GMOs, or Genetically Modified Organisms are a controversial subject. Especially when it comes to agriculture. Some people claim that GMOs could solve food supply problems in many developing countries, particularly in Africa. However, a number of countries oppose the introduction of GMOs. Ethiopia has taken a particularly bold stance for a country with such a long history of food insecurity – banning GMOs altogether. Tewolde Egziabher the director of Ethiopia’s Environmental Protection Agency said:
We resent the way that the image of the hungry in developing
countries has been used to force a style of agriculture that will only
exacerbate problems of hunger and poverty.
So what exactly are GMOs, and why is there such a fuss about them?
Introduction to DNA and GMOs
All living things contain DNA, the spiral molecule that exists in the centre of every cell in our body, and that of plants, animals, insects, even bacteria. The combination of four chemicals that make up DNA carry the information that
controls how we grow from the first cells into fully formed humans. Like a computer programme for designing our bodies, except the programme is run within our very cells.
Since the discovery of DNA’s structure in 1953, scientists have worked hard to understand how these instructions work. Parts of DNA with certain properties have been identified, and through the process known as Genetic Engineering those
parts can be swapped into the DNA of another organism. Once the DNA has been engineered, organisms grown from the new cells take on characteristics of the otherwise unrelated organisms.
Such techniques open up many possibilities in food production.
For example it is possible ,in theory, to identify the parts of the DNA of a particular kind of mahindi which grows well in certain kinds of soil, for example those found in some parts of Africa. This can then be added to the DNA of another kind of mahindi which produces more juicy cobs. The result, in theory, is a strain of juicy mahindi that grows in soils it wasn’t previously possible to grow juicy mahindi in.
Developments such as these have the potential to transform agriculture in parts of the world where it has previously been difficult. So shouldn’t every country be embracing genetic engineering?
Problems with GMOs
Unfortunately things are rarely that simple. There are a number of arguments against genetic modification.
To many people, the creation of completely new forms of life through genetic modification is the height of human arrogance – man tries to become God, and create his own garden of Eden. In non-religious terms, genetic modification skips over the thousands of years of evolution that would normally be required for the emergence of a new species. Some scientists argue that man has been manipulating life through a process of artificial selection for thousands of years, by only planting the seeds of the best crops. The effect of these changes is the same as what they do. However, each change in the thousands of years of artificial selection is slight, while scientists are, in months or even days, splicing genes from completely unrelated species that could never be obtained otherwise. The farmer selecting seeds might reject those that produce bitter fruit. The genetic engineer does not have the luxury of this stage and runs the risk of producing poison! Contained within laboratories this does not pose a particular risk. But science can never test in the wild as effectively as farmers have done in their own historical genetic manipulation.
The primary political argument against GMOs relates to the question of ownership. When a scientist creates a new form of life, she obtains the right to benefit from her hard work, and to protection from those who would steal the idea and copy the new crop. These rights are enshrined in Intellectual Property laws, agreed internationally through the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO). Such laws, whilst encouraging scientific research, may encourage creating more profitable rather than more suitable crops. One example of this is the so called “terminator gene” – a gene that results in crops not
producing fertile seeds. The farmer must purchase more seeds in order to grow new crops each year. Such GMOs are primarily designed for the business needs of the seed producer, not the farmer. In a free market, with free information,
perhaps such products do not present such a risk – why would a farmer want to buy seeds for plants that would not produce new ones?
One of the greatest risks of GMOs, particularly agricultural ones, is that of cross-pollination. It is claimed that the pollens of GMOs can travel huge distances and fertilise the seeds of non genetically modified crops. Some of the characteristics of the GMO may be passed on in the new seeds, and the original strain is put at risk. Were a terminator gene to escape into the wild in this way, food security would be seriously threatened for millions of people – and who owns the rights to the accidentally created new crop? A recent court case took place in Canada between a farmer who claimed his crops had been
cross-pollinated and Monsanto, who claimed the farmer had stolen their Intellectual Property!
Clearly the question of GMOs is a tricky one – a balance must be found between great rewards and great risks for individuals and humanity.
Originally published in Arusha Times 342