What are GMOs?
A genetically modified organism (GMO) is any living organism that contains genes not normally found in it. This genetic material will have been transferred into the organism using genetic modification technology. In 2004, the global area planted with biotech crops was 81 million hectares (ha) in 17 countries (this was a 20% increase over 2003). About 27 million ha are now being planted in 11 developing countries. However, 99% of the area planted globally with GMOs in 2004 is located in just four countries, with the United States planting 47 million ha (58%), followed by Argentina (16.2 million ha, or 20%), Canada (5.4 million ha, or 6.6%) and Brazil (5 million ha, or 6.1%). The most popular genetically modified (GM) crops are soybean, maize, cotton, and canola. GM crops currently available in South Africa include insect resistant yellow and white maize, herbicide tolerant soybean, and insect resistant cotton.
How do GMOs benefit us?
GM crops are developed to have certain specific traits, such as drought tolerance, insect resistance, herbicide tolerance, giving a higher yield, or being more tasty or nutritious. This translates into several direct and indirect benefits. For example, an independent survey of smallholder farmers in South Africa designed to explore the economic benefits of their adoption of genetically modified Bt (insect-resistant) cotton was conducted in November 2000. It indicated that, during the 1998/1999, season, farmers experienced an 18% per ha increase in yields compared to non-adopters, and a 13% reduction of pesticide costs compared to non-adopters. These results outweighed the increase in seed costs (100% per ha) to give a substantial increase of 11% in gross margins.
Having to use less insecticide benefits farm workers, farmers, consumers, and the environment. In China, for example, fewer farmers are dying from chemical poisoning since adopting Bt cotton, as it is sprayed 13 times less than is conventional cotton. Benefits to the environment are also significant. It was estimated that in 2000 pesticide usage was reduced by a total of 22.3 million kg of formulated product due to the use of GM crops.
Herbicide resistant GM crops also help to protect the environment in that farmers switch to zero or minimal tillage practices, which save fuel and labour and significantly reduce the loss of topsoil. No-till processes also make the breakdown of crop stubble by soil microorganisms occur more slowly, in this way also reducing carbon dioxide emissions. It has been predicted that herbicide-tolerant GM maize would dramatically lower the herbicide concentrations in vulnerable watersheds, thus diminishing the risks to human health brought about by contaminated drinking.
What are the main concerns regarding GMOs?
Despite the benefits of GM crops, concerns have been raised by scientific, environmental, and consumer groups. The main ones are:
• potential risks to human and animal health
• potential effects on biodiversity and the environment
• effects on developing economies.
Possibly the public’s greatest concern is whether or not food from GM crops is safe to eat – whether it contains toxins or causes allergies; whether its nutritional composition or digestibility has been adversely changed; or whether there will be unexpected effects.
Before a GM product is approved for commercial release, the developer has to research such risks. Food safety assessment normally follows national guidelines, and these are typically based on international standards, such as those issued by the Codex Alimentarius Commission. In South Africa, biosafety assessments are carried out under the Genetically Modified Organisms Act (No. 15 of 1997), and, together with existing labelling legislation, they are designed to regulate the safe introduction of GMOs into South Africa. Products are only given a general release permit if they are deemed to be safe and of benefit to South Africa.
The issue of food safety has been investigated through many health studies. In 2005, the World Health Organisation (WHO) published an opinion on GM foods. Its 84-page report, Modern food biotechnology, human health and development: an evidence-based study, suggests that GM foods can contribute positively to human health and development, but stresses the need for continued safety assessments prior to marketing, to prevent risks to health and the environment. The WHO claims that, so far, the consumption of GM foods has caused no known negative health effects, and that GM foods are more rigorously examined than conventional foods for potential health and environmental impacts.
The concern has been raised that the introduction of herbicide tolerance in crops will lead to a misuse of herbicides, and that insect resistance in crops may result in a build-up of resistance in target insect populations. (This, however, is also true for most agro-chemicals used to control pests and diseases.) Another worry is the effect on non-target organisms, especially beneficial insects.
Concerns have also been raised that the inserted gene(s) in GM crops can pass into other species, especially weedy wild relatives. Highly domesticated species like maize and soybean are not normally competitive in the wild, however, and are therefore unlikely to become invasive. Less highly domesticated species, such as sorghum, pasture legumes, and cowpea may be more competitive in the wild and could pose a more serious threat of becoming invasive. In South Africa, impact assessments have to be carried out on all GMOs before commercialization is approved and it is expected that they will be monitored even after release. Several long-term studies are currently being conducted in South Africa on the environmental impacts of GM crops.
The effect of GM technology on developing countries, especially Africa, is often hotly debated. Those in favour of GMO technology have increasingly argued that GMOs can address the problems of malnutrition, hunger, and food insecurity. Several African countries, however, have been reluctant to adopt GMOs in their agricultural systems because of restrictions imposed by trading partners.
Most African food exports are to Europe and Asia, for instance, where GM foods are widely regarded as ‘Frankenstein foods’ and shunned by consumers. Some European countries request verification from exporting countries that their beef is not fed with genetically modified maize. This places the onus on exporting countries to develop an appropriate labelling and traceability system, and such a system is being developed in South Africa. Most other countries on the continent, however, do not have the legislation or the capacity to implement such a system. If GM foods are introduced into exporting countries without the required labelling and traceability support, grain and beef exports to Europe and Asia could be rejected, with dire potential economic consequences. In Africa, so far, only Kenya, Egypt, and South Africa have formally adopted the use of genetically modified crops.