Friday, October 31, 2014

Biotechnology & The ‘Beautiful’ Claims By Proponents

Prof. Kenneth E. Danso

Despite public perception about and/or outcry against crop and animal breeding and manufacturing of medicines through biotechnology also known as genetically modified organisms (GMOs), some leading Ghanaian scientists still insist the consumption of products resulting from biotechnology processes are safe and should be fully adopted. 

Like many proponents, Professor Kenneth Ellis Danso, Director of Biotechnology and Nuclear Agriculture Research Institute (BNARI) of the Ghana Atomic Energy Commission, said biotechnology applications allow the creation of new plant varieties and animal breeds with higher yields thereby ensuring food security.

He posits that, biotechnology leads to higher economic benefits for resource poor farmers because unlike conventional agriculture, a farmer who depends on biotechnology need not farm several acres of land, use so much pesticides, weedicides and fertiliser to control pests, weeds and enhance crop yields. “Biotechnology or genetic modification promotes pests and diseases resistance in crops and yields plentifully”, Prof. Danso intimated.

He also cited cassava brown streak virus (CSBV), one of the most damaging viral diseases of cassava in East Africa, saying “There is no known solution to this viral disease since all varieties are susceptible to the virus. Genetically modified cassava can be used to overcome the problem of CSBV”, he stated.

At a forum of scientists, researchers, students, ministers of state and parliamentarians at the Savanna Agricultural Research Institute (SARI) at Nyankpala in the Northern Region, Prof. Danso gave solid reasons for Ghana to fully adopt biotechnology. But other people at the forum also raised serious concerns about the safety of biotechnology to human health and the environment.

The forum, which was organised by Program for Biosafety Systems (PBS) of the International Food Policy and Research Institute (IFPRI), was intended to dispel the myths and misconceptions surrounding the use of biotechnology and shed more light on the benefits producers (farmers) and consumers can derive from it.

The forum, according to Daniel Osei Ofosu, Country Coordinator, PBS, was also to let many of the attendees see for the first time, field experiments of two varieties of Bt cotton which have been cultivated by SARI through biotechnology on a small scale to study their prospects with regard to pests’ resistance.

According to Prof. Danso, currently a number of crops have been genetically modified, citing maize (corn), cotton, soya bean, cowpea and pawpaw, adding that “Currently, Ghana has approved five confined field trials of GMOs one of which involves stacked genes. Of these are Bt cotton, Bt cowpea and NEWEST rice which are grown under confined field trials”, he said. 

The World Health Organisation (WHO) defines GMOs as organisms (plants, animals or microorganisms) in which the genetic material (DNA) has been altered in a way that does not occur naturally by mating and/or natural recombination. 

The technology is also called “modern biotechnology” or “gene technology”, sometimes also “recombinant DNA technology” or “genetic engineering”. It allows selected individual genes to be transferred from one organism into another, also between nonrelated species. Foods produced from or using GMOs are often referred to as GM foods.

Many academic reports including one by Erica Kannal, a dietician and certified health/fitness specialist with the America College of Sports Medicine, suggest that GM foods are relatively new to the food supply, and people have only been consuming these foods since the mid-1990s when the first GM tomatoes appeared in grocery stores.

In an article she published in February 2014, Erica said: “There is no long-term data on how genetically modified foods affect human health. Clinical trials done on animals that were fed GM crops are of short duration and show mixed outcomes”. 

She said a study published in the "International Journal of Biological Sciences" in December 2009, notes that rats fed GM corn had a decline in liver, kidney, heart, adrenal gland and spleen health and function. “Short-term studies in which animals were fed GM foods for only 4 weeks usually show few negative side effects. No research has been conducted on the health and safety for people who eat GM foods”, Erica stated.

Daniel O. Ofosu
According to Erica, in addition to one’s health, GM foods may have negative side effects on the environment, because “crops are often sprayed with powerful pesticides and herbicides, and are fertilized with chemical fertilizers. These chemicals then contaminate the environment by traveling through the air; they leach into the ground, where they end up in fresh-water sources. Weeds have begun to develop a resistance to some of these chemicals – which means that in the future, it will be more difficult to control noxious plants”, she stressed.

Erica further pointed out that, wind also carries the pollen from GM crops to neighbouring farms where seed stock is then cross-contaminated with GM pollen. “Over time, this leads to a reduction in the biodiversity of crop strains. Insect populations may also be harmed by GM crops that produce pesticides”, she observed.

However, the Country Coordinator of PBS Daniel Osei told the Nyankpala forum that, “all new products (GM) are carefully tested for safety related to animal and microbial life” before they are produced for consumption. “Soil persistence and the likelihood of surface and subsoil water effects are also considered”, he emphasised.

He dispelled claims by anti-GM campaigners, that Ghanaian farmers will be forced to buy seeds every year from multinational companies to sow, stressing that, even before GM applications are fully adopted by the government of Ghana, many farmers buy improved seeds every season for sowing. “No one is going to force farmers to plant GM. Those who are practicing conventional agriculture can continue to practice…….it’s only when you’re interested in GM you can buy GM seeds to cultivate and follow the lay down regulations set by regulatory bodies”, he opined.

Pic By Gary Cameron/ Reuters
Daniel Osei also indicated that, “the body of existing scientific evidence leads to the conclusion that there are no increased adverse health and environmental effects attributable to the use of recombinant DNA biotechnology in food production”. 

“With the current higher degree of regulatory oversight for all foods derived from recombinant DNA biotechnology, there is less likelihood of adverse effects to consumers than with new conventional foods. The agricultural biotechnology industry would benefit from a regulatory system that increases consumer confidence in food product safety”, Daniel Osei claimed. 

Meanwhile, on May 24, 2014, millions of people from around the world participated in a “March Against Monsanto”, calling for the permanent boycott of GM foods and other harmful agro-chemicals being manufactured by Monsanto, a U.S.-based multinational reported to have been spearheading the global campaign for GMOs. Marches occurred on six continents, in 52 countries, with events in more than 400 cities, including 47 U.S. states. 

GMOs, according to EcoWatch.Com, have been partially banned by Austria, Bulgaria, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Japan, Luxembourg, Madeira, New Zealand, Peru, South America, Russia, France, Switzerland and Costa Rico, and are currently labelled in 62 countries. In India, more than 250,000 farmers have committed suicide after Monsanto’s Bt cotton seeds did not perform as promised. Farmers, left in desperate poverty, are opting to free their families of debt by drinking Monsanto pesticide, thereby ending their lives.

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