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Anti-GM protesters are misdirecting energy

Mon, 21 Apr 2014 Source: Pacas, Idris

The leading anti-GM group, The Coalition for Farmers Rights and Advocacy Against GMOs (COFAM) continuously bombard the airwaves with their anger against genetically modified organisms (GMOs). They have attacked the Plant Breeder’s Bill which is currently before Parliament. I believe strongly that their argument is misdirected. The misdirection of their argument is caused by three factors—limited understanding of what GMOs are, possible areas of deploying biotechnology and globalization. The first two issues are highly technical, but the third is economic and political.

Right from the beginning, the protesters are not against all GMOs including GM foods, but they are simply against the introduction of GM foods into Ghana. Thus, the protest is NIMBY (not in my backyard) and not NIABY (not in anybody’s backyard). I am sure that the protesters are fully aware that Ghana has porous borders and quarantine procedures. Again, I am sure that the protesters are fully aware of how our markets are flooded with food products from neighbouring countries particularly Burkina Faso, where GM crops are a commonplace. The protesters may be busy fruitlessly attempting to prevent our farmers from growing GM crops, but we are just already consuming them in excess.

The focal point the protesters need to note is that GMOs especially GM foods have come to stay. Make a choice to use or not to use them and hold onto your choice. Even with the so-called conventionally produced varieties, some people do not or cannot eat them for religious or for health reasons. More dramatically, some people are allergic to pollen; they develop hay fever which can be very serious when they inhale pollen. Does this situation mean that all plants should be killed? Again make a choice and hold onto it.

Globalization has contributed greatly to the coming and to the fixing of GM crops. Many a Ghanaian loves the US so much. It is in the US that GM crops abound. Just imagine how you will travel to the US and having to tell every restaurant that ‘Don’t serve me GM foods’. This would be ridiculous! Thus, the protesters will be happy eating GM foods overseas.

To deal with the first factor which most likely causes the protesters to be misdirecting their energy, I use only simplified expressions to explain the following terms: genes, biotechnology and GMOs. Lack of or limited understanding of these terms make some people think of GM products as being artificial. (Notice the difference between ‘artificial’ and ‘man-made’.) A gene is a specific sequence of DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) or RNA (ribonucleic acid) that occurs at a definite position on chromosomes (rod-shaped structures in the nucleus). The DNA or RNA is made up of structures called nucleotides. A gene is therefore the basic unit of heredity that transfers characteristics/traits from parents to their offspring. (The word offspring is both singular and plural.)

A gene usually controls a particular trait either alone or in combination with others. Note these points: (1) A gene that controls a particular trait found in all organisms—whether plants, animals, bacteria, protists or fungi—is the same. For example, the gene that controls the production of insulin in spiders is the same as the gene that controls the production of insulin in humans. Thus, different organisms have the same genes for the traits they have in common and different genes for traits they differ in. (2) Using the sequence of nucleotides of a given gene, molecular geneticists and genetic engineers can make the same gene in the laboratory. I will refer to these points as 1 and 2 throughout this document.

Biotechnology, in older sense, is the use of organisms especially microbes to make products useful to humans. In modern sense, biotechnology involves making changes to genes. The altering of the genes is called genetic modification. An organism whose genes or genetic make-up is altered is called a GMO.

From the above, the most important question is ‘Why should scientists modify the genes in organisms?’ The aim is to create more variation in the gene pool of the different varieties of a given species. Creation of genetic variability is the basis for all plant breeding processes. All plant breeders—whether conventional/classical breeders, mutation breeders or molecular breeders—use processes that modify the genetic make-up of available species. It is from the different modified forms that selection is made and the better or best one released as a new variety.

Thus, production of GMOs is only different from conventional breeding for two reasons—the process of creating the genetic variability and the resulting products. Conventional breeders usually interbreed organisms aiming to transfer the genes that control desirable traits onto their offspring. Here, only genes that exist in nature are transferred. On the other hand, molecular breeders, comprising molecular geneticists, genetic engineers and biotechnologists, will identify the specific gene of interest from ANY organism (see Point 1) and then TRANSFER it to the target organisms. Alternatively, the gene may be synthesized completely using the sequence of the known one in the organisms (see Point 2).

Whether the gene is taken from an organism or its copy is synthesized in the lab, the resulting product of the gene if it is inserted into the target organism will be same as that produced from conventional breeding. The major benefit is that the GM product will be produced in a more rapid and a more precise manner. And this is particularly advantageous for perennials such as cocoa, oil palm, shea tree, avocado and pear. [Avocado (Persia americana) and pear (Pyrus sp.) are different crops.]

The second difference, an advantage of GM products over products of conventional breeding, is the ability of genetic engineers and biotechnologists to introduce a completely new gene into an organism to produce a product never found in any member of its species.

The need to modify the genes of organisms to create variety arises from the need for more products to cater for the ever-increasing population. Using plastic products for example, one notes that if no organism is ‘created’ that will eventually be able to break down plastic wastes, Ghana risks having more than half its arable land contaminated by plastic products in the next 30 years to come. Dear readers, which parts of Ghana can you go without seeing plastic wastes?

