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Genetic Engineering of Food: The History, Science, Economics and Controversy-Part 2

This is the second part on series of genetically modified foods. If you missed part 1,  read it here.

Which countries grow GM crops?

In 1996, just 6 countries grew GM crops. By 2009, the number had quadrupled to 25 countries of which, 16 were developing and 9 were developed countries.

In 2010, 4 more countries started growing GM crops increasing the number of GM crop growing countries to 29.

Again, developing countries outdid developed countries by adding 3 more countries to bring the tally to 19 compared to 10 developed countries.

The top ten countries that grow GM foods in decreasing order of hectarage are USA (67 million hectares), Brazil (25), Argentina (23), India (10), Canada (9), China (4), Paraguay (3), Pakistan (2), South Africa (2) and Uruguay with 1 million hectares.

The remaining 19 countries in decreasing order of hectarage are: Bolivia, Australia, Philippines, Burkina Faso, Myanmar, Spain, Mexico, Colombia, Chile, Honduras, Portugal, Czech Republic, Poland, Egypt, Slovakia, Costa Rica, Romania, Germany and Sweden.

Commercial GM Crops

Although by 2000 there were over 40 genetically modified plants that had completed all requirements for commercialisation, currently, just over ten GM crops are produced commercially.

Genetically modified maize/corn is the most widely grown followed by soybean. The other crops include cotton, canola (rape seed), sugar beet, alfalfa, papaya, potatoes, tomatoes, sweet pepper and squash.

The top companies that develop these crops are Monsanto, Bayer crop science, Pioneer Hi-bred, Syngenta and Dow agro sciences.

By last year, 2010, the global area under GM crops was 148 million hectares in 29 countries. This is almost 90 fold increase from just 1.7 million hectares in 1996.

United States of America, the largest producer of GM products grows maize, soybean, cotton, canola, sugar beet, alfalfa, papaya and squash, accounting for over 45% of world GM-crops production.

Brazil, is the second largest producer of GM crops which include soybeans, maize and cotton.

Germany approves growing of only GM potatoes called Amflora for industrial starches and not for human food. In 2009, it banned commercial production of GM maize type MON 810 from the biotech giant Monsanto on what they call ‘precautionary principle’.

According to GMO-free Europe organisation, other European countries that have used ‘precautionary principle’ to ban cultivation of Monsanto GM maize in the last ten years include: France, Greece, Hungary, Luxembourg, Poland and Romania.

This is because individual countries and regulators in Europe are permitted to block the approval of a GMO or any other new technology suspected to pose risk even without any evidence of an actual risk to human health or the environment.

South Africa grows maize, cotton and soybeans. Egypt grows maize while Bukina Faso grows cotton.

Who eats the GM food crops?

Many consumers inadvertently take GM foods as part of daily diet and medicines.

‘More than half of processed foods in USA contain GM ingredients’ this is according to Dr. Stella Ugozora of Alkermes Incorporation. These foods include soda/soft drink, fruit drinks, bread, aspirin, beers, some antibiotics, candy and gum and breakfast cereals among many others.

With over 148 million hectarage of GM crops world, no doubt that these crops are finding their way into the human food chain either as raw ingredients for processed foods and drugs or just as whole food as Kenya is planning to do

According to Alliance for better foods, ‘corn syrup, yeasts, enzymes, soybeans oil, rape seed oil, soy flour, corn starch and dextrose from corn’ are some of the ingredients obtained from GM crops and used to make processed foods and drugs.

International organisations verdict on GM foods

‘GM foods currently available on the international market have passed risk assessments and are not likely to present risks for human health’ Says World Health Organisation (WHO).

‘No effects on human health have been shown as a result of the consumption of such foods by the general population in the countries where they have been approved’ adds WHO.

However, WHO cautions that continuous use of risk assessments based on the Codex principles where appropriate, including post market monitoring, should form the basis for evaluating the safety of GM foods.

Other international bodies that have regarded genetically modified foods as safe for human consumption include Food and Agricultural organisation (FAO), US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and European Food Safety Authority (EFSA).

Do GM foods affect animal reproduction?

Feeding animals with GM foods does not have adverse effects on reproduction system.

