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Opinions of Thursday, 17 December 2009

Columnist: Agorsor, Israel Deladem

The Debates on Genetically Modified Organisms at Crossroads

: Which Way for Africa?

By: Israel Deladem Agorsor

“We've come a long way, but we've still got a long, long way to go, if you can't run, walk, if you can't walk, crawl. But by all means, keep moving”.

--------- Dr. Martin Luther King on the future, Ebony, July 1956

Introduction

Reports emerging from around the world are pointing to one fact, the fact that the Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) have come to stay. Today, more than ever before, GM crops like GM maize, GM soybean, and GM cotton are being grown on ever-increasing scales in parts of the world despite the controversies surrounding them. And if you think for a moment that the raging debates on GMOs will draw to a close anytime soon, then surely, it must be an extraction from your own imagination. This GMOs thing will just not go away. Rather, the debates are still in high gear, and will likely linger on well into the future. For this reason, it's now incumbent upon individual sovereign nations, or blocks of nations, to reach their own decisions regarding which path to take in this matter – whether or not to embrace plant genetic engineering and GMOs.

It is an inescapable fact that the challenges confronting agriculture the world over are enormous, and the enormity of these challenges cannot be underestimated for any reason. Indeed, these challenges have even been made more daunting by the overwhelmingly large number of mouths that add up to the world population each day and need to be fed. Ordinarily, one would think that a World Food Day is “a day of wining and dining”. But no! Far from that. Ironically, World Food Days rather turn out to be days when the world is told why and how she may not have any food to eat in the future. So it came to pass, that during the last World Food Day celebrations, rather than treat each living soul across the world to say one square meal sponsored by all governments of the United Nations, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) could only feed the world with some grim statistics regarding the world food situation, statistics which were outspoken confirmations of the fact that our world may be heading for a disaster, to say the least. “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”, says the FAO.

Truth to tell, the rate of human population growth around the world has far outbalanced the rate of food production. The world population is growing at a rate that has put all cultivated lands around the world under pressure. So it is argued that to be able to feed the world population adequately, agricultural lands under cultivation at the moment must be doubled. Mind you; what this means is that virgin lands and forests must be brought under the plough. But this is undesirable considering the dire consequences thereof for biodiversity conservation. Meanwhile, one should also remember that the rapid growth of human population around the world also means that there are competing demands, including the urgent need for new human settlements, for virgin lands. Then, as if all the problems facing our agriculture modernization efforts are not enough, there is also this latest guy about town, called climate change, threatening to further aggravate the already precarious world food situation.

Note that since, for obvious reasons, we are unable to convert virgin lands and forests into agricultural lands in order to increase crop yield, and considering all the factors militating against world agriculture, it is often suggested that novel technologies be developed and adopted to help boost crop production. Consequently, the search for new methods of doing agriculture in an effort to deal with any food insecurity issues, and their concomitant malnutrition and starvation problems has constantly pointed us to one thing – agricultural biotechnology. Agricultural biotechnology, and if you like plant genetic engineering, is said to be the single most effective tool in dealing with the problem of food insecurity. But surely, agricultural biotechnology may not be the panacea for all our food needs, because food security is a very wide subject which goes beyond the mere increase in crop yield. Market forces and other driving factors also make up the gamut of food security. Nonetheless, it is argued the role of plant genetic engineering in ensuring food security is too big to be overlooked. Plant genetic engineering is said to be a sure first step towards achieving food security. This leads us to the first side of the debate.

In defence of genetic engineering and GMOs

Advocates of plant genetic engineering seem to put forward a strong and persuasive case in support of their newly found love. They argue that if rain-fed agriculture is unreliable, and there are regions where rainfall is rather erratic, then plant genetic engineering has proven to be a tool that provides us with a unique opportunity to develop drought-resistant crop varieties with the capacity to thrive in their various local regions. They further contend that the technology also provides us with the opportunity to develop pest-resistant, disease-resistant and early-maturing crop varieties, among others. Overall, advocates of the technology seem to suggest that it is the most appropriate response to the challenges confronting our efforts to modernize agriculture. Meanwhile, one well-founded observation is that conventional plant breeding methods which have been relied upon for some of the above-named benefits take unnecessarily long number of years, and have other limitations too, and that's why they have not helped us much in our quest for modernized agriculture. This observation, which is almost universally accepted, appears to embolden the proponents of the new technology even in the face of harsh criticisms from those who are averse to this new technology, to the extent that genetic engineers are today telling us of efforts underway to genetically engineer mosquitoes to help eradicate malaria! Ambitious. Overly ambitious?

Truly, some sections of our society are not the least enthused about the seemingly great benefits being promised by the advocates of the technology. Some say genetic manipulation of organisms has a hidden agenda – to sow “the seeds of self-destruction”. The other side of the debate...

