Genetically Modified Crops, Organic Fertilizers, and
Some Environmental and Human Health Issues!
About a year ago, I wrote a rejoinder to an article entitled “Ghana to Undertake Field Trial on Genetically Modified Crops (GMCs)”. Please see http://www.modernghana.com/news/205727/50/re-ghana-to-undertake-field-trial-on-gm-crops-gmcs.html for the article. I made my stand clear in support of GMCs and for that matter genetic engineering/biotechnology. By and large this revolutionary technology will provide solutions to our 21st century problems in various fields including agriculture, energy, medicine, as well as the textile and automobile industries. Unfortunately, some of the responses to my article were very disappointing, to say the least. They ranged from downright mean through intellectual dishonesty to misapplied theological concepts/principles. I was accused of being an agent of Monsanto and/or sought to use the article as a dry-run for my dissertation. Others declared that being in the Department of Environmental Health Sciences made me completely clueless on issues pertaining to agriculture and so had no business debating these issues. Admittedly, my first article was more of a reactionary piece so I probably failed to communicate some of the important points effectively.
Before delving into the substance of today’s article, I will start by clearing the air on some of the unfortunate labels. First of all, I have nothing to do with Monsanto; neither do I have any affiliation with them. Secondly, apart from the terms genes and bacteria, my dissertation and the subject of genetically modified crops do not share anything in common. For those who care to know, my research focuses on how bacteria “talk” (communicate): a cell density-dependent phenomenon that controls the social/communal behaviors of bacteria through the expression of target genes. Thirdly, I hold a Bachelor of Science degree in agriculture. I am just like any other patriotic Ghanaian/African who believes in using technology to advance the course of humanity. Hopefully, I have set the records straight on the misconceptions about me and my motives for writing my articles.
Today’s article discusses an aspect of organic farming, which may become detrimental to the environment, microorganisms, drinking water, and ultimately to human health. However, most of us are oblivious to the effects of this practice. Opponents of GMCs are of the view that Organic Farming/Organic Foods (OFs) hold the answer to our supply of healthy foods and general food security. This assertion is highly debatable and will be tackled in another article. I do not have anything against OFs; in fact, I will advise that they should be patronized if one can afford them. The production of OFs is however not as environmentally friendly and risk-free as the opponents of GMCs would like us to believe. Organic food production requires the use of organic fertilizers, among other practices. Poultry manure and manure from wastewater treatment facilities represent two important sources of organic fertilizers. However, poultry manure contains significant amounts of antibiotics and trace elements from drugs and feed additives used in raising these birds. A typical example is Roxasone (3-nitro-4-hydroxyphelarsonic acid) - a photodegradable organoarsenic compound. This eventually becomes part of the poultry manure/organic fertilizer which when applied to the soil becomes photo-degraded into more mobile and toxic arsenic species (arsenite and arsenate). Once in these forms, they can be taken up by the crop under cultivation, translocated, and then deposited in both non-edible and edible parts of crops such as carrots, cabbage, lettuce, spinach, onions etc. These eventually end up on our dining tables as “organically” produced vegetables, don’t they? I am not writing this article to scare anybody from eating organic foods and not all crops will translocate the arsenic species, anyway. As indicated earlier, I advocate for the consumption of OFs. I only wish to break it to the anti-GMCs folks (who fluff the I-know-it-all attitude) that contrary to what they believe, all is not well with OFs. Similar fate and cumulative effects of other trace elements such as Cadmium, Chromium, Zinc, Cobalt, and Copper, all of which are found in poultry manure, have not been discussed in this article. I believe the GMC naysayers will now begin to really appreciate how ‘truly organic’ our organic foods are. Although arsenic has been classified as having sufficient evidence of human carcinogenicity, nobody is raising hell over the fact that carcinogenic compounds are being “pumped” into our bodies through the production of organic foods. Neither is anybody misleading the general public with screaming headlines like “Health Alert! Organic Foods may Contain Arsenic or Cadmium” or “The next cabbage you eat is your next dose of cadmium”. On the other hand these are the kinds of frightening headlines opponents of GMCs come up with. It is one thing to debate touchy issues with passion and another to scare the less informed. This is morally wrong and scientifically unacceptable!
Secondly, the arsenic species that are not taken up by the crops remain in the soil and accumulate to toxic levels with detrimental effects on microorganisms. In a typical research, arsenic has been shown to inhibit nitrogen mineralization- an important enzyme-dependent microbially-mediated biochemical process needed for soil fertility. And so organic farming is not environmentally friendly after all. Lastly, the trace elements may be washed by runoff into our surface waters or leach into our aquifers. Everyone knows the end users of water from these sources!
The other source of organic fertilizer is wastewater treatment facilities. Given that wastewater comes from hospitals, pharmaceutical industries, households, among other sources, it contains antibiotics, pathogenic and non-pathogenic bacteria, some of which may be resistant to antibiotics. As part of the treatment processes, these facilities utilize microorganisms (activated sludge) at a stage of the treatment process to break down organic matter. Some of the bacteria, both pathogenic and non pathogenic, during this process acquire resistant to the antibiotics through horizontal gene transfers. Once composed into manure and applied to the soil as organic fertilizers, more bacteria in the soil may also “benefit” from the horizontal gene transfer. This, ultimately, increase the levels of antibiotic resistance in the environment. We can’t also talk about antibiotic resistance without mentioning poultry production because it is a major and the highest source of multiple antibiotics resistance (MAR) in bacteria. Out of the 26 antibiotics to which bacteria develop resistance, poultry production alone accounts for 16. Antibiotic resistance in bacteria is one of the most serious public health issues confronting our generation. If organic farming is a conduit for the development of antibiotic resistance, then we cannot say it is the safest way to grow our foods and certainly not environmentally friendly. I am sorry, if I sound a bit too technical here but it is important to present the scientific basis of my views instead of blindly quoting anti-corporate activists or religious fanatics to scare my fellow human beings- the modus operandi of some anti-GMCs folks.
I hope OF proponents in their quest to say anything to “demonize” Genetically Modified Foods will also keep in mind that organic Food/farming is definitely not risk-free. Whether we like it or not GMCs are here to stay with us and it behooves on those who understand this revolutionary concept to aggressively lead the charge and enlighten the public with scientifically sound arguments in a lay man’s language. By so doing the public will be educated on the great potentials of GMCs instead of the dangerous misinformation that are currently making the rounds.
The forth coming National Food and Agric Show (FAGRO) in October 2010 should present a good platform for those in the helm of affairs to interact and educate the public in a more proactive manner about the importance of Genetically Modified Foods/Organisms.