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Genetically Modified (GM) Crops in Africa: Anti GMOs Rhetoric by Rose Maxwell Gidado, PhD


In Africa, resistance to GMO crops is strong. Organized groups supported by Europeans’ NGOs mostly cause it. These groups appear very dynamic. Excited by two recent contradictory events about GM crops in West Africa -the decision of the Government of Burkina Faso to stop growing Bt-cotton; and the decision of the Nigerian Government to authorize its cropping- the Anti-GMO proponents became hyperactive; they have been organizing concerts, radio talk shows, workshops and conferences. Their methods consist of creating confusion about GMOs and scaring the uninformed public of the supposed dangers of GM crops. Thus, mineral fertilizers, pesticides, hybrids and GMOs are often lumped together. It is appears that some of the Anti-GMO proponents are organic farming crusaders who want to impose their views on the society. After defining GMO this article will review the most important arguments advanced by the Anti GMO groups; however it will not dwell into political aspects of the subject.
Genetic modification of plants and animals is as old as agricultural itself. It started with the domestication of plants and animals. But modern conventional breeding was born in the early 20thCentury. Briefly it can described as crossing two or more varieties or lines of the same species and selecting the progeny that has the desired characteristics. It operates only within species; different species (for example cassava and potatoes) cannot be crossed. But with the progress in molecular biology, in the mid1970’s, scientists developed laboratory techniques that allow them to transfer desired gene between two organisms belonging to different species. Organisms carrying genes from another species are called transgenic or genetically modified organisms (GMO). Both medicine and agriculture make use of GMO; more than 100 medicines are manufactured using GMOs; all insulin sold is from GMOs. In Agriculture, Bt-corn and Bt-cotton are example of GMOs. Bt stands for Bacillusthuringiensis, a soil bacterium still used as bio pesticide; Bt is highly selective and kills only certain caterpillars; the gene controlling the production of the toxin was identified and transferred into some food crops. So the plants produce the toxin and defend themselves against invading caterpillars.
Argument 1. GM crops cause cancer
This the strongest argument used by Anti-GMO groups. But there are no evidences to support this claim. Because GM crops are highly regulated, and no cancer-causing GM crop has ever been released.  All developed countries have safety laws regulating the production and release of GM crops as food or feed. The first international regulation was developed around 1986, before the creation of any GM crops. Between 1990 and 2003, the European Union developed and modified several times its food laws with regard to the biosafety of GM crops intended for human food or animal feed. Finally the ministers adopted Regulation (EC) No 1829/2003 on GM food and feed as the legal basis for the approval procedure for genetically modified organisms as specified in the General Food Law. The safety of foods derived from genetically modified organisms is assessed by the European Food Safety Authority’s Scientific Panel on genetically modified organisms. In the USA, biosafety and the regulation of GM crops behooves to the USDA and its APHIS branch, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Environmental protection Agency. A GM crop could not be developed, tested and released without passing the entire test for safety to humans, animals and the environment. The ability of GM crop to cause cancer, allergy, genetic disorders, birth defects, harmful effects to the environment, and much other toxicity, is rigorously tested; also the quality of the food and the feed as compared to  non GM crop.  The GM crop is released only after passing all the tests. The example of the rejection of the Pioneer’s soybean expressing a gene from Brazil nut shows how rigorous these tests are. The safety tests have shown that this trans-gene is allergenic, so The FDA ordered Pioneer to stop the development of this GM soybean.
Today there is not a single credible scientific study that demonstrated a cause and effect relationship between cancer and GM food. In Europe there had been two scientific groups that claimed that GM crops caused cancer in rats. The first was led by Arpad Pusztai in 1998, and the second group was Gilles-Eric Serallini and coworkers in 2012. The scientific community overwhelmingly rejected these two studies because of serious flaws in their designs, methodologies and data interpretation. Furthermore all the highly respected scientific organizations of Europe-(the Royal society in UK, and the National academies of sciences) and the European Union Science panel on food safety- and the USA academy of science have reviewed the world toxicological and carcinogenicity data of GM crops. They all came to the same conclusion that there is no evidence supporting that GM crops caused cancer; and the GM crops released are safe for human consumption. The food and Agricultural organization (FAO) and the world health organization (WHO) reached the same conclusion.
Therefore, it is obvious that decision of EU countries to ban GM crop is not science–based; in fact it is contrary to the opinion of its own scientific panel on GM crops. The decision is solely based on political or economic considerations. If GM food and feed are toxic and carcinogenic then one has to explain why Europeans countries are annually importing close to 30 million tons of GM soybean and corn to feed their cattle and chicken? Actually the European Union cattle and chicken industries depend on this massive import of GM feed. Even worse, through the milk and meat people are exposed to these GM products. Europeans know very well that the GM soybean and corn are not carcinogenic; this is why they use them as feed, and as food ingredients. One has only to remember the rejection of the African peanut in the 1970s when European realized that the aflatoxin contaminant was causing cancer and killing their chicken. This rejection is still continuing today. So far European cattle and chicken are not developing cancer.
