Friday, July 12, 2013

Biotech: Scientists Disprove Any Risk But Journalists Doubt

The question is often asked, what is biotechnology and has it got any advantages and disadvantages especially to humans in modern day’s scientific experiments? These questions are rife because, every year the world’s population grows by 73 million people and expected to hit 9.2 billion by 2050. 1 billion of the world’s population is currently afflicted by hunger, malnutrition and poverty, and agricultural production will need to double in the next 25 years due to increasing less availability of arable lands for farming.

So, how can governments, world leaders, scientists as well as agricultural researchers effectively overcome or resolve the aforementioned challenges with cost effective or less risky solutions without necessarily exacerbating or impairing the condition of all life forms on this earth?

The solution to these challenges scientists, global leaders, governments and agricultural researchers think, is by the power of biotechnology [Simply put, it is the use of living organism, or their parts, to produce new products] notwithstanding the fact that many people including journalists, non-governmental organizations and even some scientists cast doubts over the usage of this technology to address these challenges.

The debate is on and so, the Regional Environmental Office of the United States Embassy, Ghana, has organized a roundtable/symposium in Kumasi in the Ashanti Region of Ghana on biotechnology commonly referred to as Genetically Modified Organisms [GMOs].

The programme was designed with the intention to promote open dialogue between prominent biotechnology skeptics from non-governmental organizations, the media, the private sector as well as Western and African biotechnology experts. The goal of the workshop was, therefore, to foster trust, understanding and a better working relationship between the two sides [scientists and the rest] and to promote clearer communication. 

Prof. Richard Akromah
Making a presentation on the overview of biotechnology, Professor Richard Akromah, Dean of the Faculty of Agriculture at Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology [KNUST], said biotechnology existed several centuries ago until recently when the process was modernized by scientists to advance inventions in the fields of biology, zoology and chemistry [manufacturing human consumables]. 

According to him, biotechnology was very effective and cheap in its application through crop cultivation/plant breeding, animals breeding, manufacturing of food products and among others, as it made it possible to avert the worsening hunger and malnutrition problems that had beset many countries of the world.

In simple language, he said one should just consider vegetables with a built-in herbicide, or grains containing mega-vitamins, or maybe harvesting decaffeinated coffee directly from the tree. He explained that, all of these biotechnologically enhanced plant foods have been created to improve, change or dramatically enhance the natural genetic makeup of these plants. Adding, he noted that, while farmers had been altering the makeup of plants for hundreds of years through cross-breeding and selective planting, scientists had been quietly engineering human food sources since the early 20th century and actively and openly using GMOs since the mid-1990s.

Prof. Akromah who is also a senior lecturer in Plant Breeding and Genetics for the Department of Crop and Soil Sciences of KNUST further expatiated, that through biotechnology a one acre of land would be enough to cultivate and harvest several bags of maize due to the high yielding potential the seeds had.

He also stated that, biotechnology crop plants did not need too much fertilizer, pesticide and weedicide or herbicide application when used by a farmer, stressing that produce harvested were often subjected to rigorous scientific test that made it impossible to have any side effects on humans when eventually consumed.

However, some journalists and other participants at the symposium disagreed and argued that, they believed the increasing rate of non-communicable diseases such as diabetes, kidney failures, childhood cancers, hypertension, hole-in-hear in children and others currently being recorded in the nation’s hospitals were as a result of the consumption of biotechnology foods and medicines which were imported into Ghana.

They questioned why biotechnology or GMO foods had been rated risk free or perceived not to have any side effects on humans, stressing that that could not be possible, because in their estimation there was no food that had no side effect when taken over a long period of time and challenged scientists to come clear with convincing evidence to support their claim as well as calm down the fears people have in eating GMO foods.

For instance, chromosomes, genes and DNA are the foundation of genetic engineering and the science of biotechnology. In the human cell, genes contain the blueprint for such human traits as eye color and height. Similar to humans, plants and other organisms also contained DNA that distinguished specific traits. By taking DNA from one organism and transferring it into another, scientists were, in effect, able to keep the best traits of both organisms. The controversy lay in the fact that DNA from dissimilar organisms was being transferred freely without the knowledge of long-term consequences.

Using biotechnology in the growth and production of fruits and vegetables had enabled scientists to change the way they ripen. Normally fruits and vegetables continue to ripen after harvesting; they must be rushed to market and sold quickly while they were fresh. GMO produce could be harvested when ripe, and the ripening process stops, giving them a longer shelf life. These genetic modifications also increased a plant's resistance to disease, pests, insecticides, herbicides and even extreme weather conditions. Genetic engineering also altered a plant's nutritional makeup, making it richer in certain vitamins or minerals.

However, despite harvesting thousands of genetically modified plants, scientists still did not have a clear understanding of how these genetic changes affected the human body in a long term, primarily because these food plants had only been available since the early 1990s. 

Monsanto, the largest GMO seed developer in the world and the organization that provided a majority of the research results to the American Food and Drug Administration, said GMO seed was harmless to humans. However, some scientists had found that GMO plants had indeed altered the life span, disease process and cognitive abilities of insects that fed on these plants. Thus, research was ongoing, according to latest reports on science related website

Meanwhile, as it stands now, the choice of eating biotechnology or GMO foods lay in the hands of every individual to decide whether he/she would prefer organic products or GMO products that range from imported rice, biscuits, cheese, antibiotics, cotton seed oil and among others brought into the country.

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