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The process of Genetic modification could be described as humans manipulating nature to suit their needs. The ongoing investigation into the structure of the DNA molecule has opened the door to genetic modification as scientists have discovered they can extract genes that control special characteristics and insert them into an organism of their choice. Genes have been extracted and inserted to enhance the other organisms and give them qualities they would not have inherited. An organism whose DNA has been modified in this way, is known as a transgenic organism.
Today various crops have been modified to create different, stronger varieties of the same plant, so as to produce a higher yield for the world to consume.
Genetic engineering is done microscopically, as the DNA they are modifying cannot be seen with the naked eye. The steps of modification are:
The gene is indentified in the donor organism and cut using restriction enzymes
The gene is placed into a vector, which is a plasmid of bacteria, and inserted into the plant DNA using a method called electroporation.
ELCTROPORATION: is when special enzymes are used to destroy the plant cell wall. The cell walls are removed, but everything is still contained in the cell membrane. An extremely high voltage is sent through the cell and creates temporary small holes in the membrane.
The DNA from the donor is inserted, through the holes, into the cell and is integrated into the DNA of the plant. The cell membrane and the cell wall of the plant cell reforms.
The cell that now contains DNA from the donor is put into a special culture and is able to reproduce.
The genetically modified cells are then taken to their natural environment and are allowed to grow naturally.
In order to make sure that the plant has been successfully modified, a marker gene is inserted into the plant. This gene can code for a change in the colour of the plant, when the plant is exposed to a chemical test. So scientists perform this test and record the colour of the plant therefore determining whether or not the plant has been modified.
Staple Food Source
In Africa, maize and Rice is a staple food source for many. It is able to grow all year round, as the seeds can be planted in any season, it grows relatively quickly, it can be used in many forms, it can be preserved and it contains enough energy for the people who eat it to be sustained. However, these food sources lack in nutrients and are continually eaten by pests which decrease the amount available to be eaten.
A recent debate has arisen, whether the genetic modification of these organisms and the use of them in Africa can help with the natural problems such as pests, increase the yield and increase their nutritional value and on the whole decrease the food problems present in Africa.
Transgenic Maize and Transgenic Rice (Golden Rice) is sold in Africa
Maize has been genetically modified with a special gene from a bacterium in soil which codes for a toxin called Bacillus Thuringiensis. This toxin makes the Maize resistant to pests and insects.
There are many advantages to using this type of maize; it decrease the use of pesticides therefore costs are decreases, insects that are essential, fare better because they are resistant to the bacterium, it increases the yield of maize produced because pests aren't attacking it and therefore the amount of food to be consumed is increased.
Rice doesn't have enough nutrients, particularly iron and vitamin A. The rice crop has been modified by inserting two beta-carotene genes one from the soil bacterium Erwinia Uredovora and one from a daffodil. The plant therefore has been modified to contain beta-carotene in the rice grain, which is then converted into vitamin A in our body. This modified rice is often a yellower colour than normal rice because of its modification, giving it the name 'Golden Rice'.
Transgenic rice has many advantages because vitamin A is very important for eyesight. Use of this rice could decreases childhood blindness is many countries.
Advantages and Disadvantages of Genetically Modified Crops
There are many advantages and disadvantages with the growth of genetically modified foods. Many people wonder if it is safe to use and grow transgenic crops.
The modification of the gene in the crop is not one that has involved radiation or chemicals, so carcinogenic agents aren't unnaturally implemented. Transgenic crops often produce a higher yield, as they may contain a gene that makes them resistant to pests, however the pests are evolving too, and they soon develop a resistance to these 'pesticide' genes. Unfortunately the modification of these crops interrupts the cycle of nature, as they are often a source of food for various animals too, who are in turn food for other animals, so if one source is decreased, so is another. Transgenic crops have been modified to adapt well in any environment. They can handle tough weather conditions, like drought and can be grown on small plots of land, which increases the amount of crops being grown and therefore increases the yield. As transgenic crops are modified to be 'better', they contain desirable qualities from other plants which give them added nutrients, make them stronger, better tasting and make them last longer - this however decreases natural diversity, as organisms are being produced with the same trait.
The development of transgenic crops is not cheap, so it is mostly done in richer countries, however the scientific research is paid using tax payers money, so whether you as a citizen are against it or not, it's your money benefitting it.
Although genetically modified food can be seen as a solution to the problem of the worlds over consumption and need, it has caused many parts of society to question its worth.
