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Opinions of Thursday, 13 February 2014

Columnist: Agorsor, Yafetto, Otwe, Galyuon

Ghana’s GMO debates: beyond the sticking points (1)

Israel D. K. Agorsor, Levi Yafetto, Emmanuel P. Otwe and Isaac K. A. Galyuon


1. Introduction

At the turn of the last decade, Ghana signaled its intention to adopt plant genetic engineering as part of the efforts towards modernizing its agriculture when it established the National Biosafety Committee. This committee would, among others, activate the processes for the formulation of a Biosafety Bill. In 2011, a draft Biosafety Bill was passed into law by Ghana’s Parliament, and is known as Biosafety Act 2011 or Act 831. Genetic engineering techniques enable scientists to modify the genetic make-up of an organism, otherwise known as its genome, by inserting into the genome pieces of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) ? the genetic material ? that condition specific desirable traits from other organisms. These modifications result in what are known as genetically modified organisms (GMOs) or transgenic organisms (transgenics).

To say that the debates on GMOs are, perhaps, the fiercest of all debates that have ever engulfed any human endeavour and, for that matter, any scientific discipline in living memory may be an understatement. Why ‘the GMO wars’ have been so fiercely fought is clear only to the extent that people and cultures have significant emotional attachment to food and food products, and thus anything that appears an aberration to these would always be fiercely resisted. However, the evidence, as we have it, is that these debates have at times gone beyond the science, and have assumed moral and speculative dimensions. The result is that quite often, moral questions are also asked to proponents of genetic engineering, questions whose answers may not be readily available.

Some of these ‘moral questions’ include: Are scientists now playing God? Why do scientists interfere in nature and the natural order? Speculative ones include the myriad of diseases, such as cancer, heart diseases, diabetes and fibroid, that genetically modified (GM) food causes. Of course we are aware of some published reports which suggest GM foods could have adverse effects on human and animal health. But we are also aware that some of these reports have either been challenged or retracted from the scientific journals in which they were published after ‘follow-up studies’ showed that the experiments leading to those conclusions were flawed. You may read, for example, “Séralini affair” at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/S%C3%A9ralini_affair, as well as the widely-referenced “Pusztai study” which although hailed by some scientists, has been challenged by others including the UK Royal Society. See the “Pusztai affair” at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pusztai_affair.

We have noticed, too, that in an opinion piece that appeared in the Daily Graphic of Monday, December 23, 2013, and titled “GM Foods: Mass genocide”, studies by Australian scientist Judy Carman and her colleague Jack Heinemann have been cited as evidence of health risks of GMOs. In fact, Carman and co-authors’ studies have been disputed. Many scientists, including the food regulator for Australia/New Zealand known as Food Standards Australia and New Zealand (FSANZ) have rejected Carman and colleagues’ claim that GM foods have health risks as reported in one study. See FSANZ’s response to Carman and colleagues’ claims at http://www.foodstandards.gov.au/consumer/gmfood/Pages/Response-to-Dr-Carman's-study.aspx. Basically, the charge is that it was flawed science that led to their claims.

For an example of a publication that discusses “the health implications of GM foods”, see the article (not an original research paper, but a review article) “Health risks of genetically modified foods” by Dona and Arvanitoyannis published in the journal Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition in 2009 (Crit Rev Food Sci Nutr 49(2): 164-175) at http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18989835 (click on “View full text). For a challenge to the views expressed in Dona and Arvanitoyannis, see the article “Response to “Health risks of genetically modified foods”” by Craig Rickard in the same journal at http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/10408390903467787#tabModule.

Unfortunately, the independence of the authors of some of the “pro- and anti-GMO articles and research papers” have been questioned at times; the authors have been accused of doing the bidding of either biotechnology giants or anti-GMO movements because they have been receiving, allegedly, research funding from these groups. These accusations have also added to the complexity of the GMO debates.

As indicated earlier, some of the questions that are asked by the opponents of genetic engineering can only be answered by the proponents after experiments have been done, and the results known. However, since it is often alleged that these experiments are laced with “seeds of self-destruction”, it appears the main objective of GM opponents, in the first place, is to block them from occurring. So we are stuck. Some governments and courts across the world have actually placed bans or moratoria on the cultivation of genetically modified crops, although some countries have defied the odds, going ahead with their cultivation. Available data show that GM crops are being grown on ever-increasing scales today, more than ever before, despite the ongoing controversies and debates.

We have taken notice of the fact that in recent times, following news that Ghana has begun confined field trials of some GM crops, there have been some media discussions on whether or not Ghana is treading the right path, which discussions came on the heels of agitations and demonstrations against GMOs by segments of Ghanaian society. We have thus decided to join in the debates in order to share our views about the way forward and how to negotiate the sticking points.