In any case, if GMO crops cause cancer, then the cancer rates should be increasing in all countries where GM crops are highly consumed like the USA, Canada and China etc. That would be the ultimate test for carcinogenicity and toxicity of GM crops. But no increase in cancer rates has been observed in those countries.
It is obvious that the claims that GM crops cause cancer have no basis. Such claims serve only to scare the population. Recently on the radio one professor from Jos University claimed that they had analyzed flours of GM and Non-GM corn; they found the two flours to be different; and GM corn causes cancer. If this Professor has done such work, he should have published his findings because this is his golden opportunity to become word famous. But he did not. So, one can conclude that he has never conducted such an experiment.
Anytime the Anti-GMO groups find themselves out of arguments, they invented some. Thus they manufactured stories about the widespread GM Crops-induced suicide of Indian farmers. When these stories where shown to be entirely fabricated, they move to Argentinato create new stories about high rates of birth defects and cancer caused by GMO and glyphosate. The Internet is full with such stories. However Investigations by Central and local authorities, University professors experts in toxicology and medical researchers have shown that there is not a shred of evidence supporting these stories.  Finding themselves out of credible argument on the case of cancer, the Anti-GMO groups now grasponto pesticides, namely glyphosate. Glyphosate is not a crop it is a chemical herbicide which has been around 21 years before the release of the first GM crop.
Argument 2. Glyphosate
Since the classification of glyphosate as a class 2A, a probable cancer causing agent, in 2015 by IARC (The International Agency for Cancer Research, under the World Health Organization) it seems like the Anti-GMO groups had focused their attention on this herbicide. Their logic is that if Glyphosate is bad then we can show that GMOs (all GMOs) are bad too, because there are glyphosate resistant crops. Thus Glyphosate becomes synonymous of GMO. Let us analyze the classification of IARC. Glyphosate was classified as a class 2A carcinogen; this is the same group as going to a beauty salon or to a barbershop, or firewood. So according to IARC, Glyphosate is as dangerous as burning wood to cook dinner or having your hair made in a beauty salon. In contrast red meat and alcohol beverages were classified as class 1, proven cancer causing agent together with plutonium. So according to this classification, Glyphosate and GM corn are even much safer than eating meat, drinking a glass of wine or beer. The ban of Glyphosate in Sri Lanka and few countries is shown as a great anti-GMO success. But according to Dr Ian Musgrave, a well-known toxicologist, the kidney disease in Sri Lank was caused by arsenic which contaminated the phosphate fertilizer used by the farmers. This is consistent with the fact the kidney disease epidemic begun in 1994 longtime before farmers started using Glyphosate, and the wells (old wells) were contaminated with arsenic and other poisonous heavy metals. In May 2016 a join meeting of FAO and WHO was held on pesticide residues; the report clearly stated that Glyphosate administered through the oral route (the common route of contamination) or ingested, as food contaminant is not genotoxic; that means it cannot cause cancer, mutations etc. Also in 2014 the panel of European toxicologists reviewed the toxicity and carcinogenicity of Glyphosate; they reported that there is no substantial evidence of toxicity of carcinogenicity.
Argument 3. GMO can lead to increased bacterial resistance to antibiotics
Biotechnologists do tag their gene constructs with an antibiotic resistant gene to select transformed recipient cells. So the Anti-GMO proponents claim that GMO food will lead to rapid emergence of bacterial strains resistant to antibiotics. This simply cannot be true because there is no transfer of gene from plant or animal hosts to bacteria. Bacteria are well known to have a sophisticated system for destroying foreign genetic elements around them. Also human DNA is never contaminated by the DNA contained in their food stuff; otherwise the human DNA will contain segments derived from DNA of cows, goats, carrots, rice, yam, etc. And human beings themselves would be GMOs. This argument is a pure science fiction.
Argument4. Burkina’s Stop in growing Bt-cotton is a proof for the failure of Bt-crop
The decision of the government of Burkina Faso is heralded as a failure of GMO in General. The readers should be informed that the introduction of Bt-cotton in Burkina Faso was an initiative of the cotton growers. The Association of cotton Growers pleaded with President Blaise Compaore for an improvement of the conditions of cotton production otherwise they will abandon the crop. The Government of Burkina Faso then contacted Monsanto for the introduction of the Bt-cotton technology.  Bt- cotton clearly helped strengthen the cotton production in that country; in less than 4 years Bt-cotton  occupied more than 50% of the cotton acreage; yields increased by an average of 18%; and the estimated net gain of the farmers in 2013 alone was more than US$ 20 million (at the exchange rate of US$ d1=570 FCFA). However, the cotton companies said that during the last three years they were losing money because the fibers of the Bt- cotton has become shorter, and could not be sold at a premium price. If the loss of the fiber quality is due to the transgene, then the phenomenon should have been observed in all Bt-cotton growing countries. But this is not the case. So this problem is not linked to the Bt-transgene; it is very likely specific to Burkina Faso.  And the decision to abandon temporary Bt-cotton as initially announced in Paris is against the interests of the defenseless farmers of Burkina Faso.
