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Opinions of Monday, 17 February 2014

Columnist: Agorsor, Yafetto, Otwe, Galyuon

Ghana’s GMO debates: beyond the sticking points (3)

Israel D. K. Agorsor, Levi Yafetto, Emmanuel P. Otwe and Isaac K. A. Galyuon
This is the concluding part of the articles “Ghana’s GMO debates: beyond the sticking points (1) & (2)”

6. Interfering in Nature
As we indicated in the first part of this article, one of the moral arguments against GMOs is that the processes leading to them, that is, genetic engineering techniques, amount to gross interference in nature and the natural order. Here, we present scientific arguments that say that this may not be restricted to GMOs alone, as humankind has always “interfered in nature”, at times in ways unimaginable, all in an effort to “make life better”.

You may be surprised to hear that many of the food crops we eat today are not their original selves. They are products of years of conscious and systematic “manipulation of nature”, if you will call it that, representing a marked departure from what they were in the beginning of time. Humankind has always attempted to “improve” natural resources to meet the demands of a growing population in a changing climate. That is to say that conventional breeding itself relies on the transfer of genes, albeit via crosses. from one crop species to a related species in order to be able to develop new varieties.

Conventional plant breeding has its own problems. Unlike genetic engineering, conventional breeding in transferring a gene which conditions a specific trait also transfers a number of other genes on the same chromosome along with it. This means that the conventional breeder very often is not only transferring a specific trait to his elite cultivated variety (cultivar), but also other traits that may be undesirable. For example, two varieties of conventionally-bred potatoes, Lenape and Magnum Bonum, and conventionally-bred celery developed to be pest-resistant had to be withdrawn from the market after it was realized that the conventional breeding processes accidentally led to increased levels of naturally occurring toxins in them.

The foregoing explains why some scientists argue that the assumption that conventionally-bred crops are necessarily safer than GM crops is overly simplistic, especially when conventionally-bred crops are not subjected to the kind of pre-marketing safety analysis done for GM crops.

Then, we present another ‘interference in nature’: mutation breeding. Mutation breeding is a crop breeding technique where breeders subject seeds to doses of radiation and gene-altering chemicals in order to produce novel plant varieties. This technique has been in use since the dawn of the nuclear age in the 1950s, and has seen an escalated use in the last few years. The Nuclear Techniques in Food and Agriculture programme of the United Nations reportedly received about 40 requests for radiation services from a number of countries across the world in 2013. Many of the multinational seed companies chided for promoting GMOs, like BASF and Monsanto, have all reportedly used this technique in developing new crop varieties, all without regulation.

In Ghana, the Biotechnology and Nuclear Agriculture Research Institute (BNARI) of the Ghana Atomic Energy Commission, and research programmes in some of the nation’s universities, the University of Cape Coast for example, have been experimenting mutation breeding techniques for some time now.

In a 2004 report, the US National Academy of Sciences remarked that placing GM crops under tight regulations, while approving products of mutation breeding without any regulation, cannot be justified by science. Mutagenesis, the technique underpinning mutation breeding, has the capacity to rearrange or delete hundreds of genes randomly. It makes use of tools such as gamma radiation, which give rise to mutations (i.e., changes in an organism’s genetic make-up) that sometimes are beneficial or hazardous to the organism. If you have ever had an X-ray image of any part of your body taken, then you have been exposed to radiation. And it is precisely because of the possibility of this process introducing mutations into your genetic make-up you are advised against taking X-ray images very frequently.

But in mutation breeding, plant materials are subjected to rays similar to X-rays in doses sufficient to introduce mutations into their genetic make-up, with the hope of finding beneficial mutations that may result in new plant varieties that are tolerant to adverse growth conditions like drought and salinity, and resistant to pests and diseases. The year before, the UN’s Nuclear Techniques in Food and Agriculture programme was asked by Poland, UK, Indonesia and Kenya for help to irradiate their sugar beet, wheat, rice and potatoes, respectively, reports say. Many other countries have also asked for similar help.

Meanwhile, the randomness of the mutation breeding techniques compels some scientists to assert that any GMO products on the market today are safer than the products of mutation breeding since they (mutation breeding products) have not gone through any regulatory procedures. They argue that mutation breeding carries much bigger risks than genetic engineering. However, it is still not clear why those who campaign against GMOs raise virtually no concerns about the safety of products of mutation breeding.


7. New Developments: Cisgenic Organisms versus Transgenic Organisms
Some scientists have been arguing that not all forms of genetic engineering should be seen as ‘unnatural’ by opponents of GMOs, if their views of ‘the unnaturalness of genetic engineering’ can be sustained at all. They suggest a distinction between the form of genetic engineering which involves transfer of genes from one species (the donor) to a close relative (the recipient), and the form which involves gene transfers either across species boundaries or kingdom boundaries, i.e., transfer of genes from one species to another one which may be distantly related, or entirely unrelated, to the donor species. The term ‘cisgenesis’ was coined for the former while ‘transgenesis’ was retained for the latter.

