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Genetic Modification and Genetically Modified Foods- Are we Reaping the Benefits?

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Technology is moving fast and the field of biotechnology has skyrocketed into the 21st century to the point that man is now able to modify DNA- the molecule that contains the genetic information present in every living cell and predicts the inborn characteristics of each organism. Genetic modification and Genetically Modified Foods brings with it a range of issues from political and ethical, to health and environmental, which make for a controversial and sensitive topic.

 

Since its inception in United States in the mid-1980s the concept of genetically modifying foodstuffs has grown into a reality. In 1992, the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) approved GM crops as safe and by the year 2000 GM foods were being grown in almost 100 countries, including South Africa.

 

While some people may be completely in the dark as to what this means, others are aware of some of the health issues and concerns that have caused Greenpeace activists and the like to label GM foods “frankenfoods”.

 

Is it morally right to “play God” and alter a plant’s DNA- the molecule that dictates the in-born characteristics of living organisms and thereby rendering them “unnatural”? Is man’s ability to control nature through biotechnology going too far? Or is bio-technology Africa’s new hops and saviour? This controversial topic raises countless issues ranging from scientific and technological to health and ethical. While the supporters argue that GM foods are safe, many experts are concerned about the long-term health implications of modifying DNA.

 

What is genetic modification?

 

Contained in the tiny nucleus in the centre of all cells is the genetic material, or genes, that predicts the size, shape and function of all living creatures. Genetic modification is possible only because the genes of all organisms are made of the same stuff-DNA. Through DNA technology, genetic material from one organism can be “cut and pasted” to another organism. Genes can be transferred from one plant to another, foreign genes (called trans genes) can be introduced into an organism or a specific gene can be switched off or under expressed, so as to create the desired effect. The resulting transformed, or transgenic, plant is referred to as a genetically modified plant.

 

 

Why genetically modify foods?

 

There are many reasons for genetic modification of foods. Crops can be modified to be resistant to certain pests and diseases or to extremes of temperature. In South Africa, the principle reason for GM crops is to help eliminate poverty and hunger. By increasing crop yields and preventing the encroachment of natural resources, genetic engineering may help take some of the stress off an otherwise stressed and barren environment. It is believed that by increasing the nutritive value of certain crops, genetic engineering of foods can also help combat many nutritional deficiencies of the third world.

 

The South African situation

 

South Africa has given the political go ahead for GM crops and the Department of Agriculture (DOA) has given permits to companies to grow a variety of GM crops on a trial basis. At pre sent, our staple food, maize, is being genetically modified. GM crops that have been commercially released in South Africa are weed killer resistant maize, soybeans and cotton and maize and cotton with a built-in pesticide. Trials on potato’s and sweet potatoes are currently underway.

 

The GM debate

 

The pro-GM view. Advocators of GM foods in sub-Saharan Africa claim that GM crops can substantially help alleviate the escalating hunger problem by increasing food production. They claim that since the population is growing, GM crops may be the only way to combat hunger in the future. Jennifer Thomson, a professor at UCT’s Department of Molecular and Cell Biology claims that “evidence world wide has shown that GM seeds improve crop and that farmers are enjoying an increase an acorage like never seen before in history”. Professor Thomson holds that “GM crops are one big piece of the puzzle in helping to eliminate hunger in South Africa”. She also goes on to say that “there is no evidence that GM foods pose any risk to human health.”

 

The anti-GM view. Anti-GM activists hold a more cautious view concerning the introduction of GM crops into developing countries. They believe that corporate greed and not human hunger to be the major reason as to why GM foods are being pushed into developing countries. According to Biowatch director, Leslie Liddell, “South Africa does not have a food shortage; it does not need food aid and generally is not a net importer of food. Nevertheless, we have many poor people, many people who don’t have the means to get enough nutritious food to eat. It’s a problem of access to the abundant food which already exists.” She also claims that “It’s the GM seed companies that are reaping all the benefits”. Interestingly many other sub-Saharan African countries have rejected GM crops, in fear that the long term health and environmental consequences may be detrimental rather than helpful. Very recently, former UN secretary General Kofi Annan ruled out the use of GM foods in the battle against food insecurity in Africa. He stated that, “Insufficient infrastructure such as roads, poor storage facilities and weak market structures were to blame for Africa's continued dependence on food aid.” He is currently chair leading the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), who are focussing on infrastructure development in African countries as a primary means to combating poverty.

 

Commenting on the health risks associated with GM foods, Liddell believes that “We should be concerned, because so far the potential risks of GM crops outweigh their potential benefits.” A further concern of the anti-GM front is the lack of any clear labelling laws for GM foods in South Africa. According to Liddell, “South Africa does not have regulations which make it compulsory to label GM crops and food or to separate GM crops from non-GM ones at central distribution centres, such as silos.” She further explains that, “The absence of labelling and traceability also prejudices organic farmers or farmers who want to export to countries with high consumer aversion to GM food and drink.”

 

Ashleigh caradas

A copy of this article also appeared in Business day Health News

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