The case against genetic engineering and GMOs: An overview

At this juncture, the point must be made that any close watcher of the GMO debates cannot be ignorant of the existence of anti-genetic engineering groups. One may already be well aware of the fact that a number of formidable civil society groups and even some scientists detest the genetic engineering agenda, and they sound their protests loud and clear at the least opportunity. The opponents of genetic engineering and for that matter GMOs hold the view, which they often express through the use of what is called “heavy question arguments” that any attempt to genetically engineer crop plants would amount to opening up Pandora's box. However, it should be made known that the earliest debates on genetic engineering started across the Atlantic – in the USA – almost four decades ago. These debates brought together scientists, philosophers, lawyers, experts in ethics, among others, and culminated in the beginning of efforts that were to see the institution of guidelines and measures to contain any potential hazards that are likely to emerge from the biotechnology. By far, the Asilomar Conference on Recombinant DNA held in February of 1975 was the key of all the early efforts that sought to address the concerns about the new technology. These early debates have generally led to the establishment of what have come to be known as “the biosafety protocols”.

But the critics of the new technology will not rest. They insist that the technology must be abandoned. Typical “heavy questions” posed by these critics include the following: Will crop modification using DNA from bacteria take us to new realms where we will see the emergence of new diseases? What about GM crops that have antibiotic resistance marker genes? Marker genes are used by researchers to find out whether their genetic modification was successful. So the question is asked, and legitimately so, that will these antibiotic resistance genes be transferred to microorganisms that cause diseases? And can we ever have the capacity to develop new drugs to fight these new diseases, considering we already have on our hands many diseases including the HIV/AIDS that we have not yet found cure for? The fact of the matter is that these are questions that cannot be answered sufficiently by “yes” or “no”. Each question is so heavy that an answer to it may not find enough space within the pages of a 10 000-page PhD Thesis! Honestly, answers to most of these questions are not readily available. The answers, if they exist at all, can only be found after the experiments have been done. But to prevent these experiments – which we are told are laced with “the seeds of self-destruction” – from being carried out in the first place is the main focus of the critics. So could this be the reason they so heavily construct their questions that they hope to win the debates and thus effectively stop the new technology?

One other significant concern though about the GMOs is the issues regarding “ownership”. Notice that the biotechnology companies at the forefront of the development of GMOs lay claim to them as their Intellectual Property. Is it therefore possible that in future, when the world has come to rely on GMOs as major food sources, these companies can due to some strange reason hold the world to ransom by withholding supply of planting materials and thereby causing even greater hunger? In other words, there is also the politics of the GMO debates.

In spite of the heavy criticisms, advocates of plant genetic engineering remain undaunted. They point out that the critics must not lose sight of the fact that every technology has its own advantages and disadvantages, and ask whether it is not out of place for the critics of plant genetic engineering to close their eyes to the potential benefits that may be derived from the technology, and the efforts being made to address their concerns, even as they make their case for the technology to be abandoned. So today, we have GMOs, amidst the debates. Where then do we go in the face of all these controversies?

Africa and the GMOs: The Road Ahead

Now, here we are at the crossroads with what looks like a monkey business, confronted with a choice as to whether to go east or west, as to whether to embrace or ignore plant genetic engineering and GMOs. If you ask me what we should do, I may not be able to tell you. But what I can tell you for a fact is that in the midst of the raging debates on the safety or otherwise of genetically modified organisms, top scientists across many of the world's developed countries are virtually locked up in sophisticated laboratories “doing their own thing” as though they are being motivated by some Mo Ibrahim Prize! Are you aware the Mo Ibrahim Prize is the most rewarding prize money our world has known in living memory, more rewarding than even the world-famous Nobel Prizes which crown the years of efforts of outstanding scholars who make “a significant breakthrough” in their areas of research?

So the developed world research scientists are vigorously pursuing research in plant molecular biology. They are genetically engineering some staple crops, giving rise to genetically modified foods with “desirable traits”. But are these research scientists not aware of the raging controversies? Why are they so bent on sowing “the seeds of self-destruction”? Or are they simply finding answers to the “heavy questions” often posed by the opponents of genetic engineering? All these are happening in the world's developed economies. From Australia to “Zealand-the-New-One” (New Zealand, right?), both the debates and the research in plant genetic engineering are taking place side by side, not one after the other, and GM crops are being grown on ever-increasing scales in many of these countries, the debates notwithstanding.

What then is the position of African governments on this matter of plant genetic engineering and GMOs? Though a few African countries including South Africa, Egypt, and recently Burkina Faso, among others, are said to be “falling in line” with this current world trend in agriculture modernization, not much is heard or seen of Africa regarding this matter. It's almost a taboo to even talk about GMOs in many parts of Africa. So what could be the reason? Meanwhile, the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) in its official statement on Plant Breeding and Genetic Engineering has this position on the matter: “Our mission is not to advocate for or against the use of genetic engineering. We believe it is up to governments, in partnership with their citizens, to use the best knowledge available to put in place policies and regulations that will guide the safe development and acceptable use of new technologies, as several African countries are in the process of doing. We will consider funding the development and deployment of such new technologies only after African governments have endorsed and provided for their safe use. Our mission is to use the wide variety of tools and techniques available now to make a dramatic difference for Africa's smallholder farmers as quickly as possible.”

