Dangers, benefits of genetically modified foods (2)
Prof Louis Egwari (left) and Prof Nkiru Meludu

By Ebele Orakpo

The first part of this piece, published Monday, December 28, explained that there was nothing wrong with GMO technology, as it is quite safe for nations to adopt. In this edition the focus is on the advantage of genetic modification

WHY the concern in food production? “As a cell biologist who has studied the cell structure right from my early days in biology, I know exactly what happens in the cell. I know what happens in the open field when we cultivate plants; I know the modifications that go on all the time in our environment.

“I can categorically say there is no living organism today that has not arisen from modification of parent lines to get us to where we are. All that has been happening before we got here have happened because of mixes of genetic materials from time immemorial. I know that because I am a biologist and a microbiologist and I have studied the interactions between female and male organs of living things so I know that mixing of genetic materials has been happening over the years.

“That is not to say there is no room for mutation. When there is a mutation, sometimes, it is to our advantage. We pick the ones that we feel are beneficial to us. When the mutation does not favour us, we discard them. So over time, farmers select their choice products of these mixes and keep them for the next planting season and the ones that appear not to be good, they put aside.

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“We are aware of all this and so it is with genetic modification but the advantage of genetic modification is that rather than allow these mixes to occur haphazardly, you are specific. It is an advantage because as a scientist, I will not pick an ugly trait; I will go for a trait that is of interest to humanity and take it to where we want it to be.”

Same technology applied to agric and health products: Speaking further, Ogbadu wondered why people are more concerned about the GMO technology in food production while they gladly embrace the use of same technology in the pharmaceutical industry.

“I wonder why people are agitated over genetically modified agricultural produce because it is the same technology that is applied in the health sector in biopharmaceuticals and biosimilars, but people are not raising issues on that. In the case of biopharmaceuticals, some of them are injected directly into the bloodstream so they move even faster.

“If you take food, it first goes into your stomach, enzymes work on it, digest it and it goes through the small and large intestines before it is absorbed into the bloodstream but biopharmaceuticals are injected directly into the bloodstream. The first genetically modified product released commercially is insulin used in the treatment of diabetes.

“Look at the number of people that insulin has helped to save or at least prolong their lives and nobody is complaining. Previously, insulin was produced by harvesting the pancreas of animals. The animals were slaughtered in large numbers, their pancreas harvested and insulin extracted from them but with biotechnology, insulin is now produced in a bioreactor in large quantities because the gene has been inserted into bacteria which produce in the bioreactor so you simply harvest.”

Modified humans: Bringing a new dimension to the debate, Professor Louis Egwari, Lead Researcher at the Centre for Biotechnology Research, Covenant University, Ota, Ogun State, said that virtually everything in life has become modified including humans. “We can also talk about modified humans. Attitudinally, we have been modified. The genes can be modified by the environment, it is not only when you manipulate them. The drug you take can manipulate some of the genes.”

Mutation: “When you talk about mutation, all these are components of modification so it is not only when you carry out an experiment and come up with something that is looking a little bit different or has acquired new characteristics. We know where people that are for or against GMOs are coming from. If you are engaged in advocacy and you are saying no, we should not embrace GMOs, how have you been able to control the activities of microbes that occupy the various ecological niches? They are being modified daily!”

Emerging diseases: Egwari argued that even if we drop the idea of artificially modifying foods and organisms in the labs, genetic modifications constantly occur naturally in the environment and that cannot be controlled.

“We talk about emerging diseases and emerging microbes, where do they come from? We say organisms have the capacity to pick genetic materials from the environment, so if they can acquire genetic materials from the environment and modify their characteristics, then they have been modified but you are only looking at the artificial techniques engaged in modifying these things. Life is evolving as environmental conditions are changing; therefore, every living thing is changing and adapting to survive in this environment. It is survival of the fittest and that means ability to adapt quickly to changing environment,” he said.