This is according to a very comprehensive study that was funded by National Nature Science Foundation of China, and published in International Journal of Animal Biosciences in January this year (2011).

The report reviewed all studies carried out in the last 4 years that assessed animals fed GM foods. The report was not funded by biotechnology companies although; most of the reviewed studies were short-term and involved rats.

The report concluded that from the short term studies, GM foods are safe; however, long-term and multigenerational effects of feeding of GM crops on reproduction system are not yet known.

Human Health Fears associated with GM crops

Consumers have concerns that genetically modified foods could lead to several health problems such as incurable cancers, infertility, allergies, micro-organisms resistant to antibiotics and abnormal body growths.

Only one study in recent past has confirmed presence of toxin from GM crops in the blood of expectant mothers and unborn babies, but the concentration were very very low (nanograms)-a billionth of a gram.

Scientists at the Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, at the University of Sherbrooke Hospital Centre in Quebec, Canada analysed blood samples from 30 pregnant and 39 non pregnant women and found BT toxin in the blood of expectant mothers and unborn babies.

The researchers speculated that the toxins entered the body through eating meat, milk and eggs from farm livestock which have been fed GM maize. One major weakness of the study was that they actually did not determine the amount of these toxins in the mentioned foods to ascertain them as the true source.

Although such low level of toxins can be found in some foods, and might not be lethal, GM foods require stringent and close assessment over long-term periods.

Commercial fears associated with GM crops

It is feared that genetically modified crops could breed with others and develop what is called ‘super weed’ that is resistant to herbicides.

According to German law, farmers growing GM crops should keep a minimum distance of 150- 300 metres from conventional plants and neighbours’ farms. If not, they are liable to pay compensation to neighbouring farmers if traces of GM crops are found on their conventional crops. Such law stems from the fear that GM crops can cross pollinate or ‘invade’ land and overtake all other crops and weeds uncontrollably.

Farmers, especially from developing countries argue that, by adopting GM crops, they will become dependent on GM-producing companies for seedlings and the necessary inputs such as herbicides and pesticides.

Commercial and Nutritional Benefits accrued from GM foods

Yield of both crops and livestock is easily increased over a very short period of time at minimal cost compared to conventional farming.

Other benefits achieved by genetic modification are; generation of crops and animals resistant to pest, drought, frost and diseases.

Nutritional benefits are accrued by genetically improving nutrient profile of different crops and livestock.

How GM foods are tested.

The biotechnology companies and research institutions conceives an idea, develops the products, tests it in their laboratories and submits to the governments and testing agencies for safety, toxicological and nutritional assessment.

If approved, the product is commercialised by patenting or selling the rights.

Importing countries are solely responsible for ensuring GM products meet their territorial safety and toxicological requirements.

Why Kenya should/should not adopt GM foods.

All countries that have approved GM crops have mechanisms, scientific know-how and personnel to thoroughly test GM products.

Generally, GM foods are safe for human consumption. Although Kenya approved the biosafety act in 2009, it seems not to be well prepared in terms of equipments, technology, personnel, mechanisms, scientific know-how and legal framework to thoroughly test genetically modified organisms.

GM foods controversy and Food politics

The Earth is finite, and as such has a limited capacity to produce the food and fresh water necessary to sustain the increasing human populations.

The world population increased from just 1.6 billion last century to the current in excess of 6 billion.

Over the years, the increase in population has been sufficiently fed due to change in farming methods from traditional to use of chemicals, fertilisers, synthetically developed crops and modern farming techniques.

Unfortunately, African and other developing countries did not adopt those farming techniques quick enough due to limited economic resources. This led to the chronic lack of food every year.

The similar way we are in the information era, farming technology has moved on, we are now in the GM foods era,

With the urbanisation and shift from agriculture-based economies to industry and service economies, how will the increasing world population be fed?

Cynically, probably this fear is being propagated by biotechnology companies to create markets for their products.

Others will say scientists should explore other forms of agriculture rather than just rooting only for GM foods to save mankind from the looming high food needs.

Against popular belief, genetically modified foods, if well tested, are safe for human consumption and they are here to stay.

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