There are various ethical concerns in the modification of these organisms - some believe it's changing the natural order of life as we are creating organisms that would not have be produced naturally in the environment. By cultivating these organisms we are disrupting the food chain as the modification leads to a lack of food for other organisms. The modification of these transgenic organisms is costly and so once modified, they are sold to poorer countries at a higher price. Companies who use transgenic organisms refuse to label there items as being genetically modified or don't follow correct procedure and 'accidentally' mix natural and transgenic organisms in cultivation and exportation. This mixed planting of transgenic and natural could lead to mutations in the crops, so instead of desirable traits being reproduced, unrecognizable and unwanted traits are developing. There is also the risk during modification, in insertion that the gene doesn't go into the right place, which could also produce unwanted traits and change the genetic makeup of the plant. The planting of only transgenic crops could soon lead to a termination of naturally growing crops. One of the serious issues is that human lives are at risk because humans are being used as guinea pigs to test and taste the transgenic organisms.
In South Africa
South Africa is the 8th largest producer of transgenic crops.
Before crops can be modified, an application has to be sent to the Registrar of Genetically Modified Organisms, to be approved. South Africa is part of the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety which ensures that genetically modified foods are handled in the right way and are imported and exported separately and correctly.
Monsanto is an international agricultural company that is involved in the technology of genetic modification and the cultivation and exportation of genetically modified crops. According to Monsanto Fact Sheet, South Africa is involved in the growth of transgenic crops;
"South Africa has become a base for Monsanto's GM seed exports to other countries and for experimentation with new GM crops not approved elsewhere.
South African companies import Monsanto seeds for use for commercial planting, field trials, and for use as animal feed and human foodstuff. South Africa is the first country in Africa to allow the commercial growing and import of GM seeds for human and animal consumption. Despite resistance from countries such as Zimbabwe, Zambia and Angola, South Africa's GM-friendly regulatory framework, its advanced agricultural system, and its political influence in the region, make it an ideal gateway for the spread of genetically modified seeds into Africa. Control over South Africa's seed supply implies control over the commercial seed supply in the southern African region."
However in 1997 a Genetically Modified Organisms Act was passed in South Africa, which ensures that all activities with transgenic organism and genetic modification doesn't harm the environment, that all procedures are correct and safe and deals with the effective management of these organisms, waste and growth.
South Africa have food labeling laws, which instructs that; any South African producing products to be sold, must label whether or not their product has been genetically modified or not; the product must contain the altered nutritional information; the labeling must also state the source of the inserted gene, if it comes from another organism and the product label has to be certified by the South African National Accreditation Services and it show certification on the label. These laws ensure that Genetic Modification is controlled and that any genetically modified organism is certified and checked to see it is safe before it gets to the consumer. With this law in place, it controls the use of transgenic crops in food items.
Supermarkets: Sale and Survey
South African supermarkets do sell products that are genetically modified, or show traces of genetic modification.
The products listed in the table below, are common products that many South Africans eat, as they are high in energy and seem to have many nutrients. There is evidence that South Africa is using transgenic crops such as Maize, as products such as Bokomo ProNutro Toddlers Instant Cereal - Apple and Banana Flavour, Purity Cream of Maize Baby Soft Porridge, Premier Foods Iwisa Maize Meal and Tiger Brand ACE Samp, which are byproducts of maize, have tested positive for genetic modification.
These products are modified because it allows for mass production as higher yields are produced in modified crops and therefore more products can be made and sold. These products are also essential savory products and are often a staple food source for children and poorer people in South Africa, so they are continually in need.
GMO Tested for
Pick 'n Pay No Name Corn Flakes
Nestle Cerelac Baby Cereal with Milk (Maize Flavour)
Roundup Ready Soy
Aspen Nutritionals Infacare Soya Infant Starter Formula
Roundup Ready Soy
Bokomo ProNutro Toddlers Instant Cereal - Apple and Banana Flavour
Roundup Ready Soy
Bokomo ProNutro Family Cereal Original Flavour
Roundup Ready Soy
Royco VitaMince Savoury Flavour
Roundup Ready Soy
Purity Bottled Baby Food Creamy Carrot & Corn Flav
Roundup Ready Soy
Purity Cream of Maize Baby Soft Porridge
Roundup Ready Soy
Premier Foods Iwisa Maize Meal
Tiger Brand ACE Samp
Supermarkets don't often has non-genetically modified options of the same type of product, but often an alternate option in supermarkets is their organic food section, which have similar products but unfortunately at a higher price and this section is not very big and not very well advertised.
The sale and use of transgenic crops, is all determined by the attitude of the public. There are groups of people who are oblivious to the disadvantages, let alone the advantages of using transgenic crops, groups of people who are against the genetic modification of any organism and groups of people who believe genetic modification is a huge step forward and the world could benefit from its discovery.
