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IS GMO farming the solution to food shortage?

By Alex Wachira

 

Photo: Courtesy

 

With the changing climatic and weather conditions, it is becoming tough for farmers to produce high yields as before.

Biotechnology comes up with genetically-modified crops and animals which do better in tough weather conditions, are resistant to diseases and produce high yields promoting food security.

There is a huge variety of genetically-modified crops like BT maize that protects plants from pests defending harvests from any major threats.

Genetically-modified, drought-tolerant and insect-resistant maize variety WEMA BT and TELA were developed locally under Kenya's biosafety regulations but are yet to be launched.

The maize does not require spraying with insecticides thereby reducing aflatoxin and stem borers attacks and lowering farming costs.

Field trials involving biotech maize have been allowed by the National Bio-Safety Authority of Kenya in confined fields in different parts of the country to compare the conventional seed varieties with the genetically-modified ones. The idea is to determine changes in nutritional composition, yield performance, and pests tolerance.

The scientists demonstrated that there was up to 40 percent yield advantage with the genetically modified maize compared to the commercial ones in the market.

GMO maize is not affected by stalk borer, pests, and insects and remains healthy in a drought unlike the normal market maize thus increasing yields and reducing harvest loses.  

The foul armyworm pest that attacks maize is controlled in GMO as is the stem borer which is known to reduce maize yields by an average of 13 percent or 400, 000 tonnes of maize a year.

This is equivalent to the amount of maize imported by the government yearly costing 7.2 billion shillings.

Some scientists say GM maize is safe for consumption and has superior characteristics and it is now up to the government to implement its cultivation.

Disadvantages

According to researchers Marcin Filipecky and Stefan Malepszy it is impossible to predict the impact of GM maize transgenes on the environments where they are released.

The disadvantages of using GM crops like maize are not made explicit. 

The Heinrich Boll Foundation argues that growing BT-maize alone cannot guarantee food security as realizing food security is not synonymous with agricultural production and increased crop yields.

Rather, argues the German foundation, a holistic appraisal of the economic lives of small-scale farmers is required and their ability to participate in the food value chain.

There is also possible cross-pollination contamination between BT-maize and organic maize varieties through pollen flow which biologists say can travel from 100m to 21km away.

It is, therefore, extremely difficult to ensure the co-existence of conventional and GM maize cultivation in the country without putting organic farming at risk.

GM maize would also change the small scale farmers market as they would have to sell to the sourced multinational markets killing their local market which probably wants the organically-grown conventional maize produce. 

The British GM Science review has highlighted how gene flow can occur from GM crops to sexually compatible wild relatives and to agricultural weeds which causes cross-pollination with wild species.

According to Patricia Kameli-Mbote, a professor of Law at the University of Nairobi, this can lead to ‘genetic pollution’ and the creation of ‘super’ weeds, which would negatively affect ecosystem functions and loss of biodiversity and particularly the loss of crop diversity.

Producers of GM maize seeds own it exclusively denying farmers the right to own and share the seeds.

Thus whoever controls the seed, controls the food ending the culture of seed saving and sharing among farmers.

There is also no guarantee that the regulating bodies will be able to control or monitor the progressive proliferation of the BT-maize varieties despite the negative risk Kenyan farmers may face growing and eating the GM maize products.

For instance the MON 810 variety trait from the Monsanto company was suspended by Germany in April 2009, Austria, Hungary, Greece, France, Luxembourg, Italy and Poland with a justified assumption that the GM maize possessed a hazard to human health and the environment which is also arguably said to be based on an incomplete list of references.

On February 24, 2016 an open letter of concern was written to the DG Health and Food Safety (SANTE,) European Commission regarding new invasive species in Spain that can outcross with genetically modified maize MON810.

MON 810’s transgene structure data was re-analyzed by Gilles Eric Seralini and colleagues and found that it had caused liver, kidney, heart damage, immune disturbances, and tumors development in rats which raised questions on how its effect would be on humans.

Rats have always been used as a surrogate for human toxicity. All new pharmaceutical, agricultural and household substances are tested on them before they are approved for use. This is the best indicator we can get on the likely impact of GM maize on human health.

However, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) reviewed this analysis and concluded that the statistical methods used were inappropriate and rejected the new research of Seralini of insufficient scientific quality to be considered as valid for risk assessment.

In addition, since BT has been used as a foliar insecticide for several decades with no adverse effects to humans, evidence arguably suggests that there is no adverse risk in human or animal consumption of Cry proteins from BT crops according to Betz et al,2000 and USEPA,2001.

The Colorado State University, Entomology Society of America, also says there are no known adverse human health effects associated with BT maize consumption but it is toxic to certain insects when injected. ?

Aside from Wema BT maize and TELA maize, scientists in Kenya are conducting trials on various crops such as pest-resistant BT cotton, virus-resistant cassava, virus-resistant sweet potato, and biofortified sorghum.

 

 

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