A more general and realistic example comes from the banana vaccine. Polio is one of the six childhood killer diseases and the World Health Organization (WHO) is doing its best to rid the world of this infectious disease. Despite the improved level of education, counterproductive actions have sprung up from religious organizations. Some religions or sects forbid their members from taking medication of any kinds and others argue that the polio vaccine aims to make their children sterile.

The world cannot sit down and allow children to die out of a preventable cause. GM banana is the answer! Kudos to GM foods! This banana plant is engineered to produce fruits that contain the polio vaccine. Conventional breeding can NEVER solve this problem. Thus, the technology for producing GM products is not an alternative to conventional breeding but rather it complements the efforts of conventional breeders. Make a choice to use GM products or never to use them!

But a quick reminder is that the process of developing just one GM plant is never that easy. Apart from the high expertise required, a modern biotechnology laboratory with highly specialized equipment is a necessary prerequisite. And this reason explains why GM seeds are justifiably expensive. For a similar reason, plant breeders who toil to produce such GM products require exclusive patent rights over their intellectual products.

While the anti-GM protesters agree that musicians and others must have patents and copyrights for their products, they think plant breeders need not. Unfortunate! The protesters argue that by adopting GM crops, our local farmers will be outcompeted by multinational companies such as DuPont and Monsanto which produce GM seeds. This is not true. The GM companies will only develop seeds. With expert advice from the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) including the Crops Research Institute, Food and Drugs Board and Ghana Standards Authority, the Ministry of Food and Agriculture (MoFA) will procure the seeds for our farmers.

Another important point to note, which the protesters seem to be unaware of, is that breeders never release new varieties to farmers. On developing a new variety, a breeder writes to the Variety Release Committee which takes delivery of the new variety, subjects it to rigorous testing and then accepts or rejects it. Thus, no possibility exists for GM companies from the US or from any other part of the world to dump any products on our farmers. Contrary to the views of the Samia-led protesters, the Farmers and Fishermen Association of Ghana made it clear that its members will buy and plant any seeds sold to them by MoFA.

Another claim of the protesters is that our local farmers will have to be buying the GM seeds from the companies seasonally. This point again suggests that they lack basic knowledge of farming. Having to buy seeds each year for planting is never new to farmers even with conventionally developed hybrids. The genetics of conventionally produced hybrid seeds is such that over 50 % of the vigour (positive heterosis) is lost during the first season of planting. Therefore, farmers who collect and plant seeds from the previous crops (second generation seeds) will surely get very low yield. Farmers all over Ghana know this and none makes any attempt to replant seeds from their field. It is only the seeds of the synthetic varieties which farmers can replant even for not more than four seasons.

Thus, developing GM crops using the terminator technology is in the best interest of farmers, breeders and environmentalists. The terminator technology makes GM plants to produce suicide seeds (seeds that cannot germinate). Self-destruction of the seeds only prevents them from regerminating but does not alter their nutritive value. The advantage of this autolytic process to farmers is that even if the crops mature during the rainy season, the seed cannot germinate precociously while still in the farm. (The protesters should find out from maize and groundnut farmers how much annual losses they incur because of precocious germination.)

Also, the self-destruction of the seeds means that farmers will have little problems with clearing land during the following season because volunteer crops will not sprout on their farms. Volunteer crops are self-planted agricultural crops. Worth noting is that volunteer crops are the main reservoirs of pest during off-seasons. The terminator seed technology also guarantees the non-escape of the GM crops—pollen grains from GM crops that are carried either by wind or by pollinators to surrounding farms or to wild relatives of the crops will not survive because the resulting seeds will die. This process prevents biodiversity destabilization.

Because GM crops have come to stay, plant breeders in Ghana argue that they must act quickly to develop only those food products that will meet our health and nutritional needs. This option is the only way out because, our failure to do so means that products developed to meet the nutrition and health needs of citizens of other countries will be transported and deposited here. Note that our farmers will never sit down and be growing synthetic and hybrid varieties which will give them fewer bags per ha when GM crops can give over three to four times that yield. Farming is for profit.

The direct benefit of GM technology is mass production which will surely lead to cheaper and quality products. Just remember how mass production reduced the cost of SIM cards. Also see how intense competition in the telecommunication industry has resulted in better promotion packages. Despite the enormous radiations emitted from communication towers and mobile phones, no one is concerned. Scientists are those that produced the telephones; scientists are those producing the GM foods.

The best way the protesters can get the support of all is for them to channel their energy for stricter legislation on quarantine and labelling. Labelling will ensure that the public have a choice to buy or not to buy GM products. The ban on GM crops in Ghana is a mirage.

The writer, a 2013 graduate from the Graduate School of Nuclear Allied Sciences, University of Ghana, is currently doing attachment at the Biotechnology Centre of the Ghana Atomic Energy Commission.

Long live Nkrumah’s Ghana!

Idris Pacas: 020 910 15 33 & iddrisuabdulai12@yahoo.com

Columnist: Pacas, Idris