A recent study, which surveyed more than 900 scientific papers spanning thirty years of research in the field of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), made global headlines after revealing that there was no substantive evidence that GMO crops have any ill effects on human health as compared to conventionally bred crops.
The research was conducted by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine in the USA, and its findings will undermine efforts by activists and environmentalists to ban the use of GMOs, or at the very least have all products containing GMOs labelled as such.
GMO advocates believe that forcing food companies to label products that contain GMOs, will paint GMOs in an unfair light, and disadvantage an industry that they believe has the potential to readily solve issues of hunger and livelihoods across the globe by lowering costs and increasing yields.
While the study deemed GMOs as safe for human consumption and beneficial in the fight against hunger, concerns were raised about the possible environmental effects of some features of GMO crops including resistance to pesticides and herbicides. This feature in particular allows farmers to aggressively spray their fields, but doing so stimulates resistance in the weeds and insects that survive, and begins an aggressive cycle of more intensive spraying and more resistant pests.
GMOs are a broad group of plants, animals, and bacteria that are manipulated to give them characteristics they would not otherwise have. The process of selective breeding is included in this definition, and has been taking place for centuries to bring us everything from redder roses to dottier Dalmatians.
More controversial are the trans-genetic organisms, created through the transfer of genes from one organism − often a bacteria − into another, especially crop plants, to create hybrids that have desirable traits such as bigger cobs in maize, or drought-resistance in a variety of crops. Anti-GMO activists believe that there might be unintended consequences to such genetic tinkering, such as a reduction in biodiversity as artificially created super-organisms spread and conquer the world.
From an ethical perspective, there are also serious concerns with how the major GMO manufacturers conduct themselves, with biotech giant Monsanto being the most widely criticised. Monsanto stands accused of destroying livelihoods by promoting massive scale monoculture, and by manipulating markets through government lobbying and aggressive legal action, to seize control of agricultural supply chains to the detriment of small scale farmers.
In Zimbabwe the National Biotechnology Authority (NBA) says that genetically modified organisms (GMOs) can play an important role in food security. NBA acting technical affairs manager Annah Takombwa says scientists worldwide and in the region, including those from Swaziland, South Africa, Malawi and Zimbabwe, carried or are carrying out research in the area. So far, results have been favourable towards GMOs. She said however, that in order to address the public’s concerns, research should be directed towards the areas deemed critical by the public, after consultation.
“We need to stress that humans and animals do not absorb foreign genes from foods, but break them down to absorb nutrients. Abnormal growth and obesity that many think to be a result of GMO consumption can in fact be a result of overeating, eating junk food, and a lack of exercise,” she said.
Asked why GMO foods are cheaper than conventional products, she attributed the difference to the costs of production. “Organic farmers use bio-fertilizers, pesticides, and labour-intensive practices than that render them expensive when compared to GMOs.”
Established by the National Biotechnology Authority Act 14 31, NBA’s functions are to support and manage biotechnology research, development, and application, and to provide for the fixing of standards of quality and other matters relating to products of biotechnology produced in Zimbabwe.
Medical doctor Dr Francis Ndowa agrees that GMOs are unlikely to be the cause of ill health. “No evidence have been found indicating harm from GMOs to date, but maybe after a longer period of time something might emerge.” He added that consumers should be informed through the labelling of GMO products, which would otherwise be indiscernible from traditionally grown foods.
GMO production and use is treated highly variably by countries across the globe. In Zimbabwe the Government has outlawed the production and consumption of GMOs, though they have been imported, most notably in the form of food aid in 2014. When GMO grain is imported, it must be milled in order to prevent it ever taking seed in Zimbabwean soil.
Image: Several types of legumes on display at the Traditional and Organic Food and Seed Festival last year.