Health hazard of the GMO kind
by KELETSO THOBEGA
Eating is an important part of our life: to fuel energy, repair the body, improve well being – a crucial element of sustenance. While the basics of eating enough for energy and consuming healthy and wholesome nutritious food have been perpetuated, nowadays even healthy food is not so healthy.
The mass demand for food has seen a need for fast yielding yet wholesome food. This has seen a rampant increase of genetically modified foods.
The term GM foods or GMOs (genetically-modified organisms) is most commonly used to refer to crop plants created for human or animal consumption using the latest molecular biology techniques. These plants have been modified in the laboratory to enhance desired traits such as increased resistance to herbicides or improved nutritional content. The enhancement of desired traits has traditionally been undertaken through breeding, but conventional plant breeding methods can be time consuming and are often inaccurate.
Genetic engineering, on the other hand, can create plants with the exact desired trait rapidly, with great accuracy. Not only can genes be transferred from one plant to another, but genes from non-plant organisms also can be used.
In the year 2000, an estimated thirteen countries grew genetically-engineered crops commercially. In 2000, 68 percent of all GM crops were grown by U.S. farmers. In comparison, Argentina, Canada and China produced only 23 percent, 7 percent and 1percent, respectively. Other countries that grew commercial GM crops are Australia, Bulgaria, France, Germany, Mexico, Romania, South Africa, Spain, and Uruguay.
The world now has over 6 billion people and the population is predicted to double in the next 50 years. Ensuring an adequate food supply for such a booming population is a major challenge. The perception is that GM foods promise to meet this need.
Crop losses from insect pests can be staggering, resulting in devastating financial loss for farmers and starvation in developing countries. Farmers often use many chemical pesticides annually. Consumers do not wish to eat food that has been treated with pesticides, because of potential health hazards, and run-off of agricultural wastes from excessive use of pesticides and fertilizers can poison the water supply and cause harm to the environment. Growing GM foods can help eliminate the application of chemical pesticides, and reduce the cost of bringing a crop to market.
For some crops, it is not cost-effective to remove weeds by physical means such as tilling, so farmers spray large quantities of different herbicides (weed-killer) to destroy weeds, a time-consuming and expensive process, that requires care so that the herbicide doesn't harm the crop plant or the environment. Crop plants genetically-engineered to be resistant to one very powerful herbicide could help prevent environmental damage by reducing the amount of herbicides needed. There are many viruses, fungi and bacteria that cause plant diseases and plant biologists are working to create plants with genetically-engineered resistance to these diseases.
As the world population grows and more land is utilized for housing instead of food production, farmers will need to grow crops in locations previously unsuited for plant cultivation. Creating plants that can withstand long periods of drought or high salt content in soil and groundwater will help people to grow crops in formerly inhospitable places.
Medicines and vaccines often are costly to produce and sometimes require special storage conditions not readily available in third world countries.
Environmental activists, religious organizations and other scientists and government officials have raised concerns about GM foods, and criticized agribusiness for pursuing profit without concern for potential hazards. Most concerns about GM foods fall into three categories, with environmental hazards being the first.
Just as some populations of mosquitoes developed resistance to the now-banned pesticide DDT, many people are concerned that insects will become resistant to B.t. or other crops that have been genetically-modified to produce their own pesticides. Another concern is that crop plants engineered for herbicide tolerance and weeds will cross-breed, resulting in the transfer of the herbicide resistance genes from the crops into the weeds. These "superweeds" would then be herbicide tolerant as well. Other introduced genes may cross over into non-modified crops planted next to GM crops.
The second concern centres on human health risks. Many children globally have developed life-threatening allergies to peanuts and other foods. There is a possibility that introducing a gene into a plant may create a new allergen or cause an allergic reaction in susceptible individuals. Extensive testing of GM foods may be required to avoid the possibility of harm to consumers with food allergies. There is also a concern that introducing foreign genes into food plants may have an unexpected and negative impact on human health. On the whole, with the exception of possible allergenicity, some scientists believe that GM foods do not present a risk to human health.
Then there are environmental concerns. Bringing a GM food to market is a lengthy and costly process, and of course agri-biotech companies wish to ensure a profitable return on their investment. Many new plant genetic engineering technologies and GM plants have been patented, and patent infringement is a big concern of agribusiness. Yet consumer advocates are worried that patenting these new plant varieties will raise the price of seeds so high that small farmers and third world countries will not be able to afford seeds for GM crops, thus widening the gap between the wealthy and the poor. It is hoped that in a humanitarian gesture, more companies and non-profits will follow the lead of the Rockefeller Foundation and offer their products at reduced cost to impoverished nations.
Botswana relies on its neighbors for food, so there isn't much of a choice in determining whether food is GM or not. In Botswana, are we particular about GM foods?
Masego Konopo is a 26-year-old young woman, particular about her diet and fitness. "The more natural a food is, the better. I eat whatever is at my disposal and I can afford but I often shy away from processed or fried foods. I don't think many Batswana care about GM because we export most of our food anyways and do not have a choice," she said.
Boitshepo Goya, a health columnist says in one of her commentaries, "Consumers are usually duped by unscrupulous food companies who label the products as "natural" and charge an arm and both legs for them.
“The problem is that the regulations on food labeling are sometimes fairly loose and unclear so it leaves a lot of terminology to a lot of interpretation. As a result you could be pushing a supermarket trolley laden with high sugar, hydrogenated and trans-fats, high salt and loads of preservatives thinking they are 'natural and healthy'.
“Natural ingredients are whole foods straight from the plant or animal or are made from wholesome ingredients with as little processing and as few added flavourings, stabilisers, and preservatives as possible. Minimal tampering with foods keeps nutrients in their original form and flavours. When you buy any product, it should not have a list of ingredients that rival an astrophysicist's thesis. For instance if I'm buying whole-wheat flour, I expect whole-wheat to be the first ingredient and then a couple other things. If the wheat flour comes as a seventh ingredient on the list, then I know to stay away as now I would be buying everything else but my intended whole-wheat flour. Eating natural is a way to avoid genetically modified foods (GMOs)and chemically fertilised foods which may do harm over time," she explained.
A local health practitioner who did not want to be named, equally wasn't positive about GM foods. "There are a lot of unnatural elements in the food, which the body is not accustomed to. It requires more for the body to digest this food and they might even have harmful radicals. There is an increase of cases of cancer, and other lifestyle related illnesses, mainly due to the fact that that people are eating food that is not good for them," he said.
Genetically-modified foods have the potential to solve many of the world's hunger and malnutrition problems, and to help protect and preserve the environment by increasing yield and reducing reliance on chemical pesticides and herbicides. Yet, there are many challenges ahead for governments, especially in the areas of safety testing, regulation, international policy and food labeling. Genetic engineering is the inevitable wave of the future and that we cannot afford to ignore a technology that has seemingly enormous potential benefits.
It’s the prerogative of all to try and consume food that is nutritious, wholesome and natural. However, the GM fad doesn't seem to be going anywhere, and soon we will be eating huge red succulent looking tomatoes that were grown in two days. The advances of technology may assist, but the health element lingers.