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Published On: Mon, Oct 13th, 2014

Concerns in agricultural biotechnology (I)

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By E. EfiomEne-Obong, FAS

The last few weeks have witnessed several write-ups on the pages of Newspapers in Nigeria about genetically modified crops (GMCs), food (GMF) and other products (GMPs). These are in reaction to the recent briefing by the Minister of Agriculture, Dr. Akinwumi Adesina, on regulating the use of genetically modified crops and products in the country.

In the Guardian Newspapers of Tuesday, May 20, 2014, Gbadebo Rhodes –Vivour, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) -trained architect, writing under the title, “GMO/hybrid seeds: Inviting cancer  to our land, passing a death sentence on Nigerians”, gave a completely wrong and unscientific analysis on genetically modified products.

For example, he referred to two methods used by scientists to modify genes as, “one is marker assisted: A specific gene is spliced and bred with the same organism such as tomato. The other method is trans-genesis, during which genes from another organism, such as bacteria, are moved into the genes of corn.” He went further to frighten Nigerians on the work of Monsanto and the fate of BT cotton in India. The author did not give details on this.

The truth is that there is no consensus on what causes the suicides among farmers in India. GM cotton was introduced into India in 2002 by Monsanto, about four years after it was introduced into South Africa and many more years after it was introduced into other countries like USA, China, and Canada.

The issue of farmers’ suicides, however, reached media attention in 1995 in Maharashtra and then other southern states of India. While the number of farmers’ suicides rose steeply between 1995 and 2002, the trend has relatively flattened out or reduced in some cases. The so called link between GM cotton and farmers suicides is due to confusion among a number of social activists groups. It even led to a Royal blunder by Prince Charles when he linked farmers’ suicide in India to so-called failure of GM crops in India.

Reports by many local and international Agencies and groups have failed to see any relationship between farmers’ suicides and GM crops. A regional study in rural Vidarbha (Maharastra) in 2012, gave reasons for the suicides in the order of importance, as debt, alcohol addiction, environment, low produce prices, stress and family responsibilities, apathy, poor irrigation, increased cost of cultivation, private money lenders, use of fertilizers and crop failure.

In 2008, the International Food Policy Research Institute, an alliance of 64 governments, private foundations and international and regional organizations stated that “It is not only inaccurate, but simply wrong to blame the use of Bt cotton as the primary cause of farmer suicides in India,” stating that the introduction of Bt cotton in India had actually been effective in producing higher yields and decreasing pesticide usage by nearly 40%.

Suicide in India is a crisis that is rampant and occurs across the country. In 2011, a report by the Centre for Human Rights and Global Justice (CHRGJ) claimed that the sale of expensive GM seeds to rural Indian farmers was a key factor contributing to the suicide rates. This is the only possible little link of GM crops with the suicides. Note that this is not due to any failure of BT cotton. Even then, India is a relatively new comer into Bt cotton cultivation and the hectares covered with the crop is small compared with some other countries, including the USA. Such attacks on genetically- engineered products are not new and are even welcomed by scientists in the area, since every such new technology in the past (e.g. discovery of electricity, space research, aeroplane discovery, discovery of even radio and picture waves have faced similar condemnations by the unknowing public. Unfortunately, however, many of these negative reports are notscientific, and are made by individuals who lack true knowledge of the science involved.

Dr. Rhodes- Vivour’s reference to two methods used by scientists to modify genes misses the fact that markers could be phenotypic or genetic. Marker- assisted breeding is used by breeders who use both conventional and biotechnological strategies for the improvement of plants and animals.

Trans-genesis simply means gene transfer and, although, it is true that genetic markers, like antibiotics resistance genes, are used for identifying successful incorporation of transferred desirable genes in  recipients’ genomes, genes are transferred in other conventional improvement strategies, like chromosome addition lines, protoplast hybridization and even normal hybridizations or matings.

Concerns in genetically modified crops and other products have been on for many years. The issues include; Agricultural biotechnology and food security; Biosafety; risks to human and animal health from the use of GMOs due, for example, to the presence of antibiotics resistance markers in genetically engineered crops, animal feed, animals and other products; Bioethics, product acceptability, religious and philosophical concerns; Environmental contamination from genetic drift; Socio economic concerns and Intellectual property rights (IPRs).

The fact that genetic engineering techniques can be used to improve and to increase food production, and thus ensure food security, is acceptable to everyone. The fear isin what could be regarded as possible side effects. Scientists have pointed out that gene exchange and transfers are not new, as they have been used for centuries in conventional crop improvement, through hybridization (normal hybridization and protoplast hybridization) and in development of chromosomal addition lines. Here many genes, running into thousands may be involved. Genetic engineering is employed to supplement conventional breeding, where the latter cannot solve a particular problem.

Here very few genes are transferred, usually four, the gene of interest, the promoter gene, the terminator gene and the marker gene. There are no fears concerning the promoter and terminator sequences, as these can come from the same crop to be improved. The concerns are about the marker gene, e.g. antibiotics resistance markers.

Concerns about the risk to animal and human health are based on the possible drift of transferred genes into untargeted organisms and the environment, such as the risk of the antibiotic resistance gene being transferred from GM crops into microorganisms in the guts of humans and farm animals; or even into microorganisms in the external environment.

There is also the concern about allergenicity from consumption of genetically modified (GM) food. The investigations on these concerns, i.e. gene drifts and allergenicity etc., are a major part of the programmes adopted in introducing a new genetically engineered (GE) product for human and animal use.

Currently, a Facebook group is distributing information on the negative effects of a new product by Monsanto, on laboratory rats in an experiment carried out in France. Monsanto is said to have released the product for use after only three months testing. This cannot be possible because a company is not allowed to release such products for public use. There must be years of testing by the company, governments, scientists in different parts of the world, International Agencies etc.

Professor E. EfiomEne-Obong, FAS is of the Department of Genetics and Biotechnology, University of Calabar, Calabar.

To be continued

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