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22.10.2008 Feature Article

Genetically Modified Food-To eat or not to eat?

Many people harbor negative feelings regarding genetically modified (GM) foods. Some even argue the end of the human race as a result of patronizing genetically modified foods. Much of this can be credited to disinformation circulating through the public consciousness, although some apprehension has its root in valid concerns of the technology.

One current debate revolves around if GM foods will help or harm farmers in poor and developing countries. It cannot be far fetched to say that some other concerns are based on perception. It is important though to address the question posed by the title by assessing the merits and demerits of GMOs based on results from studies in an unbiased manner.
In addressing the issue of safety which is of utmost importance to some skeptics, GM foods undergo intensive scrutiny by way of DNA tests performed by reputable agencies such as the US department of Agriculture (USDA), the food and drugs Administration (FDA), and the European Network of GMO Laboratories (ENGL) etc.

As far as regulation in Ghana is concerned, our standing policy has been look up to the United States and other western, developed countries to set the standards and make importers adhere to the same. As for whether this is the right thing to do or not is matter to be left for public debate and discussion. As a result I will focus on GMO regulation in the United States.

In the US, the USDA regulates the commercial sale of GMOs, requires permits and "clearance". The EPA regulates the introduction of GMOs and along with the USDA studies affects that may occur on any non-target organism, toxicity levels and allergy reactions that may be caused by the GMO. The FDA looks for any significant differences between the GM and conventional food as well as any safety issue that may affect the public. To gain approval from the FDA, a GMO must have nutritional studies, allergen studies, toxicity results, chemical composition analyses and more. In total, the GMO must pass nine stages of review and failure at any stage results in denial of its introduction and use. Since 1996, several crops have passed these tests including soybean, corn, rice, potato, tomato, squash, papaya and cotton to name just a few. In 2006, 89% of soybeans, 83% of cotton and 61% of corn in the U.S. were GMO. According to the USDA/UF website, 25,000 field safety tests have been conducted on more than 60 GM plants and animals in 45 countries. In the U.S. alone, more than 6,500 field tests in 18,000 locations have been conducted. The Grocery Manufacturer's Association estimates that 70% of all food in U.S. groceries has a GMO component. In the 12 years since GMOs have been introduced, the horror stories of people suffering from severe reactions to the GMO component in their food has been deafeningly silent.

Another aspect of GM foods is their cost. If the cost is prohibitively high, poor farmers will be unable to grow GM crops and will, by default, be required to grow crops conventionally. When considering the cost of growing a crop, one must examine the initial cost for seed, the susceptibility of the cultivar to disease, the amount and number of pesticides needed to protect the crops, the yield and how much time and labor will be required for a successful season. Although the cost of GM seed is higher than for conventional seed, savings are seen in the other areas. In 2001 the chairman of ISAAA, Dr. James, noted that of the $20 Billion of cotton grown annually, 70% is grown in developing countries. In general, 5 million farmers in 13 countries grow GM crops and 75% of those farmers are resource-poor. One reason farmers use GM crops is because many are less susceptible to disease and insects. This means less pesticide is needed, less money is spent on the crop and more yield is harvested because it has not been lost to insect damage and disease. For Bt cotton which is insect resistant, 50% less pesticide is needed during the growing season. This is important since conventional cotton has required $5 Billion annually and 20% of the global insecticide to produce less cotton than the GM cotton has produced with 50% less insecticide. In 2001, the use of Bt cotton saved 10,500 Metric TONS of active insecticide ingredient from being used. This means 10,500 Metric Tons of pesticide runoff was prevented from contaminating the aquifer and local water sources. Furthermore, since farmers in China and South Africa apply insecticides by hand, the use of Bt cotton allows significantly less exposure. As for Bt cotton yield, it has increased by 5-10% in China, 10% in the U.S. and Mexico and 25% in South Africa. In China, this means the amount of seed cotton produced on 1.5 Million hectares has increased by 514,000 Metric TONS. In 2005, China and Argentina had begun producing more than they consume and were considering exporting some of their excess. In the U.S. in 2001 Bt cotton increased the economic gain by $50/hectare and $100 Million nationally. In China, the gain was $500 Million/hectare and $750 Million nationally. In China, this increased economic gain means farmers have higher incomes and allows poor farmers to spend more on food and greater nutrition. Just as important is the time and labor Bt cotton saves. In South Africa, 50% of the farmers are women. Bt cotton allows them more time to care for their children and earn extra income. A female farmer generally saves 12 days of pesticide spraying, more than 250 gallons of water, pesticide exposure, and increases her income by $85/season.

A final concern for many people is how GM foods are used. Many have heard of the "terminator" gene and think it is appalling because on the surface, it sounds as if big business is trying to control the food supply or squeeze money from poor farmers who have none to give. However, once one understands the purpose of the terminator gene, it would seem almost irresponsible for it to be absent from GM crops. The addition of the terminator gene means GM crops are sterile. There are two main reasons for this. First, it prevents gene flow. Gene flow occurs when two plants create progeny. If, for example, a GM crop plant crossed with a weed plant, then it would be possible to find all the good traits that were in your GM crop in the new hybrid. This means the hybrid could have a trait for insect resistance, pesticide resistance or faster maturity just like the GM crop except these traits would now be incorporated into a weed. The hybrid, then, would be harder to kill, grow back faster and be even more of a menace to the farmer than it was originally. The terminator gene prevents the natural gene pool from becoming contaminated with the GM crops' modified genes. The second reason the terminator gene is actually a good idea is due to the simple laws of inheritance described by Mendel in 1866. What happens when you cross two heterozygous plants through to the second generation? If you can do a punnet square, then you know that recessive traits start showing up. So although the original GM crop grown by the farmer produced a homozygous crop, the second generation crop would be heterozygous. A heterozygous mixture of plants would be harder to control, care for and maintain. Some plants would be insect resistant, some would not. Some plants would grow faster, others slower. It would be difficult to know when to apply a pesticide because some of your plants would need it, but not all. In short, it would be a mess that could cost an already poor farmer a good season. For those who still believe farmers should be able to save seed, a gene called "exorcist" has been developed. This gene allows farmers to have a second generation of plants however, the GM gene is lost. They get a second season, but the reason they originally wanted the GM seed is no longer there. The plant is no longer insect resistant or pesticide resistant etc.

When all of these issues are examined in totality, the answer must be that GM crops will help rather than hurt the world's poor. Bananas have been created which now produce a human vaccine to Hepatitis D. This could feed and protect children living in third world countries from a disease which is both horrible and incurable. Rice has been produced which has 23 times more vitamin A than conventional rice. All over the world deficiencies in vitamin A cause blindness and lead to 500,000 deaths per year. For those who believe GM foods aren't necessary and the U.S. should simply re-distribute the excess they already have, one should look to berate the very countries the U.S. is trying to help. In 2002, Zambia refused to receive the GM corn provided to them from the UN's World Food Programme. In 2004, Hugo Chavez initiated a total ban on GM foods in Venezuela. In 2005, the Hungarian government refused to accept GM corn even though it was approved by the EU. The leaders of these countries apparently don't care if their people are starving, and Zambia was dealing with a famine. The problem isn't that the U.S. doesn't want to help, but that the leaders of these countries don't care enough to help their own people.

The author is a graduate student in California.
Correspondence email: [email protected]

Kwabena Owsusu ansah
Kwabena Owsusu ansah, © 2008

This author has authored 2 publications on Modern Ghana. Author column: KwabenaOwsusuansah

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