Published On: Tue, Jan 19th, 2016

Facts you need to know about gene manipulation

So much has been said and written about genetically modified organisms (GMOs), even though not so many people may understand what it’s all about. But it’s getting clearer by the day, despite the negative publicity given it of late. ETTA MICHAEL BISONG gives insight into GMOs

Many may be wondering what informed the title of this piece particularly the term “gene manipulation” or more appropriately “genetic engineering”. The choice is simple: to join the discussion and highlight what an earlier article captioned:

“What they do not tell you about genetic modification (II)”, published by Dr. Kabril az-Zubair on page 33 of the Sunday Trust newspaper on 20th December, 2015.
From his credentials, Dr. az-Zubair is molecular biologists and teaches Microbiology at the Cambridge University, United Kingdom. His profile also revealed that, before proceeding to the UK, he served as director under the National Biotechnology Development Agency (NABDA) and later lectured at the University of Abuja.

In the aforementioned publication, the author gave many reasons why genetic modification is bad and should not be adopted. First, his grievance is that the biggest promoter of genetic modified organisms (GMOs) globally is the US-based Corporation known as Monsanto, and the US government. He described their interest as intertwined, and regretted that many governments including Nigeria actually enacted laws allowing Monsanto to perpetrate a market strategy that threaten both conventional farming methods and food security generally.
His other quarrel raised against GM is that most of its protagonists are those who either have direct or indirect link with Monsanto. Dr. az-Zubair concluded by challenging the claim by protagonists that GM foods truly are safe for human consumption and referred to such claim as “utter nonsense”.

Like earlier stated, my involvement and interest in this discourse is simply to bridge the knowledge divide created by this publication and many others maybe out of omission or for self-serving reasons. Experiences from various countries where GMOs have successfully been deployed especially in agriculture, reveal that people resist modern biotechnology primarily either because they lack understanding on the science of genetic engineering or others like social cum religious and political reasons, which truly have nothing to do with security and safety of the technology.

But, if I am correct, it is only fair to assume based on his background that the author should better be informed on this science, as well as its application.
However, I beg to disagree that GMOs are “utter nonsense” as argued by Dr. az-Zubair. Pharmaceutical “GMO” precedes agricultural “GMO” by several decades. We rely on biotechnology for many lifesaving medicines, the first of which was human insulin. Since 1978, human insulin has been produced using bacteria engineered with the human insulin gene.

It is a much better product because bovine and porcine insulin vary slightly in their composition as compared to human insulin. It is a lifesaver for Type I and insulin dependent diabetics. Because these products are highly regulated, implications of referring to them as utter nonsense contradict reason.
For purpose of clarity and proper understanding  – “GMO” or “crop biotechnology” isn’t a food, it is a plant breeding process. It is the process of introducing new trait to a specific plant or seed. It is similar to traditional breeding, hybridisation, radiation or chemical mutagenesis.

It is the same method by which conventional and organic seeds are improved. The difference between crop biotechnology and traditional farming is that, GM is a more specific, less random method of bringing out a trait such as drought tolerance or virus resistance in a specific crop.
One of the challenges preventing the easy adoption and use of modern biotechnology mostly in agriculture cardinally revolves around the availability and dissemination of adequate science based information, as against the argument and fears usually raised by anti-GM campaigners concerning the environmental and health safety of products.

What those who are not in support of genetic modification are not telling the public is that “since farmers planted the first set of GM crops in 1996, there have been no documented safety issues” till the time of this write up.
They always fail or perhaps to beef-up their point intentionally refuse to tell the public that GM crops undergo more testing and oversight than any other agricultural products, and, that their safety is well-established by several studies and years of real world experience.

Many anti-GM advocates always focus their attention on and build their arguments around the business dynamics of agro Corporations, government regulations and loss sight of the potential benefits associated with the technology. Yes, Monsanto and US government maybe the highest promoter of modern biotechnology practices but, in reality, the concept of this technology surpasses all business strategies that could ever be introduced by any business Corporation, or national government.
In Nigeria, well over 70 million farmers are estimated to benefit and experience economic transformation similar to Brazil, India, Burkina Faso, Egypt, South Africa and Sudan if GMOs and safe modern biotechnology practices are effectively deployed. Additionally, 25, 000 jobs are also projected to be created annually, and considerably help reduce Nigeria’s environmental footprint to achieve global target.

All over the world, we have seen significant savings in pesticides, improvement in inputs and soils management, and ultimately, how GM products have enabled farms to become sustainable especially in mitigating impacts of climate change on food production. So, GM certainly hasn’t proven to be utter non-sense for countries that have adopted the technology as many are forced to believe.

Truth be told, the perception that GM foods are not safe for consumption just because Monsanto and the US government are at the forefront of championing the technology is too simplistic to influence any constructive mind. At this time in our nation building, when informed people are required to help enhance capacity and disseminate accurate science based information to enable the public understand, adopt and benefit from the huge potentials of GMOs, it is highly pathetic that someone like Dr. az-Zubair, who expectedly should better be informed about modern biotechnology having occupied very high ranking position at NABDA and contributed to the enactment of several legislations is now the one raising the anti-GM flag.

To have limited the safety of GMOs to Monsanto and the US government evidently violate the principle of balancing, a fundamental element in writing. Psychologically, such error normally occurs when the writer is dominated by one side, as against the facts of the story.

In conclusion, we as individuals have a range of tolerance for change and for innovation. Some are early adopters, out there trying the newest and the latest technology. Others are more skeptical, a sort of “wait and see” approach for innovation and technology. Therefore, let this serve as wake-up call to all institutions mostly government involved in GM businesses to rise to the occasion and engage the public with adequate and accurate science based information, this is so because, such information may become the only tool available at their disposal to defend themselves when those who are not in support of GM tries to force their message on them.

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