With an ever-increasing population the demand for resources that include food, fuel and energy, the assurance of food security remains a real challenge facing many African governments. Traditional methods of food production and preservation remain the cheapest and surest way of ensuring benefit from the farming investment for many rural communities.
With globalisation, the increase in information flow and access to resources has meant that even rural communities now, are able to conceive themselves taking advantage of new technologies to better their food processing systems and livelihoods.
A very attractive, but equally contentious technology that has gained considerable momentum over the years is that of genetic modification (GM) also referred to as Genetic Engineering (GE).
Several countries across the American and Asian continents have embraced GM technology to produce mainly GM crops and some GM animals (referred to as Genetically Modified Foods, GMFs).
Australia grows GM crops such as canola and cotton, while in Africa it is only South Africa that has approved the commercial production of GM crops.
But what is GM technology? Genetic Modification refers to the alteration of an organism’s genetic footprint (DNA), which leads to an accompanying alteration of at least one of the organism’s natural characteristics or traits.
The resultant organism is referred to as a Genetically Modified Organism (GMO). These interventions are aimed at improving the organism’s traits or adding new functions that the organism was previously incapable of performing.
For example, genes from the ringspot virus, which affects papaya, were inserted into the native papaya genome and the resultant genetically modified papaya was resistant to the virus and became very popular with the farmers in Hawaii.
As it is with any new technology, the manipulation of genetic material poses a set of predictable and unpredictable risks.
Some studies have surmised that GMOs can produce “toxic effects such as hepatic, pancreatic, renal, or reproductive” problems, and may have long-term and multi-generational effects.
Environmental impacts may include the introduction of new viral strains and unwanted plant growth (generally termed “weeds”) and potentially cause harm to animals feeding on the GMF’s.
Altering the genetic makeup of an organism has the potential of making products derived thereof hyper-allergenic.
Genetic modification of food crops and animals and subsequent release on the market has also been interpreted as a ploy by large multinationals (notably) to dominate world food production markets.
The United States-based biotech giant Monsanto created a huge furore when it announced in 1999 that it may acquire a method for producing ‘terminator seed’ which basically was seed meant to produce progeny in just one generation.
This sterile seed, would then force farmers to buy new seed for each planting season. Monsanto was forced to abandon these plans.
Ethical issues over the use of GM technology have been raised with the concern that genetic modification is a violation of a natural organism’s intrinsic values.
The argument then is that tampering with nature in such a way is tantamount to ‘playing God’ and no human being should be accorded such rights.
Anti-GMO activists have also argued that increasing GMO’s available on the market will result in degrading the appeal of conventional foods to the point where all food eaten shall be artificial and genetically modified.
The potential harmful effects of GMO’s have caused many people to disapprove and in certain regions of the world bans have been placed on their use and trade.
A case in point is the production of GMO’s in Europe, which is very stringently controlled and with very limited land being cultivated under GM crops.
However, Europe is a huge importer of GM feed, which is meant for animals. However the prolonged embracing of GM initiatives in other places points to an accrual of positive benefits. GMO’s are able to produce nutrient-dense foods that are able alleviate nutrient deficiencies, especially in developing countries.
For example, golden rice, which is fortified GM rice with appreciable capacity to make ? — carotene, an important Vitamin A precursor.
GM crops with disease and pest resistance capability create a relatively large crop yield, thereby decreasing production costs and increasing food availability.
Parallel benefits in farm animals have also been realised through GM interventions. In general, GM techniques provide food that complements and expands the repertoire of new products available on the market and hence consumer options; without necessarily replacing or out-competing traditional foods.
It is important to underline the fact that it is only a minority of the publicised GM interventions that have actually landed commercial operation, such as the Rainbow papaya or the Flavr Savr ® Tomatoes.
The majority of these interventions have been demonstrated at laboratory scale as proof of concept, but due to many factors including regulatory prohibitions and public resistance they do not have commercial or industrial value.
Microbial sources of food (Single Cell Protein) are a potentially affordable avenue that could see culturing of micro-organisms on low value substrates or wastes for the purpose of feeding humans but in the meantime value-enhanced crops (VEC’s), which include those plant varieties that have one or more output characteristic modified and adding end-user value to the commodity, have taken centre stage.
At the end of the day biological organisms do have inherent capacity that can be exploited to produce goods and services of value to man.
This exploitation, when carried out in a properly regulated, contained and ethical manner, will be key for unlocking biotechnology’s full potential to GM food in a sustainable fashion whilst obverting public criticism of the technology.
The long-term safety of GM technology also needs to be demonstrated to allay the many unsubstantiated fears that are associated with it.
However these requirements may take considerable time as it will need the collective input and buy-in of all the various stakeholders.
In the meantime nations and particularly those that are resource-poor, even at the small-scale, could make use of GM technology as an adjunct, rather than a substitute, to other food production systems.
Dr Amos Musengi is the Acting Chairman in the Biotechnology department at the Harare Institute of Technology. You can contact him on [email protected] Mr Misheck Mudyiwa is a Lecturer in the same department and can be contacted on [email protected]
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