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

I wrote this article for Daily Nation, a Kenyan leading newspaper on August 28, 2011. You can check it here

Kenyans will soon start to enjoy ‘genetically modified (GM) ugali’

Who else eats genetically modified foods?

By authorising importation of genetically modified maize, Kenya, officially, joined 29 other countries that openly consume GM crops.

According to International Service for Acquisition of the Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA) 2010 report, more than 40 countries are expected to start using GM crops by the year 2015, of which; majority will be from the developing countries.

On the other hand, developed countries are either imposing very strict GM-crops assessment requirements or are banning them altogether. This is because consumers and governments in these countries do not know the long-term effects.

What is Genetic Modification (GM)?

Genetically modified/engineered (GM) crops are identified as crops that use modern techniques of genetic engineering (or biotechnology) to introduce specific genetic material derived from any species of plant, animal, micro-organism or even synthetic material into different species of plants by altering genetic material (DNA) coding for herbicide tolerance, insect resistance or a combination of these traits in a way that does not occur naturally.

The individual characteristics of plants such as height, colour, resistant against pests, diseases and tolerance to bad weather are determined by genes.

Genes are in every cell that makes up the plant or animal. In nature, the genes of two parent plants or animals mix during pollination or mating to produce a plant or animal with genes of the both parents.

With time, plants and animals with better survival characteristics selectively bred with each other and survived harsh environmental conditions.

As time went by, man learnt to selectively produce bigger and better food crops and livestock by deliberately cross-pollinating the plants and cross-breeding the livestock with desirable characteristics.

Genetic modification/engineering takes the selective breeding a step further. How? scientists selectively identify, isolate and transfer a specific gene of desirable characteristic from one plant to another or even cross transfer genes from animal to plant or the other way round.

The difference between artificial and Natural gene modification

The difference between artificial and natural gene modification is that; in nature, all or large amount of parent-plant genes are mixed. In artificial gene modification, only the desired genes of parent-plants or animals are mixed.

Naturally, it is abnormal for genes from dissimilar plants or animals e.g. genes from a horse and a donkey to mix and if it happens, they yield a mule-which is sterile.

With artificial gene modification, it is very normal and possible to transfer gene responsible for racing from a horse to a donkey to get a racing donkey.

For example, in the Bt-maize, the DNA is implanted with a gene from soil bacteria called Bacillus Thuringiensis that produces the BT-toxin which makes the maize resistant to insects and pest.

History of Genetic modified foods

Genetically modified foods first appeared in the food market in the 1960s but real commercialisation started between 1994 and 1996.

In 1967, a new variety of potato called Lenape potato was bred for its high solids content which made it useful for making potato chips. After two years, it developed a toxin called solanine. Consequently, it was withdrawn from the market by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).

The development of this toxin in Lenape potato signalled that genetic alteration of plants or even animals might have unexpected adverse effects.

Nonetheless, like everything else, plant breeding has improved a lot and has succeeded in removing toxic elements in most of GM foods. However, due to the rapid change in technology, not all genetically modified foods are thoroughly tested, and if they are tested it is over short periods of time.

In 1979, at Cornell University, New York, scientists developed a synthetic growth hormone for cows, which, when injected into dairy cows, they increased their milk producing capacity.

In the 1980s, researchers in the United States, Germany and Belgium introduced new genes into plants offering different traits including the slow ripening tomatoes.

Between 1983 and 1989 there was a lot of advancement in GM foods, including the approval by US of high milk producing hormones for cattle.

In the 1990s, the first genetically engineered foods were made available to the public.

In 1994, Flavr Savr Tomato was approved which is the first genetically modified whole food to be approved for public.

Dolly, the cloned sheep was born in July 1996 in Scotland sparking worldwide debate on the whole topic of cloning. Dolly died at age of six due to a type of lung cancer which opponents of GMOs attribute to cloning. However, proponents of GMOs argue that other sheep from the same flock suffered the same cancer and died, implying there was nothing abnormal with Dolly.

In 1999, there was development of pest and disease resistant seeds.

For the last eleven years, from 2000 to 2011, companies and scientists have been very busy developing new GM products, testing them and submitting for approval to different authorities and agencies.

For example, in 2001, Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI) started testing for GM sweet potatoes. The scientists found that the potatoes’ yield, disease and pest resistant were poor compared to conventional sweet potatoes because they were not tailored for tropical environments.

Read about safety and countries that grow genetically modified foods in part 2 of this article .

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