Manipulating genetic material through genetic engineering creates genes that do not occur in nature or through traditional cross-breeding methods
By Mathias K Kaddu
Africa a continent once blessed with vast natural habitat providing natural resources foods and medicinal plants, fresh waters, minerals with a rich history cultural heritage and hospitable people has been reduced to a continent laden with wars, suffering, impoverishment, greed and a multitude of diseases. And now, Africa is being confronted with yet another seemingly sweet but bitter package of GMOs but only designed to compound the current problems Africa is grappling with.
Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO’s) are a result of laboratory processes where genes from the DNA of one species are extracted and artificially forced into genes of an unrelated plant or animal. The foreign genes may come from bacteria, viruses, insects, animals or even humans. GMO’s can also be described as living organisms whose genetic material has been artificially manipulated in a laboratory through genetic engineering.
Genetic Engineering or Modification is a set of technologies used to change the genetic makeup of cells including the transfer of genes within and across species boundaries to introduce improved/novel organisms or the direct manipulation of an organism’s genome using bio-technology.
Genome is an organism complete set of DNA including all the genes each genome contains all the information needed to build and maintain that organism.
Bio-technology is the use of living systems or organisms to develop or make products. The UN convention on biological Diversity, Art 2 defines bio-technology as any technological application that uses biological systems or living organisms, or derivatives thereof to make/ modify products or processes for specific use.
DNA (Deoxyribonucleic acid) is the hereditary material in humans and almost all other organisms or a molecule that carries the genetic instructions used in the growth, development, functioning and reproduction of all known living organisms and many viruses.
Manipulating genetic material through genetic engineering therefore creates a combination of plants, animal, bacteria and virus genes that do not occur in nature or through traditional cross-breeding methods. This is not only unnatural but also disastrous to the natural existence of plant, animal and human life, but also unsustainable.
In Uganda for example, the President’s refusal to assent to the GMO bill is a step in the right direction and should be applauded by all right-thinking Ugandans and embraced by all African Presidents who have the future of their countries and the African continent at heart. In the absence of conclusive research on the side effects and lack of credible independent long term feeding studies, the safety of GMO’s to the human race is unknown. Even the justifications put forward by the pro-GMO advocates are only short term and does not provide any safety assurance in the long term.
The biosafety systems required are unrealistic for African countries considering that many African countries lack the expertise, equipment, infrastructure, legislation and regulatory systems to implement effective biosafety measures for GM crops. They also lack the funds to build these up and will therefore have to look for outside funding from pro GMOs multinational corporations whose sole aim is economic gain. This will increase the already heavy foreign debt loads. Should the development of GM agriculture be a priority for African governments at this point in time considering the multitude of problems many African countries are already dealing with?
The GMO project appears to be a long term plan to further dominate and impoverish the African continent. GM crops foster dependence on corporate seed supply by imposing elaborate contracts, agreements and conditions by multinational GM seed companies. This will in effect prohibit farmers from saving their own seeds for the next season and from sharing with the neighbours, friends and relatives a cultural norm that has been practiced in many African communities for many years. Today many farmers are spending lots of money from their meagre incomes on the purchase of these seeds and chemicals which continue to damage our virgin and natural African soils rendering them infertile overtime.
While they promise pest and disease-resistant crops one needs to appreciate the fact that more than 80% of all genetically modified crops grown worldwide have been engineered for herbicide tolerance. As a result, the use of toxic herbicides has increased fifteenfold since the GMO’s were first introduced. In March 2015, the WHO determined that the herbicide glyphosate (the key ingredient in round up) is probably carcinogenic to humans. These genetically modified crops are also responsible for the emergence of “superweeds” and “superbugs” which can only be killed with even more toxic poisons such as 2, 4.D (a major ingredient in Agent Orange)
Agent Orange was a herbicide and defoliant chemical. A combination of equal parts of two chlorophenoxyacetic acids 2,4,5-T (2,4,5-Trichlorophenoxyacetic acid) and 2,4-D (2,4- Dichlorophenoxyacetic acid). It was widely known for its use by the US military as part of its herbicidal warfare program, (Operations Ranch Hand) during the Vietnam war of 1961-71 for strategic deforestation destroying forest cover and food resources necessary for the implementation and sustainability of the north Vietnamese style of guerilla warfare. In addition to its environmental damaging effects, the chemical caused major health problems to many individuals who were exposed to it. The chemical is capable of damaging genes resulting in deformation in off springs of exposed victims. The US documented higher cases of leukemia, Hodgkin’s lymphoma, as well as other various kinds of cancers in exposed veterans and forests, defoliated, animal species diversity sharply reduced in contrast with unsprayed areas. The international agency for research and cancer (IARC) considers the chlorophenoxyacetic acids group of chemicals as possibly carcinogenic (cancer-causing) to humans.