Organisms genetically modified using cisgenesis are called cisgenic organisms (cisgenics) and those modified using transgenesis are called transgenic organisms (transgenics). Bt-Cotton is an example of a transgenic crop since it has been genetically modified with a gene from an unrelated organism, the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis. No cisgenic crop has been commercialized yet.

It has to be mentioned that despite the stiff opposition to GMOs by the public in many European Union (EU) countries, and the suggestion by GMO opponents that there is no difference between cisgenesis and transgenesis, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) Panel on Genetically Modified Organisms upheld the arguments by proponents of cisgenesis in February 2012 when it ruled that the health risks associated with cisgenic crops are no greater than those of crops developed through conventional breeding.

Sustaining the cisgenesis argument allows plant breeders to take advantage of the opportunities provided by genetic engineering to introduce traits into cultivated varieties (cultivars), which otherwise would be difficult to do using conventional breeding. For example, it is documented that some wild relatives of potato have the gene(s) for resistance to Phytophthora infestans, the causative agent of the late blight disease responsible for the Irish potato famine in the 19th century, which still devastates potato fields today. However, it is not always easy to transfer these resistance genes to modern potato cultivars through conventional breeding in order to protect them against the late blight disease. It is thus thought cisgenesis may come in handy here. Indeed a cisgenic potato resistant to the late blight disease has been considered for field trials in Ireland.

Meanwhile, it should be indicated that the level of acceptance of GMOs in the EU differs from country to country, these levels of acceptance being influenced largely by public opinion. Despite the fact that the European Commission itself has been spearheading GM research in the last decade (See the report “A decade of EU-funded GMO research” at ftp://ftp.cordis.europa.eu/pub/fp7/kbbe/docs/a-decade-of-eu-funded-gmo-research_en.pdf), there are EU countries that operate what appears a policy of zero-tolerance for GMOs (although few countries grow GM crops on commercial or experimental basis), and others that accept GMOs only to some extent. These latter countries may, for instance, use GM crops meant for animal feed only. The question that arises then is whether animals meant for human consumption and that are fed GM crops should themselves be labelled as GM products when they find themselves on the shelves in the supermarkets.

8. Concluding Thoughts
In our view, plant genetic engineering could be considered as one of the tools that should be present in a nation’s agricultural toolbox as we approach “the-globally-warm-future” where agriculture is likely to come up against many more constraints deriving from climate change. By this, we are not suggesting, in any way, that plant genetic engineering holds the key to solving all our agricultural production problems.

On the contrary, we are proposing that rather than attempt to engage in a wholesale application of genetic engineering to agricultural problems, problems should be analyzed on case-by-case basis and the best solution adopted in each situation. Thus, if it is concluded that a particular problem could best be tackled using genetic engineering, then that option should be pursued. For example, we point to Europe where despite the opposition to GM crops by the consuming public, a company found that using genetic engineering to make potato produce a particular kind of starch for industrial purposes was desirable. This was done, and the crop approved for commercialization. Of course, we know that BASF Plant Science, the company responsible for this innovative product known as Amflora, has since stopped commercialization of the crop in view of the continuing anti-GMO stance in some EU countries.

There are also laboratories and knowledge institutions in the developed world, including Europe, which are preparing for a future without crude oil, using genetic engineering techniques. In what is described as preparing for bio-based economies, plants are genetically altered to produce, for example, plastics in the laboratory. The reason for this is that, plastics are products of crude oil, but it is argued petroleum resources are finite, and therefore the need to diversify sources of these materials of economic importance. Similarly, attempts are being made to use plants as platforms for pharmaceutical production in a process described as biopharming (also known as molecular pharming or molecular farming).

It is also important to indicate that GMOs go beyond GM crops and GM foods, as genetic engineering has found application in medicine too. For example, insulin for treating diabetes has been produced from genetically modified bacteria for years. However, applications of this nature have not attracted the kind of controversy associated with GM crops and GM foods.

Whatever it is, it is clear that although we may be opposed to GM foods, the science of genetic engineering itself ought not to be demonized because it holds significant promise for economic development as demonstrated above. Of course, we do recognise that there have been questions about whether GM agriculture can co-exist with conventional agriculture without “contaminating” the products from the latter, and thus affecting the export markets for those products. Our survey of the available literature suggests no clear-cut consensus on this issue, as co-existence issues are still being addressed in the EU although evidence from some jurisdictions, particularly the US, where GM agriculture has firmly taken root points to the fact that elaborate plans could be adopted for the co-existence of these two forms of agriculture.

As we continue to debate the appropriateness or otherwise of GM agriculture in Ghana, we hope that the issues are discussed from informed positions so that, together, we can make informed choices. More importantly, we urge the institutions coordinating the ongoing confined GM crop field trials to actively engage with the public to share their findings with them, and to carry on board the public concerns in the spirit of advancing the “bottom-up approach” to development, as well as to help shape this important national debate.


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. The ‘hyperlink’ provided was retrieved on January 10, 2014.