As national Biosafety coordinator in Botswana, Dr Mmasera Manthe-Tsuaneng told a stakeholders’ workshop on Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) in 2004 that although genetic engineering promised remarkable advances in many areas, “the impact on the environment and on human health were major outstanding issues.” Today, three years on, the debate about GMOs in our food still rages across the world.
The biotech industry claims that GMOs will save the environment and solve the hunger crisis. But organizations, such as Christian Aid and Greenpeace, say GMOs are likely to increase world hunger.
A genetically modified organism, also called “genetically engineered”, is a plant, animal or microorganism created by means that overcome natural boundaries. Genetic engineering involves crossing species which cannot cross in nature. For example, genes from fish have been inserted into strawberries and tomatoes to enhance desired traits, such as increased resistance to herbicides or improved nutritional content.
Today, a rose by any other name is no longer a rose.
“With biotechnology, roses are no longer crossed with just roses,” says Nathan Batalion of Americans for Safe Food in Oneonta, New York. “Roses can now be mated with pigs, tomatoes with oak trees, fish with asses, and orchids with snakes.”
Batalion describes the technology that makes this possible as “a gunshot-like violence that pierces the nuclear membrane of cells, essentially violating the consciousness that forms and guides living nature.” He compares it to “the violent crossing of territorial borders of countries, subduing inhabitants against their will.”
Some people believe the world is threatened by “undoubtedly the single most potent technology the world has ever known…as GMOs are being released throughout our environment and deployed with superficial or no risk assessments – as if no one needs to worry an iota about its unparalleled powers to harm life as we know it.”
Others emphasize that the central problem underlying all of this technology is not just its short-term benefits and long-term drawbacks, but the overall attempt to “control” living nature.
Proponents say GMO foods have many advantages. They cite crops getting enhanced taste and quality, reduced maturation time, increased nutrients, yields, and they stress tolerance, improved resistance to disease, pests and herbicides. They say animals see increased resistance, productivity, hardiness, and feed efficiency, better yields of meat, eggs and milk, and improved health. They claim that society benefits through increased food security for growing populations.
But the vocal GMO opposition worries about safety and the impact GMOs have on human health, especially allergens, unknown effects and the transfer of antibiotic resistance markers. They are weary of the domination of world food production by a few companies and the resultant increased dependence on industrialized nations by developing countries and the biopiracy or foreign exploitation of natural resources.
Then there is every scientist’s nightmare: ethics. There are accusations that GMOs violate natural organisms’ intrinsic values by tempering with nature through mixing genes among species and many object to consuming animal genes in plants and vice versa. In addition, they say new advances are already skewed to interests of rich countrie. Time Magazine said much of GMO technology is directed at eliminating the surrounding biological environment – competing animals and plants. Secondly, there are terminator plants that do not reproduce a second generation – preventing a subsequent generation from escaping the controlling patented mold. In contrast to nature’s rainforests teeming with life, GM technology has planted forests of flowerless, fruitless “terminator trees.”
“They are not habitats for life, but exude poisons from every leaf, killing all but a few insects,” the magazine said. “Thirdly, GM companies have gone on multi-billion dollar buying sprees, purchasing seed companies and destroying their non-patented (potentially competitive) seed stocks.” The magazine said the consequences of the ‘naked essence’ of biotechnology are a global ‘Death of Birth.’
“GMOs have the potential to lead to an increase in food security, decreased pressure on land use and increased sustainable yield,” said Botswana’s Mmasera Manthe-Tsuaneng. “Socio-economic consequences are potentially severe like displacement of cash crops and the disruption of small scale farming systems that are prevalent in developing countries like Botswana.”
Because of contradicting safety claims, no major insurance company has been willing to insure bio-engineered agricultural products. They cite the high level of unpredictable consequences.
