Genetically modified food in terms of research and development is progressing rapidly with groundbreaking results. Some of the major problems facing rural African countries may be solved by innovations in biotechnology. In this essay I shall be discussing the benefits of genetically-engineered foods in relation to Africa, as well as highlighting the advantages of such foods and the biased controversy surrounding the introduction of such foods to rural Africa.
What is genetically-modified food?
These are crops/plants that have been modified through extensive research to enhance/adopt desired characteristics. For example: Plants that are insect resistant. By isolating desired genes from other plants/organisms and combining them with the subject plant one is able to adopt the specific characteristics of the donor plant/organism.
Advantages of genetically-modified crops/foods:
Pest resistance: Damages to crops due to insects can be severe, resulting in financial loss for farmers and lack of food for the community. Farmers may use tons of chemical pesticides every cycle. There are potential health hazards accompanying pesticide use, as well as the risk of water reserve and environmental damage. By enhancing crops with pesticide properties, these issues are eradicated.
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Herbicide tolerance: In some cases it is not cost effective to physically remove weeds (tilling), instead farmers will spray large amounts of varying herbicides to destroy unwanted weeds, which is time consuming, expensive and requires great attention so as not to harm the crops or environment. Crop plants, genetically-modified to be tolerant to one very powerful herbicide could aid in the prevention of environmental damage by reducing the amount of herbicides needed. For example: A strain of soybean has been genetically modified to be unaffected by Monsanto's herbicide product called RoundupÂ®, thus reducing the number of herbicides needed and effectively reducing costs as well as agricultural waste.
Disease resistance: Fungi, bacteria and viruses can cause plant diseases, resulting in lost crops and ultimately lost time and money. Advances in biotechnology are broadening the prospects of disease-resistant plants- in the near future.
Cold tolerance: Farmers may lose an entire crop worth of seedlings due to unexpected frost. An antifreeze gene derived from cold water fish has been combined with plants such as tobacco and potato. With this gene, these plants are able to withstand sudden drops in temperatures that would normally kill unmodified seedlings.
Drought tolerance/salinity tolerance: With the world population growing more land is required for housing as a result farmers have to farm in difficult/unfavourable terrain. Engineering plants that can survive in extended periods of drought or grow in sodium-rich soil will result in farmers being able to farm on lands previously unusable.
Nutrition: Malnutrition is a massive problem in the rural parts of Africa where the people have limited food supplies and are often only able to access a single crop, usually rice. This diet is lacking in many necessary nutrients, minerals and vitamins as a result these people suffer from conditions such as kwashiorkor (a lack of protein) and Blindness (a lack of Vitamin A). If the rice could be genetically modified to contain essential nutrients, minerals and vitamins these deficiencies may be prevented. A strain of "golden" rice was developed by the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology for Plant Sciences; however the grant that funded this development was revoked for controversial reasons.
Pharmaceuticals: A lack of available medicines and vaccines in rural parts of Africa is a big concern. Research is being done on edible vaccines in tomatoes and potatoes. This will make producing and distributing certain medicines and vaccines to rural parts of Africa much easier.
Preservation: A big problem facing the distribution of certain foods is the problem of decay. Certain foods do not last long enough to make it to certain parts of Africa that might need them. As a result certain foods are being genetically modified to stay fresh longer, ultimately reducing the costs of waste and creating new opportunities for food distribution.
Phytoremediation: Groundwater and soil pollution is a major problem around the world, often resulting in fruitless land. However poplar trees have been genetically altered to filter metal pollution from polluted soil. Further expanding the agricultural opportunities of farmers.
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Every aspect of genetic modification is under scrutiny by various associations around the world, most of which are extreme by association for example: Greenpeace. The main concerns surrounding GM foods are: environmental effects, human health effects, economic/financial effects and government concern. Despite numerous articles and studies being published on the risks of genetically-modified foods the majority of them have little credibility or proof.
Another source of agony comes in the form of religious organisations, the main objections relating mainly to the correct labelling of genetically modified foods.
Environmental effects: A particular study found that pollen from B.t corn caused a significant decline in the monarch butterfly caterpillar species. However after careful re-examination the study was found to be flawed, however this does not deter the supporters of this study.
There are concerns that insects will acquire resistance to the genetically-modified crops through overexposure.
Another concern is that crop plants modified to be herbicide resistant will cross-breed with weeds resulting in "superweeds".
The consumption of certain genetically-altered crops by animals is another big concern however no real relative negative results have been found.
Human health effects: There are speculations on whether the introduction of certain genes to foods may invoke allergic reactions in humans. This is a possibility, however extensive testing and research is continuously being done. If such allergic reactions are found these subject modifications will not be considered viable for human distribution/consumption. Additionally certain regulations are mandatory in terms of the labelling of genetically-modified foods, such as highlighting possible allergic reactions. Another issue arises concerning the unknown affects that foreign genes may have on humans. No substantial proof has been confirmed yet, however many are still superstitious.
Economic/Financial effects: With the vast amounts of research and testing being done, especially by certain organisations, the costs of introducing genetically-modified foods are incredibly high. As a result companies supplying these genetically-engineered foods have to not only cover their costs and time spent but make a profit from it as well. Many participating companies are taking out patents on their foods making the accessibility very low and costly. This does nothing for rural African farmers who do not have the funds to afford these genetically-modified seedlings.
Government concerns: Despite African countries having no legislations against the distribution of genetically-modified foods, there are still countries that reject such foods. Zambia and Zimbabwe are two such countries who are rejecting genetically-modified food aids despite their populations suffering from the extensive effects of drought and famine.
Zambia, after months of debate decided against these food aids. However this decision was greatly influenced by environmental groups against genetically-modified foods, through networking, protests and forums.
A separate influential issue is that of 'out-crossing', whereby local crops are contaminated by genetically-modified ones, resulting in the denial of exports of crops to the European union (which generally prohibits the importation of such crops/organisms) as well as possible damage to local agriculture. To combat this issue some African countries are milling the genetically-modified grain, removing the seeds and allowing only for the consumption of the grain. In addition some of the contributing African countries are offering to pay for the milling for example: South Africa.
As a result Zimbabwe has allowed for the distribution of genetically-modified grain to the country, provided it is milled first. However Zambia did not.
"I will not allow Zambians to be turned into guinea pigs no matter the levels of hunger in the country" Levy Mwanawasa, president of Zambia.
Genetically-modified foods are potentially the best solution to some of Africa's biggest problems namely malnutrition, starvation and diseases. Despite several associations objecting to the concept, the evidence compiled against biotechnology remains superficial. With extensive research, processes and regulations prospects of genetically modified food usage are increasing with the benefits outweighing the superstition.
Despite economic concerns, there may be hope that more companies and non-profitably organisations offer genetically-modified seedlings to rural African farmers at discounted prices, which in turn will boost those communities and ensure a better and healthier future for those people of suffering.
Government cooperation is essential in the process of African aid, without which millions of people will die of starvation.
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There are still many breakthroughs still to be discovered, and many hurdles to overcome. However the benefits are substantial and the incorporation of such foods inevitable in the near future.