The stir that is GMO

gmo-safety

One of the few industries reaping profits in the month of January are arguably, fitness centres.  This is for reasons obvious, Christmas holiday’s indulgences and the oh-so-famous New Year resolutions meet in a beautiful union. Do people still make those?

We eat so much we forget that we once fought genetically modified organisms… foods, infamously abbreviated as GMO’s. I say once, because on one of my few occasions to catch national news, politicians were up in arms against it, then the usual social media uproar and then the swift move to the next interesting bit of news. In case you are wondering, the ban on GMO in Kenya was to be lifted as at November 2015 – There are no confirmed sources whether that occurred.  For such a construed topic, GM crops only constitute 10% of the crops worldwide with 90% of them being grown in the US, Canada, Argentina and Brazil.

The Start

Selective breeding of crops has been in existence since time immemorial. In fact, wheat is a textbook example of a man- made plant that is currently a staple. A crop is termed genetically modified (transgenic) if genetic material is added from another plant species, animal, bacteria or virus. The difference between this and traditional selective breeding is that it involves precise insertion of a gene(s) and scientists can identify where the problem is if and when it occurs. Before you bring out the placards, the human genome is laden with bacterial, viral and other animal species genes, as we are continuously exposed to them through the natural environment, same applies to plants: molecular biologists can confirm this for you.

A couple of decades ago, GM technology was discovered with intentions of creating plant varieties that require less pesticide, give greater yield, more drought resistant and more nutritious e.g. golden rice. Ultimate result being to food more available and cheaper (food security). The current price of tomatoes is a good example.

Glory moments of GM

GM technology is not just restricted to the agricultural industry, it has its tentacles in the pharmaceutical industry, manufacturing industry and even GM microorganisms as biodegraders. Entities that the society seem content and happy with.

One UC Berkeley researcher pointed that GMO is one of the technologies that has significantly opened public discussion to how science is conducted and regulated. Studies investigating effects of GMO studies such as those conducted by European Commission, you will be relieved to discover, have established no apparent risk from GM crops. This is because there is skepticism that arises when this research is funded by the biotech companies profiting from the sale of GM seeds. I have to point out that GM products are still banned in some EU countries despite the exports to developing countries (from those that do allow).

The conundrum

The fight held by farmers and some anti-GMO activists against biotech companies is simple, GM seeds cannot be used for subsequent seasons, read reliance. This is unsustainable for small scale farmers. There is also the issue of contamination of natural crops with GM pollen, one that can be addressed with buffer zones between GM fields and organic ones.

WHO (World Health Organisation) was on a streak in 2015. Before it declared red and processed meats as probable carcinogenics, they had a news release that did not stimulate a similar buzz among the masses. They established links between Monsanto’s Roundup (glyphosate) and cancer as far as animal studies are concerned. Roundup is the most widely used herbicide that kills weeds but glyphosate GM crops are resistant to it.  A statement that is being fought for retraction.

GM is the biotech version of say Goldenberg scandal within science circles. Hence scientists are divided in their opinions on the effects of GMO. Some dismiss it as almost mythical fears that people harbor and anti GM scientists argue that the genome being a dynamic environment is subject to change. One of their points being that even for well characterised genes, genes inserted into plant genomes have the ability to change locations and elicit different effects. It is a real feud out there for credible reasons, because if you fiddle with genes there will be repercussions of various degrees. This coupled by miscommunication between scientists and the public and anti-GMO advocacy groups via the media creates a messy web of affairs.

Solution

This conclusion is not etched in stone, but genetically engineered crops have more proven benefits than risks at the moment. Neutral scientists, not linked to biotech companies, should probably conduct more studies in the long term effects of GMO to humans, animals and the environment and disseminate the information appropriately to the media to win back the society’s trust.

Countries considering adoption of GM technologies should implement due legislation such as not exceeding 0.9% of the product as is the case in EU. The other prudent thing would be to give consumers the freedom of choice by appropriately labeling these products.

Share your thoughts here. I plugged in some links for the few who might want to venture in deeper.

http://www.nature.com/scitable/topicpage/genetically-modified-organisms-gmos-transgenic-crops-and-732

http://ensia.com/voices/the-complex-nature-of-gmos-calls-for-a-new-conversation/

http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v518/n7537/abs/nature14121.html

I believe I am still within the allowable time frame to wish you a happy new year!!

 

Hearty thank you to my guest editor Ken.

 

Photocredit: symbiosistx.com

 

 

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