Control your environment or go into extinction “Man is saying that now, he has the technology to control his environment and the things around him and if he doesn’t do that, he will go into extinction. The humans we have today are not the same as we had some 200-500 years ago; we are different in every respect – in our physiognomy, thought patterns, perceptions, etc.

“In another 50 or 100 years, we are going to have another set of human beings; they may still look like us but in quite a number of respects, they have changed. Technology is going to change them. Now, we are planting chips in our system, they will alter body mechanisms so we are changing. The type of surgery we do is changing; implants are changing us but you don’t think that is genetic modification?

“Going a little bit Biblical, when man ate the fruit of knowledge of good and evil, he had the capacity to think to any limit, he became like God and became creative. So man has the ability to conquer his environment and also conquer himself and change himself to what he thinks he can be,“ Egwari added.

Advantages of GM foods: “Man is looking at the fact that he is increasing numerically and likely to die of hunger so he must create food and the best way to do that is through technology. For instance, if an apple is medium size, why can’t I make it 10 times its size? If it is going to take me one year to raise a cow, why can’t I raise it in two months to maturity?

“If I have to depend on natural vegetation for medication, and knowing that so many things are also looking at that vegetation for survival, a time will come when there will be no more vegetation due to housing, roads, industries, etc., so man decided to develop alternatives. Can’t I grow crops that instead of taking one or two years to mature, will grow and produce in one week? These are the things on ground,” explained Egwari.

Prof. Ogbo adds: “As a matter of fact, one of the targets of genetic modification is to improve shelf life, to reduce attacks by microorganisms and many of them have achieved that.”

Measures to ensure biotechnology benefits people maximally

Also speaking on the issue, the Director-General, National Biosafety Management Agency, NBMA, Dr. Rufus Ebegba, said the NBMA ensures that the practice of modern biotechnology which leads to development of GMOs and products, do not have any adverse impact on the population due to human errors.

“We ensure that genetically-modified organisms and certain practices of modern biotechnology do not cause potential harms on the environment or human health and that such potential harms are prevented or reduced or eliminated entirely. There is likely potential harm that could result from use of modern genetically modified organisms.”

Confined trial

“We call it potential because there is nothing in this world that does not have the potential to cause harm depending on how you use it. For instance, cars have the potential to cause serious harm depending on how you use or manage them so GMOs could be developed to cause negative consequences.

You can, therefore, use modern biotechnology to develop GMOs that can be harmful. So the agency works to prevent any GMO that can cause harm from being released into the environment. Before any modern biotechnology activity is carried out, we grant permit to those who want to carry them out once we are sure that their activity will not cause any harm,” he said.

“After developing the product, first of all, we have what is called confined trial in a small location so that what they have modified is manifest. For instance, you have genetically-modified crops that are insect-resistant; some are herbicide-tolerant. But before all these things are released, risk assessment is carried out by NBMA to ensure that these products do not have any negative impact.

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Ethics committees: “To address any question that may arise as to whether what I consider to be of advantage is of advantage to other people, there are ethics committees that must approve the research proposal design before you embark on them. The ethics committees will scrutinise the proposal. The committees consist not only of scientists but include people from various walks of life – lay persons, spiritual persons of different faiths, schooled and unschooled.

“You lay open your plan for them to look at, critique and come to an agreement as to whether what you want to do is of benefit to humanity at large. It is when they give the approval that you can embark on the research,” said Ogbadu.

Biosafety protocol: “We have the Biosafety Protocol in place which we must comply with in the process of carrying out research to ensure that all the regulatory prescriptions are adhered to before the research is concluded.

So it is in this respect that whatever misgivings people have about it, they can be assured that scientists are well ahead of them and have taken steps to address the misgivings.

“All they need to do is to trust the scientists because these scientists do not buy their foodstuff from a different market; it is the same market that the lay person goes to that they go to so if there is anything that is harmful or hazardous, scientists will not be the ones to release them into the environment,”  Ogbadu added.

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