2. One Science, Two Opinions
(i) In Defence of Genetic Engineering and GMOs
Proponents of the adoption of ‘GM technology’ in agriculture argue that while plant genetic engineering may not be the panacea for all our food needs because food security goes beyond bumper harvest alone as it takes into account issues of post-harvest losses and market forces, it is our surest bet going forward into the “globally-warm-future”, where agricultural production may be further constrained by the challenges that may come along with climate change. In their view, the fact that the technology affords us the opportunity to develop drought-tolerant, disease- and pest-resistant, and high-yielding crop varieties is a strong enough reason not to attempt to put any impediments in the way of the science.

Proponents further point out that that the rate of human population growth has significantly outbalanced the rate of food production is not only noteworthy, but that it means we may have to bring virgin lands and forests under the plough to bring the situation to normalcy ? to help cultivate more food to feed the new mouths that add up to the world population each day. More importantly, what the rapid growth in human population also means is that there are now competing demands for these virgin lands and forests from the need for new human settlements, too.

To mark the World Food Day celebration in 2009, the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) sounded an alarm. Instead of feeding each living soul across the world with one hot meal (after all, that is what “world food day” sounds like), it fed the world with some grim statistics. It said: “With an estimated increase of 105 million hungry people in 2009, there are now 1.02 billion malnourished people in the world, meaning that almost one sixth of all humanity is suffering from hunger”. Quite clearly, the figures above are loud and clear confirmations of the fact that our world is in distress.

It must be pointed out that the benefits that are mentioned as the “high-points” of genetic engineering, the development of disease-resistant varieties of crops, for example, may also be achieved through the conventional methods of doing agriculture. However, it is universally accepted that the conventional methods take an unnecessarily long time to deliver same results, if at all, promised by genetic engineering. For instance, it may take up to fifty years for breeders to release a new variety of a crop. To put this in perspective, you may have to realize that fifty years is about the life expectancy in some nations across the world. Thus entire generations may never get to see the solutions to their agricultural problems. Of course, at times, when the conventional methods have helped to deliver the desired results after many years (10 – 15 years) of breeding, the desirable trait (for instance, disease resistance) introduced into the crop may be lost within a short time after releasing the new crop variety, the benefits may be short-lived. What it means then is that years of effort may have gone to waste. Plant breeding is thus a complicated business.

The above observations may be what have spurred on the proponents of genetic engineering, to go ahead with their science even in the face of the criticisms as they tout the technology as probably one of the best tools ever to have found its way into the plant breeders’ toolbox. The opponents of GM technology disagree with this.

(ii) The Case Against Genetic Engineering and GMOs
Anyone who follows the GMO debates closely may have noticed that a number of civil society organizations, including some scientists, oppose anything that remotely suggests application of genetic engineering in agriculture. These groups argue that genetically engineering organisms is tantamount to opening up the Pandora's box.

Typically, these critics construct their arguments along the following lines: Will the genetic modification of crop plants using DNA from bacteria result in the emergence of new diseases? What are antibiotic resistance genes doing in GM crops? These genes are used as ‘markers’ by scientists to enable them find out which of their materials have been successfully transformed with their gene of interest. This they do by growing the ‘transformed materials’ in growth media containing antibiotics. Those that have been successfully transformed will grow despite the presence of the antibiotic in the growth medium, while those that could not be successfully transformed will be “killed off” by the antibiotic. The reason is that the gene of interest is delivered into the transformed material together with the antibiotic resistance gene, so that once a material has failed to take up the gene of interest during the transformation process, it has also failed to take up the antibiotic resistance gene, and therefore will “die off” when grown in a medium containing antibiotic. Although genetic engineers are beginning to move away, largely, from this practice as they now use what is called “marker-free transformation”, a seemingly legitimate question that has been asked is whether these antibiotic resistance genes can be transferred to microorganisms that cause diseases and consequently making them antibiotic-resistant? Concerns have also been raised about the possibility of GM food consumers taking up some of these genes.

Should new diseases emerge from this enterprise called biotechnology, can humankind ever have the capacity to respond to the challenges that they may pose, considering the many diseases that remain incurable? To these questions, “yes” or “no” is not a sufficient answer. In our view, it is these kind of questions that undergird the precautionary principle in biosafety protocols, which principle holds that an embargo may be placed on activities related to GMOs in anticipation of risks to, say, environmental and human health, and not necessarily because there is scientific evidence that such risks in fact do exist.


About the authors: Israel D. K. Agorsor holds an MSc degree in Plant Biotechnology (specializing in Molecular Plant Breeding and Pathology) from Wageningen University, The Netherlands; Levi Yafetto holds a PhD in Mycology from Miami University, USA, and was a Postdoctoral Fellow at Harvard University, USA; Emmanuel P. Otwe holds a PhD in Plant Science from Leicester University, UK; and Isaac K. A. Galyuon is a PhD in Plant Physiology from Aberystwyth University, UK. All four authors work at the Department of Molecular Biology and Biotechnology, School of Biological Sciences, University of Cape Coast, Ghana. *Contact e-mail address: iagorsor@ucc.edu.gh
NB: The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of the institution(s) to which the authors are affiliated. All ‘hyperlinks’ provided are correct as of January 10, 2014.