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Published On: Mon, Aug 11th, 2014

The GMO debate: What to consider

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The debate around Genetically Modified Organisms has been characterized by lack of information and understanding of the complexities around biotechnology. Any state must undertake careful

consideration about potential benefits and risks before deciding to introduce GMOs into the country.

The issue of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) has received a lot of attention from decision-makers, scientists, industry, farmers, civil society, the general public and the media globally. The ongoing debate on GMOs has pitted scientist against scientist, farmer against farmer, environmentalist against environmentalist etc. Unfortunately this has sent mixed signals to the general public and policy makers.

When discussing issues pertaining to GMOs, it is unavoidable to mention the term biotechnology. Biotechnology can be defined in a number of ways depending on the context the term is being used.

The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) defines biotechnology as “any technological application that uses biological systems, living organisms, or derivatives thereof, to make or modify products or process for specific use”. GENETICALLY MODIFIED ORGANISMS Genetically Modified Organisms are organisms or cells whose genetic materials have been deliberately manipulated to make them capable to produce new substances or perform new functions they would not do in nature.

Genetic material is material of plant, animal, microbial or other organisms containing functional units of heredity. Recombinant deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) technology or genetic engineering is the technology used to alter the genetic material.

Genetic engineering has advanced to the stage where it now allows scientists to change the characteristics of living organisms or cells by transferring the genetic material from one organism, across species boundaries. As such, DNA technology allows the transfer of genetic material between organisms that under normal circumstances would not be able to breed in any natural or laboratory setting.

CONVENTIONAL BREEDING AND GENETIC ENGINEERING There are significant differences between conventional breeding and genetic engineering. Conventional breeding involves crossing related species. Organisms or cells with desired characteristics are selected

from the progeny for reproducing and the selection is repeated over several generations. On the other hand genetic engineering bypasses reproduction all together.

It horizontally transfers genes from one organism or cell to another (as opposed to vertically, from parent to offspring). It often uses infectious agents as vectors or carriers of genes to enable genes to

be transferred between distant species that would never interbred in nature.

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