Arguments 5. Farmers will lose their independence because they cannot save seeds anymore
This is one of the arguments used many years ago to retard the introduction hybrids in Africa. But the recent rapid adoption of hybrid maize, sorghum and vegetables showed that saving their own seeds is not a priority for the farmers; their priority is to produce enough to feed their family and generate a surplus that could be sold for cash. These farmers never look at themselves as slaves. This is a misleading idea that can inhibit the technological progress of African farmers. It this author’s opinion that promising technologies should be demonstrated to the farmers; and only the farmers must decide if these technologies are good for them or not. The disastrous paternalistic attitude of the past should not occur again.
The slavery argument is a clear demonstration of the lack of knowledge of the reality of the farmers. Following a bad cropping season most of the farmers eat their seeds instead of starving. And many farmers become dependent on Government special seed programs at the beginning of the new cropping season. Today most of the African countries are experiencing seed crisis. There is a need for viable modern seed industries. There is no GMO seed slavery, because countries that have adopted GM crops are also producing their seeds. To help African countries to increase food crop production Monsanto had demonstrated its willingness to donate free of royalties its Bt technology.  There is no slave-master system here.
Argument 6. There is enough food to feed 3-5 times the world population so the problem is not one of production but one of distribution
That the world may produce enough food to feed 5 times its population is irrelevant so long as Africa does not own a significant share of this food. To rely on this world food surplus instead of investing in new technologies to boost production will only create food dependency or exacerbate it. It is obvious that this food is not free. To get access to it one must pay. Thus the Anti-GMOs and other organic farming prophets are only encouraging people to become more food- dependent.
In their declaration, they sometimes state that there is not a single proof that GMO crop has increased yields.  This is another untruthful statement. GM crops had increased yields and productions. For instance in Burkina Faso, Bt-cotton caused an average 18% yield increased per year and tremendous financial gain by the farmers. In India, in less than 10 years, more than 90% of the cotton acreage was under Bt-cotton, the annual production rose from less than 3 million tons to more than 5 million tons. In the 1990s,a disease called Papaya Ring Spot Virus totally devastated the papaya production system of Hawaii because there is no resistance in papaya against this virus. Thanks to the development of a transgenic papaya resistant to the virus, the Papaya production system was rebuilt.
Arguments 7- pest resistance will occur
Plant pathologists, entomologists and breeders have been struggling with this problem since the early 1920s. GM technology is just one additional tool, albeit a powerful one in the arsenal of plant scientists and farmers to combat plants pests Do these activists want our countries to shun modern agricultural science and return to the dark ages?  However, research studies will continue to take place to mitigate any such resistance that might occur.
Argument 8.  Diversity will disappear, and monoculture will prevail
The objective of this argument is to maintain the African farmers in their low productive system. The adoption of GM crop will stop the use of crop rotation; the adoption of glyphosate resistant maize cannot eliminate multi-cropping because the farmers can plant maize in one part of the field and the glyphosate susceptible crop in the other parts.  This technique had been used by the authority to control Striga in pearl millet with herbicide.  Just like cowpea, the associated crop is susceptible to the herbicide.
The wide spread idea that GM crops cause cancer is totally unfounded. The overwhelming studies conducted by many respectful scientific organizations such as the National academies of sciences in Europe and the USA concluded that that there is no evidence of carcinogenicity of GMO.  However the Anti-GMO groups and other organic farming crusaders continue to spread the false idea to create fear and panic among the population of Africa. Organic farming is not new; it is an agronomic practice not a tool. African farmers have been practicing it since pre-historic times and are still doing it. It brought us to the actual situation of food dependency, chronic malnutrition and sometimes famine because of its inherent low productivity. With an increasing population, the decrease of agricultural land mass caused by rapid urbanization, the exodus of young people from rural areas to urban areas, we need to increase the agricultural output per unit of land in order to meet the challenges of feeding not only the rural people but also the growing urban populations. Intensification of agricultural production by the introduction of new technologies is an imperative. These technologies include mechanization, irrigation, fertilizer, pesticides, new varieties of GMOs and non-GMOs. GMO have their role to play because there are many unsolved problems- weeds such as striga, insect pests, diseases, drought, salinity-that could be solved sustainably with genetic engineering.
Dr Rose Maxwell Gidado is the National Coordinator, Open Forum on Agricultural Biotechnology in Africa (OFAB), Nigeria Chapter.

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