Genetically Modified Crops- Where Do We Stand?
What is Genetic Modification?
According to Wageningen University & Research; Genetic modification(GM) refers to a technique used to change an organism’s genetic characteristics, i.e., plants, animals, microorganisms, by transferring the particular elements from one organism to the other. In the food industry, the process results in what is often referred to as GM Foods, where the crops’ genetic makeup has been altered to present a new trait in the new crop. This may seem novel, but it had been practiced centuries ago by our ancestors, who were able to influence an organism’s DNA through the process of artificial selection, or selective breeding (Rangel, 2015). Some of the first food products from selective breeding that we see today include bananas with unnoticeable seeds and corn or maize, which was a wild grass called teosinte with small ears and few kernels. After over a century of breeding, it evolved into corn with large ears and more kernels (Rangel, 2015). Artificial selection has been a cornerstone in genetic modification. As the science of genetics advanced and technology improved, the process has become faster and more precise, known as genetic engineering.
Using selective breeding to introduce properties of one crop into the other takes time and there are unwanted genes that are introduced along with the desired which does not provide the exact result. However, with genetic engineering, only the gene responsible for the desired trait is extracted and transformed into the crop to be modified (Lotz and Smulders, n.d). Therefore, genetic engineering provides crops with desired traits like resistance to diseases or certain weather conditions, for crops to be more nutritious and to increase the crop yield. However, given the different undesired consequences from this procedure, each crop produced has to be reviewed by experts nationally and internationally to be approved (Lotz and Smulders, n.d).
What is the purpose of Genetically Modified Crops?
Some of the benefits of genetically modified crops include a cheaper production cost since farmers can produce large quantities of crops using less space, water, and fewer pesticides (Kennedy, 2020). New crops like the Bt-corn, which is the traditional corn that has been engineered to be more pest-resistant by using Bacillus, a soil bacteria that makes corn produce a protein that kills insects and pets (Kennedy, 2020). If GM crops and foods have such benefits, why are people not happy or excited about them?
For some, it is personal beliefs, while for others, it comes back to the safety of consumption of these foods, where many people fear that GM foods may come with health risks for those who consume them. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the main issues include allergenicity, gene transfer, and outcrossing. While there are risks of gene transfer and outcrossing, GM plants are governed by regulations that ensure that the right procedures are followed and that GM crops are grown separately from conventional crops (WHO, 2014). Regarding allergenicity, the worry is that GM foods, when consumed, may result in allergic reactions. However, from tests and studies conducted by the Food and Agriculture Organization and WHO, there are no allergic effects found in GM crops on the market (WHO, 2014). Genetic engineering technology has been subject to improvement and advancements, which will lead to the elimination of the health concerns around genetically modified crops, making them harmless to production and consumption.
Where are African countries in the story?
Often when new technologies like genetic engineering are discussed, African countries are unconsciously dismissed from the discussion, assuming that it is yet another thing the continent will have to catch up on. Fortunately, Sudan and South Africa were not late to this race, introducing the first GM crop(maize) in 1996, followed by cotton in 1997, and soybean in 2001(Agaba, 2019). Since then, the list of African countries producing GM crops will soon include; Kenya, Rwanda, Uganda, Nigeria, Malawi, and Burkina Faso (Cornwell, n.d). The more common GM crops produced in African countries include; maize, soybean, cassava, potatoes, and cotton (Zepeda et al., 2013). Adopting GM crop production could be the solution to address low crop yields in many African farms. GM crops offer an opportunity to salvage land, water and reduce the use of pesticides. However, there is a polarizing debate regarding the use of GM seeds instead of traditional seeds.
Is it Safe for Africa?
Some of the restraints are around the monopoly in the GM seeds which is controlled by four main companies namely Monsanto, DuPont, Syngenta, and Dow AgroSciences, controlling 40% of the market (Roseboro, 2013). It is these very companies that supply GM seeds to African countries such as South Africa, Uganda, Kenya, Burkina Faso, and Nigeria among others. This poses a threat for farmers who may soon have no choice but to buy from these monopolies at their prices which could make GM crop production unsustainable on the continent. This is because these seeds are patented which makes them inaccessible to African farmers and scientists who would desire to adapt the seeds to the needs of the African consumer. In this regard, it is difficult to envision Africans becoming self-sufficient and less dependent on the globe in food production.