A public survey can be conducted anywhere, but could make the most impact on people if done outside supermarkets such as Woolworths, Checkers, Spar and Pick 'n Pay, as it would then make people aware of what they are buying. The purpose of the survey is not to dissuade people from buying genetically modified organisms, but to determine their attitude towards them and the opinion of their use. By asking the public, one can also get outside ideas of alternate solutions that could be used in place of genetically modified foods.
Survey for the Public
Do you know what genetic modification is?
Do you know what foods have been genetically modified? If so, do you buy these genetically modified foods?
Do you care whether or not your food has been genetically modified?
Do you know why foods are genetically modified?
Do you believe supermarkets have a responsibility to inform their customers about foods that are genetically modified?
Do you know what the symbol is identifying modification on foods?
Do you believe genetic modification should be used in the foods we eat? If not, do you know of an alternate direction?
Supermarkets are a main source of food and food products in countries such as South Africa. Supermarkets not only stock products from SA but products from overseas. Many common products sold in supermarkets are genetically modified and unfortunately many supermarkets do not offer a non GM option. It is our right as customers to know what we are buying and supermarket managers should know what is contained in the products they sell.
A survey could be conducted to supermarket managers at large supermarkets such as Pick 'n Pay, Checkers, Spar and Woolworths, as to whether or not they know what genetic modification is and whether they know what products have been genetically modified. This survey should be conducted face to face, in the supermarket, so the managers can show you products and prices.
Survey for supermarket managers
Do you know what genetic modification is?
Do you stock genetically modified foods? If so, what are they?
Do you inform your customers of foods that have been genetically modified?
Do you have an organic section? If so, do you believe your organic section is bigger enough to allow it to be competitive enough in both choice and price against genetically modified foods?
Are you personally aware of whether or not your food is modified in any way?
Are all your fruits and vegetables organic?
Do you know why food is modified?
Can the cultivation of transgenic crops be justified? Yes it can be. There are many advantages to genetically modifying crops, which could help the agricultural industry worldwide and the food problem in poorer countries in Africa - such as; a higher yield, stronger plants, added nutrients and inbred resistance. Unfortunately there are many disadvantages and other concerns too and if we are not careful in the cultivation of these transgenic organisms the negatives could out way the positives.
If the world's production of crops starts to depend on these transgenic crops, the world will run out of desirable traits. As the modification increase, natural diversity decreases, so simple but important traits will slowly be grown out of organisms. With every change we make we lose out on how that change could have helped in the future.
I do not believe in the genetic modification of organisms. Although there are many advantages to using transgenic organisms, particularly crops - like a higher yield, added nutrients and resistance, I believe there are many other food sources and organisms which have the same advantages without being genetically modified. In order for the use of other organism to work, education is needed. It can only be beneficial if people are taught what plants and organisms have desired nutrients and taught when and how to cultivate these. These crops would never become their staple food source but would add nutrients and other benefits.
I have witnessed how communities and poorer areas have matured when they are taught to manage and grow their own foods. Growing their own foods has also enabled people to save money because they don't have to buy and make money by selling their home grown goods. In having a vegetable garden at home, I have recognized that the food is fresher and better tasting, and although it doesn't produce as high a yield as transgenic crops would, there is always enough to use.
Conclusion: Is it worth it?
The use of transgenic crops will not solely solve the food problems people in Africa are faced with. Food problems have arisen because of a lack of resources such as water - due to drought and lack of nutrients in the soil - due to soil erosion. In most places however, it is a lack of education on how to cultivate crops properly and how to manage the food grown. Poorer people who are given crops to grow- transgenic or natural - are not fully educated on how to plant the crops so as to get the most benefits out of it. They need to be taught what size land they need, how much water, what pests are beneficial and which are bad and signs of when the food it right to eat. Even If people are given genetically modified seeds to grow, they will plant them like natural seeds, unaware of the benefits of transgenic crops, such that a smaller piece of land can be used, a higher yield will be produced and pesticides won't be needed. Unfortunately, a main cause of food problems can be related to the financial and often political situation in the country. Poorer African countries will not be able to afford genetically modified crops and will not be able to cultivate them in the proper way that doesn't affect natural crops.
Instead of advertising only the advantages of transgenic crops to solve the food crisis in Africa, companies and supermarkets should advertise the disadvantages too, so that African population is aware of the risks involved in cultivating transgenic crops. Therefore the choice of using transgenic organisms is theirs and uneducated people aren't persuaded into using them because they think them superior.