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Are genetically modified foods(GMOs) safe?

By Daniel Ighakpe

RECENTLY, in the news media, there have been various reports about the introduction of certain Genetically Modified, GM, crops and seeds into the country. Examples of such include: the release of genetically modified cowpeas to farmers in the country; the release of two transgenic cotton hybrid varieties into the Nigerian Seed Market; the granting of permits by the Federal Government for confined field trials on genetically modified maize, rice, cassava, sorghum and cowpea to ascertain ability to resist insect attack; etc.

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All these despite growing opposition by a coalition of Civil Society Organisations, CSOs, against the introduction of Genetically Modified Organisms, GMOs, in the country. GMOs, according to the World Health Organisation, WHO, are organisms (i.e. 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 often 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 non-related species. Foods produced from or using GM organisms are often referred to as GM foods. Why are GMOs (including foods, seeds, crops, etc) produced? GM foods are developed – and marketed – because there is some perceived advantage either to the producer or consumer of these foods.

This is meant to translate into a product with a lower price, greater benefit (in terms of durability or nutritional value) or both. For example, suppose a farmer does not want his potatoes or apples to turn brown when they are cut or bruised. Researchers come to the rescue by removing the gene that is responsible for this browning and replacing it with an altered version that blocks browning.

One of the objectives for developing plants based on GM organisms is to improve crop protection. The GM crops currently in the market are mainly aimed at an increased level of crop protection through the introduction of resistance against plant diseases caused by insects or viruses or through increased tolerance towards herbicides.

What are the potential dangers of GMOs? According to an April 22, 2000 issue of Awake! Magazine: “Biotechnology has moved at such a dizzying pace that neither the law nor regulating agencies can keep up with it. Research can scarcely begin to prevent unforeseen consequences from arising. A growing chorus of critics warn of unintended results, ranging from severe economic dislocation for the world’s farmers to environmental destruction and threats to human health. Researchers warn that there are no long-term, large-scale tests to prove the safety of genetically modified food. They point to a number ofpotential dangers:

  • Allergic reaction. If a gene producing a protein that causes allergic responses ended up in corn, for instance, people who suffer from food allergies could be exposed to grave danger. Despite the fact that food-regulating agencies require companies to report whether altered food contains any problem proteins, some researchers fear that unknown allergens could slip through the system.
  • Increased toxicity. Some experts believe that genetic modification may enhance natural plant toxins in unexpected ways. When a gene is switched on, besides having the desired effect, it may also set off the production of natural toxins.
  • Resistance to antibiotics. As part of the genetic modification of plants, scientists use what are called marker genes to determine if the desired gene has been successfully embedded. As most marker genes provide resistance to antibiotics, critics fear that this could contribute to the growing problem of antibiotic resistance. Other scientists, however, counter that such marker genes are genetically scrambled before use, thus alleviating this danger.
  • Spread of “superweeds.” One of the biggest fears is that once modified crops are planted, genes will escape via seeds and pollen to weedy relatives, creating “superweeds” that are able to resist herbicides.
  • Harm to other organisms. In May 1999, researchers from Cornell University reported that monarch butterfly caterpillars that ate leaves dusted with pollen from GM corn sickened and died. While some question the validity of this study, there is still some concern that other non-targeted species could be harmed.
  • Demise of safe pesticides. Among the most successful GM crops are some that contain a gene that produces a protein toxic to insect pests. However, biologists warn that exposing pests to the toxin produced by this gene will help the pests develop resistance and thus render pesticides useless.”

Likewise, according to WHO, the three main issues of concern for human health that are being debated are:

(i). The potentials to provoke allergic reaction (allergenicity);

(ii). Gene transfer (Gene transfer from GM foods to cells of the body or to bacteria in the gastrointestinal tract, especially if the transferred genetic material adversely affects human health); and

(iii). Outcrossing (the migration of genes from GM plants into conventional crops or related species in the wild (referred to as “outcrossing”), as well as the mixing of crops derived from conventional seeds with GM crops, may have an indirect effect on food safety and food security. Cases have been reported where GM crops approved for animal feed or industrial use were detected at low levels in the products intended for human consumption).

Should you switch to organic food? That is a personal decision. Organic food has many enthusiasts, some no doubt motivated by distrust of new technologies used in the food industry. But not everyone agrees that organic farming offers safer food. Whatever your preferences in food, carefully examine what you buy.

Whatever decisions you make regarding the foods you eat, you will probably need to be willing to bend at times, adapting to the realities of the land in which you live. For many people in this day and age, it is simply impossible – too expensive, too time-consuming, too problematic – to make sure that they eat only foods that are verifiably safe in every respect.

  • Mr. .Ighakpe, a concerned Nigerian, wrote from Festac Town, Lagos.

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