Traditionally many African farmers used crop rotation, a method that has been used for over a thousand years and has been proven to help the environment improve the soil quality and fertility and farm profitability through an automatic pest control mechanism by eliminating the pests’ food source. The diversification of cropping sequences takes away the host organism and causes a disruption in the annual life cycle of insects, diseases and weeds. This results in better soil fertility and carbon storage.
Research also shows that nitrogen from legumes remains in the soil longer than the nitrogen in synthetic fertilizers. Rotations that include nitrogen by producing legumes such as beans, peas and alfalfa provide the next crops with large amounts of this critical nutrient, reducing the nitrogen fertilizer used. However, such traditional methods these have been rendered obsolete.
Today many famers have abandoned their farmland over infertility while others have resorted to further investing in synthetic fertilizers and chemicals in an attempt to increase their farm yields thus furthering the problem. It has now become a common belief by many local farmers that without spraying their crops, good yields cannot be realized. Business opportunists have taken advantage of the weak government chemical input import regulation and lack of sensitization to the farmers to import huge amounts of chemical inputs into the country with no clear and effective mechanism for mitigating the eventual negative impact on the environment.
Many farmers in Africa practice organic agriculture (by default or by choice). Genetic engineering poses a great threat to such farmers. For example, many farmers have over the years relied on Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), (a natural occurring, soil bacteria that has been used since the 1950s for natural insect control). This natural insecticide consists of a bacterium, which gives it persistence and a protein crystal within the bacterium which is toxic. When the bacteria are consumed by certain insects the toxic crystal is released in the insects highly alkaline gut, blocking the system which prevents the pest’s stomach from releasing its own digestive juices. The stomach is penetrated, and the insect dies by poisoning from the stomach contents and the bacteria themselves. This same mechanism is what makes Bt harmless to birds, fish and mammals whose acidic gut conditions negate the bacteria’s effect. The toxin producing genes of Bt have also been genetically modified into certain crops so that these GM crops constantly express the Bt toxin. The widespread growing of GM crops will encourage the development of resistance to Bt among important crop pests, thus rendering this natural insecticide useless.
These organic farming practices are being threatened by herbicide tolerant GM crops, which use broad-based herbicides that kill all plants, not just the weeds that farmers may not want but also fungi and bacteria essential for soil fertility management.
The protagonists of GMOs also promise enhanced nutrition however human studies show that genetically modified (GM) food can leave material behind inside humans and possibly cause long-term problems. They cite animal studies showing organ damage, gastrointestinal and immune system disorders, accelerated aging, and infertility. Genes inserted into GM soy, for example can transfer into the DNA of bacteria living inside humans. American Academy of Environmental Medicine (AAEM) urges doctors to prescribe non-GMO diets for all patients.
Numerous health problems increased after GMOs where introduced in 1996. The percentage of Americans with three or more chronic illnesses increased from 7%-13% in just 9 years, food allergies sky rocked and dis orders such as autism, reproduction disorders, digestive problems and others were on the rise.
Note that back here in Africa the rising cases of cancers and disorders like autism remain unexplained because sufficient research to confirm or deny the GMO’s contributing factor is lacking. Independent research and reporting has continued to be suppressed with many scientists being attacked, gagged or even compromised, while others have been threatened and denied funding.
A study in the Journal of Applied Toxicology 2012 found that pesticides could cause damage to human cells. Some GMO crops do not contain regulated pesticides, but they are designed to produce them and generate their own internal pesticides supporters of GMO’s claim that these pesticides are broken down in the digestive process and pass from the body without causing harm. However, another study performed by researchers at China’s Nanjing University and published in the journal Cell Research found that a form of genetic material called micro RNA – from conventional rice survived the human digestive process and proceeded to affect cholesterol function in humans. A study in the International Journal of Biological Sciences found evidence that Mosanto’s Bt corn causes organ damage in lab animals.
A Norwegian study in 2012 found that GMO genes do pass through the intestinal tract into blood. Collaborating evidence exists in the study conducted by the University of Canterbury in New Zealand and the results were nearly identical. A study in Canada found that part of the gene found in Roundup ready soy was found in 95% of pregnant women. The toxin was found in 83 of unborn fetuses of these women. The source of the BT Toxin found in these women and fetuses was determined to be the consumption of animals that have been fed on GMO corn.
The World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) concluded in 2015 that glyphosate is a probable carcinogen (a substance capable of causing cancer in living tissue). Despite the presence of conclusive Independent and extensive studies on GMOs the risks are clearly real, especially for Africa.
“Our body is essentially soil and water. The quality of our soil and water determines the quality of our food, our body, and our life” Sadhguru.
