We need to urgently enact the biotechnology and biosafety law

Monday September 30 2013

By Prof Morris Ogenga-Latigo

In a previous article (Why mislead on GMOs and the biotechnology Bill?), I addressed scientific issues raised by Prof Nyandago (Can GMOs achieve food sovereignty for Uganda?) in the Daily Monitor of September 2. However, a number of NGOs also earlier warned against GMOs. Their common message is that accepting GMOs and passing the National Biotechnology and Biosafety Bill 2012 is “a recipe for disaster”. A picture is painted of irreversible environmental and health risks, including cancer and obesity, loss of farmer seeds and lowered agricultural productivity.

Concern about genetic engineering and GMOs is widespread worldwide. It, however, is largely driven by fear of the unknown, technological competition, and even plain anti-Monsanto propaganda.

Base fear of genetic engineering and GMOs stem from what I once called “the Frankenstein response”. Whereas processes in genetic engineering and GMO development are essentially an extension of nature’s transfer of genes that takes place even in human reproduction, the science is, unfortunately, out of the realm of normal public thought and cultural experience.

In the minds of many, GMOs, like in the Frankenstein horror movie, are monster organisms created in laboratories by reckless scientists. Before modern agriculture, nature produced new plant types that we selected and kept for their superior qualities through cross-pollination and mutation (natural gene change). Then in 1860s, a Catholic monk, Gregor Mendel, established that we could deliberately cross plant types of a given crop and produce new types in a predictable way.

For years, we used this knowledge to deliberately improve our crops, although initially without any clue as to what was happening. Advent of the microscope enabled us to see in sexual reproduction, the fusion of male and female reproductive nuclei and exchange of genetic materials that produce offsprings with differing attributes. Further advance led to identification of genes as the instruction medium responsible for all characters and happenings in the life of a plant.

From this development, biotechnologists now identify and freely move genes for desired characters (pest and Roundup resistance etc.) within plant types (sexual and asexual), and across plant species and life forms. Crop types developed through this process are called GMOs.

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Thus, in crop improvement, whether through natural pollination, conventional breeding or artificial introduction of desired genes using genetic engineering, new plant types emerge because of genetic modification. All are truly GMOs although the term is applied only to genetically engineered plants.

In conventional plant breeding, sexually producing plants are crossed but this process leads to conveyance of many undesirable genes to offsprings. Thousands of the new plants have thus to be repeatedly crossed and screened for the desired characters and those with undesirable attributes (e.g. poisonous) discarded until the new variety is produced.
This conventional improvement carries a large element of chance, with uncontrolled gene exchange; takes long time, especially for perennial crops such as coffee; and is impossible to use for vegetatively propagated crops, such as bananas, for which improvements normally come only through natural mutations.

In contrast, genetic engineering now allows us to quickly identify and move genes for desired characters from any donor sources to crops needing improvement. This enables scientists to respond rapidly to sudden challenges (new diseases) and quickly improve and protect our crops. Because a transplanted gene, such as Bt-gene in cotton, will instruct production of only a particular compound responsible for the desired character, and nothing else, no other inherent risk is introduced with the gene. Strict biosafety protocols governing development of GM crops, embedded in law, further assure safety.

It is, therefore, most strange that even people who should know better associate GMOs, such as Monsanto’s Roundup Ready maize and soybean, with health and environmental risks. Which gene will produce cancer agents when the gene you have transplanted is for breakdown of an herbicide?

Such claims are in fact as ridiculous as suggesting that humans can grow horns even when we do not carry any gene for horn formation! Clearly, supposed risks peddled to scare us off GM crops have no scientific basis at all, and extensive cultivation of GM crops in the USA and other countries is proof enough.

For us, we can only benefit from Monsanto’s GM technology, particularly Roundup resistance that spares farmers the burden of weeding, as Monsanto has no commercial interest in our traditional food crops- matooke, millet, cassava, sweetpotato, groundnut, beans, peas, simsim. Their improvement remains the responsibility of our own biotechnologists.

In this globalised world, plants, pests and diseases now spread rapidly across continents, and the agricultural challenges associated with them and climate change, have become too dynamic. Our best tool for countering these challenges is building capacity to rapidly produce new crop varieties using biotechnology. For this, and to secure our future, we must urgently enact the biotechnology and biosafety law and revamp our biotech capacities.

Prof Latigo is the former Leader of Opposition, 8th Parliament. mwolatigo@gmail.com

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