The Nation (Nairobi)

Kenya: Genetic Engineering - the History, Science And the Economics of the Technology

analysis

Last week the chief executive officer of the National Biodiversity Authority, Dr Roy Mugira, lost his job because, according to the authority, he had advised the Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Service to allow the World Food Programme to bring into the country untested corn-soy relief food from the US.

Welcome to the science, politics, and economics of genetically modified foods.

By authorising importation of genetically modified maize, Kenya officially joined 19 other developing countries that openly consume GM crops against just 10 developed countries.

Opening the doors to GM foods is, of course, fraught with misgivings about Kenya's ability to regulate the importation and growing of such food, which some scientists see as the answer to global shortages, especially among the less industrialised countries.

According to the International Service for Acquisition of the Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA) 2010 report, more than 40 countries are expected to start using GM crops by the year 2015, of which the majority will be from the developing world.

On the other hand, developed countries are either imposing strict GM crops assessment requirements or are banning them altogether.

"Growing of GM crops seems to be in plateau in developing countries," says Dr Engel of Munchen University in Germany. "This is because consumers and governments in these countries do not know the long-term effects."

Genetically modified/engineered (GM) crops are identified as crops that use modern techniques of genetic engineering (or biotechnology) to introduce specific genetic material derived from any species of plant, animal, micro-organism, or even synthetic material into different species of plants.

This is done by altering genetic material (DNA) coding for herbicide tolerance, insect resistance, or a combination of these traits in a way that does not occur naturally.

In layman terms, the individual characteristics of plants such as height, colour, and resistance against pests and diseases and tolerance to bad weather are determined by genes.

Genes are in every cell that makes up the plant or animal. In nature, the genes of two parent plants or animals mix during pollination or mating to produce a plant or animal with the genes of both parents.

Plants and animals with better survival characteristics selectively bred with each other can, therefore, survive in harsh environmental conditions.

With time, man has learnt to selectively produce bigger and better food crops and livestock by deliberately cross-pollinating plants and cross-breeding livestock with desirable characteristics.

Genetic modification/engineering takes the selective breeding a step further. How? By selectively identifying, isolating, and transferring a specific gene of desirable characteristic from one plant to another or even cross-transferring genes from animal to plant or the other way round.

The difference between artificial and natural gene modification is that in nature, all or large amounts of parent-plant genes are mixed. In artificial gene modification, only the desired genes of parent-plants or animals are mixed.

Naturally, it is abnormal for genes from dissimilar plants or animals -- for example those from a horse and a donkey -- to mix and if it happens, they yield a mule, which is often infertile.With artificial gene modification, it is normal and possible to transfer a gene responsible for racing in a horse to a donkey to get a racing donkey.

For example, in genetically modified Bt-maize, the DNA is implanted with a gene from soil bacteria called Bacillus Thuringiensis that produces the BT-toxin, which makes the maize resistant to insects and pest.

Many consumers inadvertently take GM foods as part of daily diet and medicines.

"More than half of processed foods in USA contain GM ingredients," says Dr Stella Ugozora of Alkermes Inc. These foods include soda/soft drink, fruit drinks, bread, aspirin, beers, some antibiotics, candy and gum and breakfast cereals among many others.

With over 148 million hectarage of GM crops world, no doubt that these crops are finding their way into the human food chain either as raw ingredients for processed foods and drugs or just as whole food as Kenya is planning to do.

According to the lobby Alliance For Better Foods, corn syrup, yeasts, enzymes, soybean oil, rape seed oil, soy flour, corn starch and dextrose from corn are some of the ingredients obtained from GM crops and used to make processed foods and drugs.

However, this is not to say they are dangerous to health.

"GM foods currently available on the international market have passed risk assessments and are not likely to present risks for human health," says the World Health Organisation.

"No effects on human health have been shown as a result of the consumption of such foods by the general population in the countries where they have been approved," adds WHO.

However, WHO cautions that continuous use of risk assessments based on the Codex principles, where appropriate, including post market monitoring, should form the basis for evaluating the safety of GM foods.

Other international bodies that have regarded genetically modified foods as safe for human consumption include Food and Agricultural organisation (FAO), US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and European Food Safety Authority (EFSA).

Do GM foods affect animal reproduction?

According to a comprehensive study that was funded by National Nature Science Foundation of China, and published in International Journal of Animal Biosciences in January this year, feeding animals with GM foods does not have adverse effects on reproduction system.

The report reviewed all studies carried out in the past four years that assessed animals fed GM foods.

The report was not funded by biotechnology companies although; most of the reviewed studies were short-term and involved rats.

The report concluded that from the short term studies, GM foods are safe. However, long-term and multigenerational effects of feeding of GM crops on reproduction system are not yet known.

Commercial fears associated with GM crops

It is feared that genetically modified crops could breed with others and develop a super weed that is resistant to herbicides.

According to German law, farmers growing GM crops should keep a minimum distance of between 150 and 300 metres from conventional plants and neighbours' farms.

If not, they are liable to pay compensation to neighbouring farmers if traces of GM crops are found on their conventional crops.

Such law stems from the fear that GM crops can cross pollinate or 'invade' land and overtake all other crops and weeds uncontrollably.

Farmers, especially from developing countries, fear that the adoption of GM crops would make them dependent on GM technology firms for seedlings and the necessary inputs such as herbicides and pesticides.

Commercial and Nutritional Benefits accrued from GM foods

Both crop and livestock yield is easily increased over a very short period at minimal cost compared to conventional farming.

Other benefits are: generation of crops and animals resistant to pest, drought, frost and diseases.

Nutritional benefits are accrued by genetically improving nutrient profile of different crops and livestock.

How GM foods are tested?

The biotechnology companies and research institutions conceive an idea, develop the product, test it in their laboratories and submit it to the government and testing agencies for safety, toxicological and nutritional assessment.

If approved, the product is commercialised by patenting or selling the rights.

Importing countries are solely responsible for ensuring GM products meet their territorial safety and toxicological requirements.

Why Kenya should/should not adopt GM foods

All countries that have approved GM crops have mechanisms, scientific know-how and personnel to thoroughly test GM products.

Generally, GM foods are safe for human consumption. Although Kenya approved the Biosafety Act in 2009, it seems not to be well prepared in terms of equipment, technology, personnel, mechanisms, scientific know-how and legal framework to thoroughly test genetically modified organisms.

Controversy and Food politics

The Earth is finite, and as such has a limited capacity to produce the food and fresh water necessary to sustain the increasing human populations.

The world population increased from just 1.6 billion last century to the current six billion.

Over the years, increasing global populations have been sufficiently fed due to improvements in farming methods entailing the use of chemicals, fertilisers, synthetically developed crops and modern farming techniques.

Unfortunately, African and other developing countries did not adopt those farming techniques quick enough due to limited economic resources, which led to the chronic lack of food every year.

Just the way we are in the information era, farming is in GM era. But with the urbanisation and shift from agriculture-based economies to industry and service economies, how will the increasing world population be fed?

Some say this fear is being propagated by biotechnology companies to create markets for their products.

Others believe that scientists should explore other forms of agriculture rather than just rooting only for GM foods to save mankind from the looming high food needs.

Against popular belief, genetically modified foods, if well tested, are safe for human consumption and they are here to stay.

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