GM crops: Exploring the myths and misconceptions

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Although widely adopted globally, GM technology including Genetically Modified Crops (GMCs), the fastest adopted crop technology in the world, are still viewed with fears and suspicions across Africa

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By Adam Alqali

Since their advent in the mid-1990s, Genetically Modified Crops (GMCs) have been shrouded in a web of controversies and misunderstandings; this is more so in the developing world and particularly in Africa where only 4 out of the 54 countries – South Africa, Egypt, Sudan and Burkina Faso – have legalized the commercial use of GMCs.

Other African states such as Kenya, Uganda, Malawi, Swaziland, Nigeria and Ghana have only authorized the growth of GMCs on trial basis.

Whereas proponents of GMCs argue they offer African small-holder farmers more yield, on less land and with fewer inputs, as well as protection against pests and diseases, critics of GMCs say they destroy biodiversity, affect human health as well as expose African farmers to the domination of multinational GM-producing seed companies such as Monsanto.

 

What are Genetically Modified Crops (GMCs)?

Genetically Modified Crops (GMCs) are simply crops produced as a result of crossbreeding or rather interchange of genetic materials from either the same or different plant species or even from non-plant organisms to produce transgenic seeds, says Lucky Omoigui, a seed systems specialist at the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA).

“GMOs are also about breeding, crossbreeding has been in existence since ancient times, our forefathers did it. We also all know about crosspollination. And breeding is simply the interchange of genetic materials aimed at enhancing crops – making them more resilient to pastes and diseases, adoptive to climate change and more productive,” says Omoigui.

“The discovery of DNAs (which are the smallest material carrying genetic information) brought about the GMO revolution. GM crops are formed as a result of crossbreeding of DNAs of plants of the same or different species or even with DNAs of non-plant organisms to form transgenes.”

 

Do GM crops give higher yield?

Even the most vociferous adversaries of GM crops do not argue the fact that they provide much higher yield than local seed varieties, as well as being resistant to pests and diseases, being adoptive to environmental conditions and less demanding of farm inputs such as fertilizer.

Research has shown that African countries which have legalized the commercial use of GMCs such as South Africa, Sudan, and Burkina Faso have been recording much higher yields for crops like maize, soybeans, and cotton.

“As our population continues to grow, and we face the challenges of climate change and urbanization, it becomes difficult to produce enough for our needs. We need to double food production; GM crops allow you to produce more on less land and with fewer inputs,” argues Dr Rose Gidado, Nigeria country coordinator of the Open Forum on Agricultural Biotechnology (OFAB) in Africa.

 

Why Africa ‘fears’ GM crops

Even though most of the controversies around the human and environmental hazards of GMCs have remained largely scientifically unproven, one wonders why African states have still remain largely skeptical or rather afraid of GM crops, even despite their proven benefits in the form of high yield.

This is even as GM technology for crop production has since been adopted in the US and many Latin American and Asian countries such as Argentina, Brazil, China, and India. In fact, the International Society of African Scientists (ISAS) and the respective academies of science of over 10 African countries including Ethiopia, Kenya, and Nigeria have all concluded GM crops were not less safe than conventional crops.

“GMO critics are politicizing the issue by instilling fear in people, to me they are the enemies of food security; GMCs are products of science which is a collection of facts,” says Dr Gidado, who is also an assistant director at Nigeria’s National Biotechnology Development Agency (NABDA).

“GM crops are rigorously tested, it takes 13 to 15 years to come up with a safe and wholesome GM product; the regulatory process is long just to ensure a safe product. GM crops have been around for now 20 to 21 years but there are no scientifically proven negative effects,” she said.

Sanusi Gaya Mohammed, a professor of plant genetics and breeding at the Centre for Dryland Agriculture (CDA), Bayero University, Kano, Nigeria says GMOs have “caused a lot of uproar” in Africa even though Americans and Asians were already going for GMOs.

“Why don’t we Africans? How many people can afford 3 square meals in Africa? By the way, most of us don’t buy our locally-produced rice, we go to Shoprite and other big shops to buy rice; how sure are we about the rice we are buying? Whether or not it is GM, I may be right if I say most of the rice we are importing is GM,” claims Mohammed.

 

Could GM crops pose any risks?

Although most of the fears surrounding the adoption of GM crops in Africa such as destruction of biodiversity and posing threat to public health including causing cancer and infertility have remained largely unproven, experts believe GM crops and foods may still not be totally safe.

Professor Mohammed  believes “GMOs may have negative effects on the environment and when they react with local varieties of crops. By and large, as a plant breeder, I know the benefits of GMOs far outweigh their negative effects.”

Omoigui, himself an associate professor of plant breeding, argues that GM crops might be more suitable for commercial agriculture urging African governments to come up with biosafety laws to “checkmate” the fear about GM crops by ensuring that they were meticulously tested and certified safe before being sold in the market.

“Governments need to allow the use of GMOs but ensure proper regulation because as it is now, some unscrupulous elements might already be smuggling GMOs into our countries. Who knows? That’s why governments have biosafety laws to checkmate this by ensuring GM crops are tested and certified safe before they are sold in the market…they need to invest in research and development as well as modern facilities to effectively carryout testing,” urged Omoigui.

 

The fear of multinational companies

At the heart of the disdain for GM crops in Africa is the fear of big-time multinational seed companies dominating and monopolizing agricultural production on the continent through their patent seeds.

Omoigui believes the big-time seed companies could monopolize and dominate the African seed market, at the expense of local farmers, hence advises governments in Africa to “change their thinking” by investing in the development of the continent’s seed industry so as to be able to produce sufficient food to meet the need of the continent’s growing population.

“If you allow big-time seed companies to come in they will dominate the market because their crops can produce between 8 to 15 tons of maize per hectare. We have to build our seed industry to be able to compete favorably. Governments have to invest in research so we are able to produce the same quality of seed,” he said.

Professor Mohammed also believes the monopoly of seed companies was an issue of concern calling on governments to be “more proactive” by investing in research and development on GMCs.

“Monopoly is another issue; can farmers plant non-GM crops after planting GM crops in the previous season? That is a point of concern. By training our scientists we can, to a great extent, solve that problem. Governments should be more proactive in terms of research and development; I am sure we have the capacity to produce GM crops but you know funding research is very expensive,” he said.

 

GMCs as solution to Africa’s hunger

According to the United Nations, over 223 million people in sub-Saharan Africa currently suffer from the challenge of malnutrition hence the region’s overwhelming reliance on food aid.

Although they cannot be a hundred percent safe, doubtlessly, most of the fear and controversies about GMOs in Africa have been fuelled by misunderstanding about what they really are – including the immense benefits they present for the continent’s millions of small holder farmers – the relatively newness of GM technology, and possibly, politics.

Hence, as its population is set to grow at exponential rates in the coming years, GM crops may hold the solution to Africa’s quest to end hunger and achieve food security. However, governments across the continent must begin to make enormous investment in agricultural biotechnology particularly research and development on GMOs.

They must also come up with comprehensive biosafety laws and invest hugely in state-of-the-art biosafety facilities to always ensure efficient testing of all GM crops and foods before they certified safe for public consumption.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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