On the other hand, in countries like Rwanda, where many food crops have suffered from many diseases and pests, farmers welcome GM crop seeds with open arms. A pest has attacked all crops from maize to cassava to banana or disease in the last decade, which has hindered the government’s efforts to develop the sector since farmers’ yields are low and alternatives are rare(Habimana, 2020). Some of the farmers greatly disagree with activists, whom they refer to as “the paid people,” because they do not understand the impact these pests and disease have had on farmers and their families (Habimana, 2020).
Where Could We Go Next?
On one end of the spectrum, some African farmers welcome GM crops’ production because they would like to have high yields and earn more to sustain themselves and their families. On the other end are farmers who prefer traditional seeds and anti-GMO activists who believe GM crops are a danger to human health and other plants. Several times, scientific reports have reported that there are no issues observed in GM food crops that could be a danger to human health. With time the technology of genetic engineering will evolve to address any health factors that may arise. Also, countries like South Africa and Sudan are success stories in producing GM crops by embracing the use of technology; they are among the top 10 countries with producing ng one million hectares of GM crops in the world (Cornwell, n.d). Although it has existed for a long time, the field of genetics and crops still needs to be studied because there is no exact science that can always be relied on.
For African farmers, GM crop production could be the solution needed to increase crop yield, reduce poverty and increase their revenue. GM crops’ benefits outweigh their costs and would be an opportunity for African economies to prosper and step towards self-sufficiency. However, African countries in regards to technological advances are still behind, requiring collaboration with countries with improved technology to learn and become not only the consumers but also the producers. The agriculture sector in Africa is full of potential and opportunities for growth. As Africans, we are often left behind due to the gaps in our education sector that are not adapted to the continent’s challenges. This is often fueled by the lack of a political structure that is adaptable to our needs. When our leaders’ efforts are put towards improving the government system and procedures, Africa could conquer the world.
Agaba, J., 2019. Why South Africa and Sudan lead the continent in GMO crops – Alliance for Science. [online] Alliance for Science. Available at: <https://allianceforscience.cornell.edu/blog/2019/01/south-africa-sudan-lead-continent-gmo-crops/#:~:text=Hennie%20Groenewald%2C%20executive%20manager%20at,introduced%20to%20farmers%20in%201996.> [Accessed 25 March 2021].
Falck-Zepeda, J., Gruère, G. and Sithole-Niang, I., 2013. Genetically modified crops in Africa: Economic and policy lessons from countries south of the Sahara. [online] INTERNATIONAL FOOD POLICY RESEARCH INSTITUTE. Available at: <https://www.ifpri.org/publication/genetically-modified-crops-africa> [Accessed 24 March 2021].
Habimana, J., 2020. A Rwandan farmer’s son: Why I advocate for GMO crops in Africa – Alliance for Science. [online] Alliance for Science. Available at: <https://allianceforscience.cornell.edu/blog/2020/01/a-rwandan-farmers-son-why-i-advocate-for-gmo-crops-in-africa/> [Accessed 25 March 2021].
Kennedy, M., 2020. Evidence-based pros and cons of GMO foods. [Blog] INSIDER, Available at: <https://www.insider.com/gmo-pros-and-cons#:~:text=The%20pros%20of%20GMO%20crops,they%20may%20increase%20antibiotic%20resistance> [Accessed 24 March 2021].
Lotz, L. and Smulders, M., n.d. Genetic modification. [online] WUR. Available at: <https://www.wur.nl/en/Dossiers/file/Genetic-modification-1.htm#:~:text=Genetic%20modification%20is%20a%20technique,them%20to%20the%20other%20organism> [Accessed 26 March 2021].
Rangel, G., 2015. From Corgis to Corn: A Brief Look at the Long History of GMO Technology. [Blog] Science In The News- Harvard University, Available at: <https://sitn.hms.harvard.edu/flash/2015/from-corgis-to-corn-a-brief-look-at-the-long-history-of-gmo-technology/> [Accessed 25 March 2021].
Roseboro, K., 2013. GE seed monopoly. [online] PCC Community Markets. Available at: <https://www.pccmarkets.com/sound-consumer/2013-09/ge_seed_monopoly/> [Accessed 27 March 2021].
WHO, 2014. Food, genetically modified. [online] Who.int. Available at: <https://www.who.int/news-room/q-a-detail/food-genetically-modified#:~:text=Issues%20of%20concern%20include%3A%20the,the%20stability%20of%20the%20gene%3B> [Accessed 25 March 2021].