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The controversies of Genetically Modified Organisms

The catch phrase ‘GMO’ tends to strike fear of the unknown into the hearts of many whenever they hear it: ‘modified? Modified how?’

There has been a wide debate in the agricultural world on whether GMOs are good or bad. This has come with people having different opinions, especially in both the technology world and the agricultural world. This is a day-to-day topic in the life of an agronomy student and to agricultural and health scientists who are always in dire need to find the pros and cons of the so-called GMs. The worries, misconceptions and many other social factors have contributed to the “difficulty” to answer this question, as both the scientists and the public have their own opinions on the subject.

What are Genetically Modified Organisms?

Genetically Modified Organisms, commonly known as GMOs, are living organisms whose genetic materials have been artificially manipulated in a laboratory through genetic engineering which involves alteration of its genetic components such as the ADN.

From an agricultural standpoint, genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are plants developed through a process in which a copy of a desired gene or section of genetic material from one plant or organism is placed into another plant to achieve a desired trait, such as resistance to an insect or improving the ripening process in order to better a customer’s market need.

This transgenic biotechnology is an extremely precise method of plant breeding based on a complete understanding of the plant’s genetic code, allowing scientists to change a single characteristic or trait in the plant without changing anything else about the plant’s genetic makeup.

Biotechnology is used to develop traits that make crops more tolerable or resistant to plant diseases, pests, extreme environmental conditions such as drought, and specific plant herbicides. These traits not only help keep plants healthier but can also help maintain or improve our environment. For example, herbicide tolerant crops allow farmers to use less tillage, which reduces nutrient runoff and soil erosion (helping our rivers) and retain additional soil moisture (requiring less irrigation) all while maintaining yield, nutritional value and handling experiences.

Take on Monsanto

Whenever GMOs are mentioned, the first thing that comes to the minds of many is Monsanto. This is because; Monsanto has come under massive criticism for alleged irresponsible marketing of herbicides alongside their herbicide-tolerant GM crops, and its subsequent refusal to accept any responsibility for the phenomenon. Although not yet an issue in most African countries, (especially South Africa where they grow a large percentage of GM maize), glyphosate-resistant weeds are already creating significant problems in the US, parts of Latin America and Australia.

Sustainable farming practices need to be adopted if we are to ensure that we retain the benefits of GM to farmers and customers alike. This brings us to objections of how GM crops are regulated, and who actually benefits. Most policies declare that, any product containing at least 5 per cent of any GM goods or ingredients must be labeled as such. This has not been the case with Monsanto.

Bt maize (Mostly grown in South Africa) was originally developed by Monsanto to improve yields for large-scale commercial farms in the US. However, this is not sustainable for the famers since most of them are small-scale farmers who do not have the capital to create optimal farming environments. Also, researchers argue that the Bt maize grown in South Africa is less robust to sub-optimal conditions (drought, low soil nitrogen, poor storage facilities), in comparison to locally bred non-GM maize varieties. The yield benefits of Bt maize are also lower in some areas than the non-GM varieties. This therefore calls for more research in comparison to how sustainable it can be to the farmers.

The Protocol of Cartagena

This is an international agreement that aims to ensure the safe handling, transport and use of living modified organisms (LMOs) and Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) resulting from modern biotechnology that may have adverse effects on biological diversity, taking also into account risks to human health.

The aim of the protocol is to ensure an adequate level of protection in the field of the safe transfer, handling and use of living modified organisms resulting from modern biotechnology that may have adverse effects on the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity, taking also into account risks to human health, and specifically focusing on Trans boundary movements. Kenya is one of the countries involved in this agreement.

From a scientific Point Of View

Scientists have been onto their toes on the research on GMOs since. A report by Phew Research Centre survey showed that, 88 per cent of scientists vouched for safety of GM foods. On another research, only 37 per cent of the American public judged GM foods to be safe while 57% judged it as unsafe. From this, we can see the lag between the public and the scientific opinion. This calls for a need of public awareness and engagement on issues pertaining GMOs. This is because the understanding on GMOs is very limited. The public has been brainwashed a lot especially by the media and this makes it hard to change the idea people have about GMOs.

On the scientific aspect too, there are some fears in relation to the use of GMOs. An example is on the environmental concern; which is the development of insects resistant to some proteins such as Bt found in the maize (produced by a common soil bacterium, Bacillus thuringiensis).It is much the same way when doctors fear drug-resistant strains of major diseases, which could see antibiotics rendered useless in the same case; agriculturalists also fear the appearance of such ‘super-bugs’ which are resistant to pesticides which might affect agricultural production in a negative way. However, arguing that GM should be summarily ditched due to the possibility of resistant pests and insects becoming widespread are akin to arguing that we should abandon use of antibiotics in case drug-resistant disease strains emerge. What the emergence of resistance in insects in this case does, is to highlight the importance of regulations requiring farmers to plant non-GM crops alongside GM crops to have the balance between the latter. Again, knowledge on GM farming has to be harnessed.

It is worth noting that empirical data is necessarily limited to the decades that Bt crops have been in existence (Example being South Africa, which produces between 70- 80 per cent GMO, Bt maize). It is possible, if implausible, that GM crops turn out to be carcinogenic over 40 or 50 years of consumption. However, nothing in the composition of Bt maize suggests this. Nutritionally speaking, geneticists argue, proteins are proteins. They know their composition and how they are digested; as far as the body is concerned, where they came from is irrelevant.

Ideally, out of several researches undertaken on GMOs for the past three decades, it has not proved their negative side especially as those claimed. This does not mean that they don’t have their negative sides neither.

Is GMO Food Necessary in Kenya?

Being a political influenced and driven country, Kenya is one of the countries whose status on GMOs is a bit controversial. A general fear of GMOs among Kenyans of health risks has been caused by contradicting positions taken by politicians, scientists, regulators and activists, as well as a lack of knowledge and scientific data on health and environmental risks associated with the use of GMOs.

According to a report on the Kenyan Standard Newspaper, Kenya imposed the ban on GMOs in 2012 after French scientists associated the eating of genetically modified maize with tumours in rats. Kenya then prohibited the importation and eating of the foods. The government imposed the ban arguing that it exposed consumers to cancer risks especially after long term consumption. However, the ministry of Public Health can help in clearing this claim. Subsequent research found the study to be flawed and it was withdrawn. This calls for a thorough research before coming into conclusion in such a critic situation concerning human life.

Now the question remains: Is GMO foods and materials really necessary in Kenya? Debate on whether the government should lift a ban on GMOs is a total division among the political leaders since some are against it while others support it with a claim that it will help feed thousands of Kenyans under a threat of starvation caused by drought and rainfall failure especially in the northern parts of the country. On the part of the public, some members are not aligning with the government on its move to ban the foods as many families depend on it for survival.

GMOs can be accepted in Kenya. Technology should be appreciated and given a try. Taking an example of South Africa, a country producing 70-80 per cent GM maize, Kenya can do the same. This will not only help feed the hungry but also, it will help in the advancement of technology and research, more job opportunities and more industries and research stations which will affect a wider range of sectors within the country.

We should also stop relying too much on misconceptions and find facts, real facts, which will help us deal with this GM phobia.


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