Saturday, September 18, 2021

Genetically Engineered Crop Development In Africa

Robert Wager
Robert Wager

From the beginning, genetically engineered (GE) crops (also known as GMOs) have been controversial. Europe has always been at the center of anti-GE activities. Well organized and well-funded, the anti-GMO industry fights to block implementation of this technology around the world.  At present most African anti-GMO groups are funded by Europe.

Herbicide tolerance and insect resistance are the most common traits engineered into GE crops. African countries would benefit from widespread adoption of insect resistant GE crops.

Bacillus thuringiensis (or Bt) is a soil bacteria found around the world. Different strains of the bacteria produce proteins that target specific insect pests. Some Bt proteins target mosquitoes, others target beetles while others target caterpillars. These Bt proteins work by binding to other proteins that line the gut of the specific target insect. This binding disrupts digestion and kills the insect pest. Humans lack the target proteins therefore Bt proteins cannot bind and are digested like all other proteins in our diet. These facts make Bt crops safe and effective alternative to chemical pesticides.

Live Bt bacteria have been safely used in organic agriculture for over fifty years. The genes that code for specific Bt proteins are incorporated into some genetically engineered (GE) crops.  The result is that these GE crops are then able to protect themselves from insect pests.  Commercial Bt crops have been remarkably successful over the past 25 years that they have been in use.  Yields have increased by 22 per cent per cent, chemical pesticide use has dropped by 37 per cent and profits have increased by 68 per cent. 

Most of these benefits have been documented in the less developed world. Research and development of novel Bt crops has been ongoing in nearly a dozen African countries with the hope of creating specific Bt crops for their regional pest issues.  The work of these dedicated African scientists has now resulted in the commercial release of Bt crops in six African countries.  Five more countries are nearing their own release of nationally produced Bt crops.

Other GE crops in development include built-in disease resistance. Confined field trials of these GE crops have clearly demonstrated safety, effective disease resistance and increased yields. Fungal resistant bananas (Uganda) and virus resistant cassava research (Kenya, Uganda) are nearing release to small scale farmers in those countries. 

Despite ongoing advances in African GE crop research, anti-GMO groups persist in their fear tactics targeted at the wider African public. A recent article in a Nigerian newspaper is a perfect example of how these groups attempt to generate public fear using disproved research. Critics claimed the DNA from GE crops could enter the blood and implied that it threatens people who eat GE crops.  This suggestion is not true. 

Improper scientific methods had given the researchers flawed results. Nevertheless, this disproved idea continues to generate fear in those who distrust GE technology. DNA, regardless of its source, does not survive cooking and digestion and does not end up in your blood at any level that would cause concern.  All DNA in food is the same in this regard.  No one fears the DNA from eating a banana, nor should they fear the DNA from GE crops. Decades of research has confirmed this fact. 

“The World Health Organization, the American Medical Association, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, the British Royal Society, and every other respected organization that has examined the evidence has come to the same conclusion: consuming foods containing ingredients derived from GM crops is no riskier than consuming the same foods containing ingredients from crop plants modified by conventional plant improvement techniquesm,” American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Another common criticism is ‘GE crops threaten biodiversity’. In fact, growing Bt crops allows farmers to dramatically reduce the use of broad-spectrum insecticide, thereby increasing insect and spider biodiversity in their fields. Decades of European science found:

“There is no validated evidence that GM crops have greater adverse impact on health and the environment than any other technology used in plant breeding,”EASAC-Planting the Future

The world must increase food production by 70 per cent to feed the projected global population by 2050. We must do this on the same or less land more sustainably. Some suggest a global replacement of modern agriculture with agroecology. The push for agroecology by European influences and certain individuals at the UN-FAO is strongest in the less developed world. There is a huge problem with this radical shift in food production. 

Most of the population increase in the next three decades will occur in the less developed world. Africa is expected to have 500 million more people by 2050. However, research done by those who champion agroecology shows a 35 per cent drop in yield. There is no possible way to feed 500 million more people in Africa with the dramatic drop in production that would occur with widespread adoption of agroecology. GE crop technology can provide a multitude of options that show great potential to address this dramatic approaching crisis. 

In the last 25 years, GE crops have demonstrated increased yields, reduced pesticide use and increased profits (particularly in the less developed world).  It is wonderful to see African science bringing this technology to farmers in a dozen countries. Let us all look forward to this trend continuing and include all of Africa in the decades to come. 

What Africa needs is the best of every agricultural system including GE crops. Only then will a future that includes food security, environmental sustainability and economic improvements be possible for all.

Robert Wager recently retired as a faculty member at Vancouver Island University in the biology department. He wrote in from Vancouver Island in British Columbia, Canada, and can be reached on robwager@shaw.ca. Follow him on twitter @Robertwager1.

Robert Wager
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