The prestigious British medical journal, the Lancet, issued a warning that GM foods should never have been allowed into the food chain. Britain’s Medical Association, with 100,000 physicians, and Germany’s with 325,000 issued similar statements. To counterbalance this, industry-employed scientists signed a statement in favour of genetically engineered foods.
But are any of these scientists impartial? “Academic scientists who lack industry ties have become as rare as giant pandas in the wild,” wrote the New York Times. “Lawmakers, bioethics experts and regulators are troubled that so many researchers have a financial stake, via stock options or patent participation.”
The fear, the paper said, is that the lure of profit “could colour scientific integrity, prompting researchers to withhold information about potentially dangerous side-effects.”
“Genetic Engineering is often justified as a human technology, one that feeds more people with better food. Nothing could be further from the truth,” said David Ehrenfield, Professor of Biology at Rutgers University. “With very few exceptions, the whole point of genetic engineering is to increase sales of chemicals and bio-engineered products to dependent farmers.”
Environmentalists, religious organizations, public interest groups, professional associations and scientists have all raised concerns about GM foods, and criticized agribusiness for pursuing profit without concern for potential hazards, and criticize governments for failing to exercise adequate regulatory oversight.
They list several fears. For example, last year, Nature magazine revealed a laboratory study showing that pollen from biotech maize caused high mortality rates in monarch butterfly caterpillars.
“Monarch caterpillars consume milkweed plants, not maize,” said the magazine. “But if pollen from biotech corn is blown by the wind onto milkweed plants in neighbouring fields, the caterpillars could eat the pollen and perish.”
They also pointed at the reduced effectiveness of pesticides. “Just as some populations of mosquitoes developed resistance to the now-banned pesticide, DDT, many people are concerned that insects will become resistant to biotech or other crops that have been genetically-modified to produce their own pesticides.”
But, above all, their concerns lie with human health. They cite allergenicity, giving an example of many children in the US and Europe who have developed life-threatening allergies to peanuts and other foods. They fear that introducing foreign genes into food plants may have an unexpected and negative impact on human health.
Regrettably, there still has not been a long-term study showing that GMOs are safe, yet the biotech industry and governments allow our environment and families to become test subjects in these experiments.
Doctors around the world have warned that “laboratory and field evidence show that GMOs can harm beneficial insects, damage soils and transfer GMO genes in the environment, thereby contaminating neighbouring crops and potentially creating uncontrollable weeds.”
Proponents, however, advance the argument that GMOs are necessary to feed the developing world’s growing population.
What choice do starving Africans have? In the face of starvation, Africans have only two choices. Eat or eat.
In 1998, African scientists at a UN conference strongly objected to Monsanto, a leading producer of GMO foods’ promotional campaign that used photos of starving African children under the headline: “Let the Harvest Begin.”
The scientists, representing many nations affected by poverty and hunger, said gene technologies would undermine their nations’ capacities to feed themselves “by destroying established diversity, local knowledge and sustainable agricultural systems.” Genetic engineering, they insisted, could actually lead to an increase in hunger and starvation. African scientists argued that biotech companies eagerly pursue a genetic-engineering technique named “terminator” technology that renders a crop’s seed sterile, making it impossible for farmers to save seed for replanting “yet half the world’s farmers rely on saved seed to produce food that 1.4 billion people rely on for daily nutrition.”
Some argue that there is more than enough food in the world and that the hunger crisis is caused by problems in food distribution and politics, not production.
On June 23, 2006 results of a survey requested by the European Union were released showing that most Europeans believe that GMO foods should not be encouraged and see biotech crops as posing a risk to society.
While their counterparts in Europe and America are able to resist such products, Africans, in the presence of starvation, are left at the mercy of multi-national companies, corrupt governments and greedy scientists. There is suspicion that bad foods are easily being dumped on Africa because of African leaders’ propensity to turn draught into famine.
On June 1, 2001, Botswana becaome signatory to the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, which deals with the issue of GMO products as well as the conservation of biological diversity and the equitable sharing of benefits from the use of generic resources. Bon appetit!