But then there appears to be no end in sight to hunger in Africa. Hunger in Africa continues unabated. Even the year before, when world production of major cereal crops was said to have reached record high, hunger in Africa was said to have never been worse, with about 1 out of every 3 Africans unable to have access to adequate food. Mr. Kofi Annan, according to a June 2009 statement in his capacity as the Chairman of the Board of the AGRA, seems to share in these observations.

But is it true that one of history's major lessons to the world is that nations do not usually learn anything from their history? I'm told Africa looked on unconcerned, and was a passive observer rather than being an active participant in the green revolution which took parts of the world by storm some decades ago. The end result? I'm told we missed out sorely on a golden opportunity to position ourselves strategically to be able to adequately respond to the food needs of our people, and since then we have been tagged us a continent where hunger and malnutrition constantly stare our people in the face. So, when all is said and done, and world history regarding agriculture is being told again in the future, will it be said of Africa as a continent that missed out on “the second green revolution” – the plant genetic engineering revolution – too? Or will Africa look back and say she saw “self-destruction” coming and avoided it promptly? But how can sheer ambivalence towards GMO issues in itself, or rather indecision as to whether or not to pursue plant genetic engineering mean an effort to avoid “self-destruction”? Won't “self-destruction” eventually close in on the rest of the world if it should happen as a result of the pursuit of plant genetic engineering by the developed world? Or do diseases – which are said to be one of the most likely self-destructive results of plant genetic engineering – now respect borders? Maybe, maybe, it can only be sufficient to say then that Africa saw “self-destruction” coming and did not participate in it because anyhow “self-destruction”, if it should result, will eventually close in on all of us!

Then one more significant thing is the school of thought that the extent to which Africa is able to get around the GMO issues will go a long way to affect her trade with the developed nations in the future. Of course, what shall Africa do, if she wakes up one day to find the powerful nations in the European Union (EU) and the Asia “pushing GMOs through” her markets in the name of international trade? This must be viewed against the backdrop that GMOs are becoming gradually adopted in the EU and elsewhere. Wait a minute. Or what do you think the EU and the rest of the developed world will do with their GMOs? I'm reminded that GM foods and products are already on the shelves in a number of developed countries. Will issues of unfair trade arise then? Another type of EPAs? What about those in Africa who almost always rely on food aid to survive? Will they have a choice in future? Will Africa forever remain subservient to the developed world? Food for thought!

Conclusions

Admittedly, there is a lot more to this topical issue than has been here discussed; issues regarding the possible environmental impacts of GMOs, the labeling regime of GM foods, the moral or ethical dimensions of the debates, and all of those. However, suffice it to sum up this piece quoting former US President Jimmy Carter, who once said, “Responsible biotechnology is not the enemy; starvation is. Without adequate food supplies at affordable prices, we cannot expect world health, or peace”. I'm also told that “you cannot rationally argue with the hungry on the potential health risks that may derive from being overfed, and that if African countries fail to feed the present generation of their citizens due to fears of the potential dangers that they say may result from genetically modified foods, then there would probably not be any future generations of Africans to protect from such potential dangers”.

But the foregoing statements definitely do not settle the matter, because the question would be asked: What then is responsible biotechnology? And the debates will continue unabated! What are your own thoughts on this matter? In which direction should Africa go? Tell me, for never before have I been more baffled by any debate on any matter – not even the ex gratia debate that rocked a small country in Africa's South of the Sahara a few months ago could baffle me this much – in my relatively young life of two-decade-plus!

There is the urgent question of how to feed ourselves in 2050 and beyond, and Africa must act with utmost dispatch in reaching a decision on this matter of whether or not to embrace plant genetic engineering and GMOs. By the way, what would be the fate of world agriculture in a “globally-warm-future”?

Finally, here is Osagyefo Dr. Kwame Nkrumah, the man voted “Africa's Man of the Millennium” decades after his death, the man whose vision for his continent was said to be far ahead of his contemporaries', on this matter: “We face neither East nor West; we face Forward”. I'm told this was his holistic view on all matters confronting the African people. But I don't know what exactly it means to “face forward” in this matter. It's really muddy. Isn't it? So the debates continue. What are your thoughts on this matter? Must Africa embrace plant genetic engineering and GMOs?

The author is with the Department of Molecular Biology and Biotechnology, School of Biological Sciences, University of Cape Coast, Ghana. E-mail: isradelagorsh@yahoo.com