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Whether or not to develop genetically modified crops

Whether or not to develop genetically modified crops

The study will cost $3.2 million during the first year and will focus on management practices that integrate better cereals, legumes, vegetables, livestock and trees in mixedfarming systems and allow for more efficient use of resources, enhanced food production and higher farm incomes. The conference so far has highlighted the fact that government seems set to open the doors to genetically modified crops.

The latest indication is the suggestion made by the Minister of Agriculture, Food Security and Cooperatives, Prof Jumanne Maghembe, that the country has no option but to open its doors to genetically modified crops. “We are standing at crossroads where we have to open all doors. When you cannot predict rain patterns, when the weather changes suddenly, you then need to develop new crops,” he said.

He told participants drawn from 18 research organisations from across the world that the situation on the ground means the country should not close doors to the idea of genetically modified crops. The conclusion as to whether or not to allow genetically modified crops will have to be made by the Ministry of Agriculture and the Vice-President’s Office. The main concerns of the hot debate are how the legislation on safety will protect farmers and consumers and whether or not to remove the contestable clause (strict liability clause) in the bio safety regulatory framework.

The contestable clause in the bio safety regulatory framework ensures that even if GMOs were to be introduced, the companies supplying them would be accountable in case anything wrong happens to the seed output, crop yields or the health of consumers. Sources say there is currently a division in interpretation on whether to keep or abandon the precautionary principle and reduce the liability to be met by seed companies. And even as some activists take a swipe at any attempts to remove the clause, sources say scientists in the country argue that the clause is a hindrance to research and agricultural technology.

But in the first place, what are genetically modified organisms better known as GMOs? Simply put, a genetically modified organism is a plant, animal or microorganism whose genetic code has been altered, subtracted, or added (either from the same species or a different species) in order to give it characteristics that it does not have naturally, an improvement of sorts. While some people see GMOs as the way to the future, others believe that scientists have gone too far, tinkering with the essence of life. GM foods were first put on the market in 1996.

Genetically modified foods include soybean, maize, canola, rice and cotton seed oil. Critics have objected to GM foods on several grounds, including safety issues, ecological and economic concerns, raised by the fact these organisms are subject to intellectual property law. So why the big push for GMOs? The world population has topped 7 billion people and is predicted to double in the next 50 years. Ensuring an adequate food supply for this booming population is going to be a major challenge in the years to come. GM foods promise to meet this need in a number of ways.

Farmers collectively worldwide use many tonnes of chemical pesticides annually. Consumers do not wish to eat food that has been treated with pesticides because of potential health hazards, and runoff of agricultural wastes from excessive use of pesticides and fertilizers can poison the water supply and cause harm to the environment. Growing GM foods such as maize can help eliminate the application of chemical pesticides and reduce the cost of bringing a crop to market.

For some crops, it is not cost-effective to remove weeds by physical means such as tilling, so farmers will often spray large quantities of different herbicides (weed-killer) to destroy weeds, a time-consuming and expensive process that requires care so that the herbicide doesn’t harm the crop plant or the environment. Crop plants geneticallyengineered to be resistant to one very powerful herbicide could help prevent environmental damage. As the world population grows and more land is utilised for housing instead of food production, farmers will need to grow crops in locations previously unsuited for plant cultivation.

Creating plants that can withstand long periods of drought or high salt content in soil and groundwater will help people to grow crops in formerly inhospitable places. Malnutrition is common in third world countries where impoverished peoples rely on a single crop such as rice or maize for the main staple of their diet. However, rice does not contain adequate amounts of all necessary nutrients to prevent malnutrition.

If rice could be genetically engineered to contain additional vitamins and minerals, nutrient deficiencies could be alleviated. On the extreme end, researchers are working to develop edible vaccines in tomatoes and potatoes. These vaccines will be much easier to ship, store and administer than traditional injectable vaccines. For the time being, soybeans and maize are the top two most widely grown crops. According to studies, 74% of GM crops on the market were modified for herbicide tolerance, 19% were modified for insect pest resistance, and 7% were modified for both herbicide tolerance and pest tolerance.

Worldwide environmental activists, religious organisations, public interest groups, professional associations and other scientists and governments have all raised concerns about GM foods, and criticised agribusiness for pursuing profit without concern for potential hazards. Reduced effectiveness of pesticides is a major concern. Many people are concerned that insects will become resistant to crops that have been genetically- modified to produce their own pesticides.

Another concern is that crop plants engineered for herbicide tolerance and weeds will cross-breed, resulting in the transfer of the herbicide resistance genes from the crops into the weeds. These “super weeds” would then be herbicide tolerant as well. Many children in the US and Europe have developed life-threatening allergies to peanuts and other foods. There is a possibility that introducing a gene into a plant may create a new allergen or cause an allergic reaction in susceptible individuals. There is concern that introducing foreign genes into food plants may have an unexpected and negative impact on human health.

Bringing a GM food to market is a lengthy and costly process, and of course agrobiotech companies wish to ensure a profitable return on their investment. Many new plant genetic engineering technologies and GM plants have been patented, and patent infringement is a big concern of agribusiness. It is hoped that in a humanitarian gesture, more companies and non-profits will follow the lead of the Rockefeller Foundation and offer their products at reduced cost to impoverished nations.

One way to combat possible patent infringement is to introduce a “suicide gene” into GM plants. These plants would be viable for only one growing season and would produce sterile seeds that do not germinate. Farmers would need to buy a fresh supply of seeds each year. However, this would be financially disastrous for farmers in third world countries who cannot afford to buy seed each year and traditionally set aside a portion of their harvest to plant in the next growing season.

In the long run GMOs is an issue which should be handled with care by the government as there are not enough experts to deal with GMOs in the country. However, interested parties in GMOs say that in the face of the growing population and environmental challenges, current farming methods are proving incapable of meeting our requirements for food security and economic growth. They argue that it is therefore imperative that the country embrace appropriate technologies and policies to transform agricultural systems to become more productive and profitable. The minister concludes by saying, “We have created an elusive agriculture revolution, let the research now go to farmers,” he said.

FROM TABORA WITH LOVE: If it was possible, I would open a school for thieves

DEAR nephew Milambo Greetings from Dar es Salaam ...

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Author: ORTON KIISHWEKO

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