Farmers, consumers will embrace GMOs if they understand them

There is no doubt that GMOs are beneficial to us, but there is sufficient data to demonstrate that GMOs have great potential for harm too. [Istockphoto]

The debate on Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) is upon us again and is still emotive and quite divisive.

Although we have more research, we still cannot be absolutely certain that we have adequate science to fully support GM foods. Genetic engineering (also called genetic modification of organisms - GMOs) uses laboratory-based technologies to alter the DNA makeup of an organism. This may involve changing a single base pair (A-T or C-G), deleting a region of DNA or adding a new segment of DNA.

This happens when a scientist tweaks a gene to create a more desirable organism by taking DNA from organism A and inserting it in organism B to improve it. The result is known as recombinant (a combination of DNAs of two organisms) or in cases of drugs the modified drug is known as transgenic. There are many reasons why organisms are genetically modified. For example, to make them more resistant to diseases, insects/bugs or to make them mature/ripen faster, stronger, bigger, better, sweater. For example, food crops have been modified by food engineers to be resistant to specific bugs, bad weather or to grow faster.

Genetic engineering is very different from cloning. Cloning is the process of creating a genetically identical copy or duplication of a cell or an organism. It has far-reaching ethical concerns although people tend to confuse the two, especially when criticising GMOs.

There are many persuasive arguments for and against GMOs. There is no doubt that GMOs are beneficial to us, but there is sufficient data to demonstrate that GMOs have great potential for harm too. Those who support GMOs have advanced persuasive arguments that genetic engineering can help us cure diseases, ensure food security and nutrition, improve the quality of lives and well-being and even lengthen our lives. For example, most drugs such as insulin and vaccinations are all genetically modified or engineered, without which many people would die. There are also ethical, safety and environmental concerns about GMOs.

No side of the argument for or against, can state with absolute certainty that GMOs are devoid of risks and concerns or they are all bad for us. The question is, can scientists guarantee that there will be no side effects after consuming GM foods? Or that huge multinational companies will ensure environmental and safety requirements are complied with when they come to Kenya?

The potential for abuse of GMOs has necessitated very elaborate checks and controls at both international and national levels. The issue of concern now is, does Kenya have such elaborate and well-resourced checks and controls in place? According to the National Biosafety Authority (NBA), Kenya has robust policy, legislative and institutional mechanisms to implement biotechnology innovations having ratified the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety in 2003 and approved the National Policy on Biotechnology Development in 2006 to guide research and commercialization of modern biotechnology products.

The Biosafety Act, 2009 provides for the legal and institutional frameworks governing modern biotechnology which are implemented by the NBA established under the Act in 2010. The NBA developed regulations in 4 areas; contained use, environmental release, export, import and transit; all three in 2011 and for labeling in 2012. The NBA says it has put in place GM safety assessment with the goal to provide assurance that GM foods do not cause harm based on their best available scientific knowledge, although, we are not so certain that we indeed have that “best scientific knowledge” available so far.

The NBA indicates that, research on genetic modification is done under appropriate experimental conditions; open cultivation of genetically modified crops is safe for human health and the environment; they ensure safe movement of genetically modified materials in and out of the country and ensure accurate consumer information and traceability of genetically modified products in the food supply chain.

They say that they do this through collaboration with other eight bodies in Kenya, including KEBs. Because GMOs require very careful scientific monitoring and control, it is important to ensure that open cultivation is done in phases and only on a case-by-case basis at a time. 

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