The GMOs will ‘kill ‘our African dream of becoming the world food basket. The African continent has enormous potential, not only to feed itself and eliminate food insecurity and hunger but the world and therefore positioned to be as major player in the global food market and a strong pillar for African development. The African continent has lagged behind in technological advancement it needs to capitalize on its agricultural potential for economic transformation to make a mark in global trade. Africans therefore need to develop independent agriculture policies that are less or not reliant on GMOs but promote organic agriculture.
Globally a wave of organic food consumption that is free of chemicals and genetically modified ingredients has swept over many health conscious countries with nearly all the developed countries in the EU and the US requiring an organic certificate on food imports before they are allowed onto their markets. How then will the Africans benefit from the presupposed economic gains from the improved yields by the GMOs proponents when the bigger world markets are opting for organic foods? How Ironical that the promoters of the GMOs are opting for organic foods. It will be foolhardy of Africa to believe it will realize economic growth and development through the agriculture sector while we take the GM path.
Many African indigenous crops are slowly but surely being destroyed and headed for extinction under our watch. As GM crops continue to dominate our farm lands and gardens our indigenous tasty and nutritious crops are getting extinct. GM crops contaminate non GM crops as co-existence is not possible. Pollen can travel long distances by way of wind and insects. Human error and curiosity or simply regular farming can help seed to spread. This contamination would have serious implications for small scale farmers. e.g. endanger the indigenous seeds that these farmers have developed over centuries that they know and trust. A simple survey I carried out in Mukono Njerere village on our farm land and neighbouring gardens after the introduction of the ‘improved’ matooke in 2014 indicated that our local Matooke varieties were slowly dying out. But one will even note that the bananas from these ‘improved’ varieties are inferior in taste compared to the indigenous varieties. The proponents for GM crops advance the argument of increased yields as compared to the indigenous crops. Should we then forego quality food for quantity, healthy for unhealthy foods? One wonders.
GMOs are novel life forms, biotechnology companies have been able to obtain patents to control the use and distribution of their genetically engineered seeds. They block research that does not favour or suit their interests and in effect trap farmers into paying their fees every year on seeds and into never ending dependency on their chemical inputs. Thus posing a serious threat to farmer’s sovereignty and to national food security where they are grown.
GM crops usher in genetic use restriction technology (GURT) also known as terminator technology or suicide seeds. A Terminator or variety-specific or v-GURT and A Traitor or trait-specific or t-GURT technologies are examples of Genetic Use Restriction Technologies (GURTs). A Terminator seeds are genetically modified so that they grow to produce sterile seeds (seeds that are infertile and cannot germinate in the next season or any other time).
A Traitor technology produces GM crops that need to be sprayed by certain chemicals in order to grow properly. They can be used to allow plants to express a beneficial trait (e.g. drought resistance) only after specific treatment, such as after application of a specific spray. This encourages the prolonged and continuous use of herbicides and pesticides, including the pesticides expressed by GM plants. As a result, pests and harmful weeds inevitably develop resistance (maize army worm), forcing farmers to use more pesticides and more toxic mixtures. These technologies are targeted specifically for developing countries but offer no positive benefit to farmers at all. GURT will only cause farmers to wholly depend on companies for their seed supply and costly chemicals.
There is increased concern that GM crops are coming in by way of food imports and seed smuggling even for countries that have taken measures to prevent food imports of GM foods such as Zambia, Angola, Sudan and Benin. Africa is in danger of being a dumping ground for the struggling GM industry and the laboratory for the frustrated scientists.
African biodiversity is rich and complex, but it is also fragile. GM crops could easily upset the ecological balance, bringing serious repercussions for farming and the surrounding environment. Its therefore incumbent on all African governments to declare a moratorium on the commercialization of GM crops. This must be upheld until adequate research is done into the different socio-economic, environmental and agronomic issue surrounding GM crops.
In addition aggressive awareness and sensitization of the public and farmers about GM foods and crops should be carried out while investing more in agricultural research geared towards safeguarding and promoting the indigenous seeds and crops through organic farming practices, rural training of farmers to sharpen their skills in food production and processing, low cost irrigation systems to alleviate the effects of drought, provide farmer-friendly credit schemes and improve rural infrastructure among others.
The GMOs are in our midst, you and I remain the only line of defense between biased science and our bodies. We have the ability to make our own decisions and control what goes into your bodies and it all comes down to knowing our food and seed sources. We can make a direct impact on our health and that of our families and ensure the safety for future generations of human and animal species who consume these products or even the likely adverse effects on the environment. Let’s avoid the unknown collateral damage of GMO’s by not purchasing them. Your pocket is your vote.
"The world will not be destroyed by those who do evil, but by those who watch them without doing anything” Albert Einstein