, whether it should be labeled and what impact growing them will have on the environment. These controversies have led to litigation, international trade disputes, and protests, and to restrictive regulation of commercial products in some countries.
Accusations that scientists are ” playing God ” and other religious issues have been ascribed to the technology from the beginning. Other ethical issues raised include the patenting of life , the use of intellectual property rights, the level of labeling on products, control of the food supply and the objectivity of the regulatory process.
Gene flow between GM crops and compatible plants, along with increased use of selective herbicides , can increase the risk of ” superweeds ” developing. Other environmental concerns involve potential impacts on non-target organisms, including soil microbes , and an increase in secondary and resistant insect pests. Many of the environmental impacts regarding GM crops may take many years to be understood are also evident in conventional agriculture practices. With the commercialization of genetically modified fish there are concerns over what the environmental consequences will be if they escape.
There are three main concerns over the safety of genetically modified food; whether they may provoke an allergic reaction, whether the genes could transfer from the food into human cells, and whether the genes not approved for human consumption could outcross to other crops.
There has always been noise from some quarters about side effect of GMO on non GMO products. there is the risk of losing the natural crops/seeds banks as GM seeds may gradually take over the entire seed market in the future and send our natural seeds to extinction due to neglect.
The key areas of controversy and disadvantage related to genetically modified food (GM food or GMO food) are whether such food should be labeled, the role of government regulators, the objectivity of scientific research and publication, the effect of genetically modified crops on the environment, and the effect on pesticide resistance.
Specific concerns include mixing of genetically modified and non-genetically modified products in the food supply, the rigor of the regulatory process, and consolidation of control of the food supply in companies that make and sell GMOs.
There is also concern that risks have not been adequately identified and managed, and the regulatory authorities has been questioned on objectivity.
Counter arguments and striking a balance on GMO debate.
A 2003 EMBO Reports article reported that the Public Perceptions of Agricultural Biotechnologies in Europe project (PABE) found the public neither accepting nor rejecting GMOs. Instead, PABE found that public had “key questions” about GMOs: “Why do we need GMOs? Who benefits from their use? Who decided that they should be developed and how? Why were we not better informed about their use in our food, before their arrival on the market? Why are we not given an effective choice about whether or not to buy these products? Have potential long-term and irreversible consequences been seriously evaluated, and by whom? Do regulatory authorities have sufficient powers to effectively regulate large companies? Who wishes to develop these products? Can controls imposed by regulatory authorities be applied effectively? Who will be accountable in cases of unforeseen harm?” PABE also found that the public’s scientific knowledge does not control public opinion, since scientific facts do not answer these questions. PABE also found that the public does not demand “zero risk” in GM food discussions and is “perfectly aware that their lives are full of risks that need to be counterbalanced against each other and against the potential benefits. Rather than zero risk, what they demanded was a more realistic assessment of risks by regulatory authorities and GMO producers.”
Although doubts have been raised, economically most studies have found growing GM crops to be beneficial to farmers and that currently available food derived from GM crops poses no greater risk to human health than conventional food, It will interest you to know that so far for over 30 years the anti GMO campaign has been on, the American Medical Association and the American Association for the Advancement of Science say that there is no scientific evidence of harm by GMO and therefore, even voluntary labeling is misleading and will falsely alarm consumers
Another argument people like me always put forward is the potential of we losing our natural seed bank and with further research I found that impossible, IRRI alone has 120million rice gene, in its gene bank. Norway has a gene bank for as many as possible species they can collect and there is the biodiversity center in Italy.
Several organic food and seed companies promote and sell certified organic products that were developed using both chemical and nuclear mutagenesis. Several certified organic brands, whose companies support strict labeling or outright bans on GMO-crops, market their use of branded wheat and other varietal strains which were derived from mutagenic processes without any reference to this genetic manipulation. These organic products range from mutagenic barley and wheat ingredient used in organic beers to mutagenic varieties of grapefruits sold directly to consumers as organic. These shows that earlier methods of plant improvements also involved gene manipulation.
It is worthy of note however, that GMO foods can not just be introduced and adopted blindly, in nations that GMO has been highly adopted, there has never been a free passage, but there has been tests. GM foods were tested on a case-by-case basis before introduction.
World population is projected to hit 9.0 billion people by 2050, with larger portion of this population coming from Africa and south east Asia. These 2 regions should get ready to feed it population , and the world should also braise itself up, else we may lose a sizeable part of the population to famine and starvation.
Far from being a pro GMO, as a matter of fact, I have been an advocate against it long ago as I belong to the pro organic farming group. However, with the world hunger and poverty rate, there may be need for reorientation especially in developing nations to not completely turn deaf ear to whatsoever have the potential of bringing about food security to the world. It is high time the world stepped down the campaign against GMO a little and focus more of our energy on an open minded research on GMO, with the aim of analyzing it side effect and health hazards, and with the purpose of determining its potential ability to solve world hunger problem, its practicability and sustainability.
There is no gain saying that there might be disadvantages and controversial issues of health safety attached to consumption of GMO, but it is not enough for us as Africans especially Nigerians to just by bandwagon join the list of nations that has outrightly rejected the GMO without first carrying out thorough research on case-to-case tests on GMO products.
On a final note, there must be an increase in public sensitization and awareness on GM products before introduction in any nation, as survey pointed out that rejection of GMOs have more to do with ignorance of the people about the product and process that what they know. Increase awareness will help improve the scientific knowledge of the public and will increase the sense of accurate judgment to either reject or accept the product without ignorance and or bias mind.
Aliyu Ahmed Olanrewaju
Researcher, Agribusiness consultant.