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gmos in AfricaScientists created the first genetically modified organism or GMO in 1973, and the FDA approved a GMO product for the first time in 1982. GMOs are crops that have undergone genetic alternation for a specific purpose, such as weather, pest or weed resistance. Such traits can produce larger quantities of crops and make them resilient in different climates.

However, GMOs raise concern for many people, countries and organizations. While they are commonplace in the U.S., Europe largely avoids GMOs. Proponents of GMOs claim that they can help end global hunger, but opponents claim that they will damage both the planet and human health.

In Africa, GMOs are beginning to become a part of modern agriculture, but as of now, only in small ways. As of 2019, just five of Africa’s 47 countries allowed GMO crops to be grown: South Africa, Burkina Faso, Sudan, Egypt and Nigeria. Larger GMO initiatives in Africa could help feed the continent, but resistance to GMOs is large enough that Africa is beginning to use them only slowly and cautiously.

Pros of GMOs in Africa

Pests called stem borers are responsible for a loss of 400,000 tons of maize in Kenya yearly, or about 14% of total maize. Genetically modified maize called Bt maize can make maize crops more resilient to stem borers. Researcher Hugo de Groote says Bt maize will help small farmers in particular because pests affect them the most.

“The major surprise was that, contrary to the usual claims, Bt maize is very likely to benefit poor farmers and small seed companies,” De Groote reported to the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center.

As of 2020, Kenya is near accepting domestic production of Bt maize. The country is also seriously considering allowing GMO imports, which would aid the nearly 1.5 million Kenyans facing acute hunger. However, experts say that in order for Kenyans to benefit from GMO crops long term, they need to start growing them on their own soil.

Many African countries struggle with drought, crop diseases and pests that cause low crop yields. Some GMOs exist to help with these problems, and they could become a part of Africa’s agricultural future. For example, following in Nigeria’s footsteps, Ghana is considering approving the commercialization of some pest-resistant GMO crops including Bt cotton.

Cons of GMOs in Africa

Hesitation to adopt GMOs in Africa stems from concerns for food safety, ethics, environmental risks, loss of biodiversity and lack of regulations. Furthermore, Africa exports a large number of agricultural goods to European nations, and many European consumers prefer to avoid GMOs. Because of this, the majority of African trading partners stick to traditional crop varieties.

GMOs are still a relatively new concept. They may create a risk of long-term environmental damage such as infertile land, biodiversity loss and new GMO-resistant pests. Furthermore, there is some evidence that GMOs can cause cancer and allergies. The American Cancer Society has not found convincing evidence of GMO-caused cancer, but it cautions that more research is necessary.

There are reasons both to support and to suspect GMOs in Africa and across the globe. More research will continue to unveil their benefits and consequences in Africa.

Sarah Eichstadt
Photo: Wikimedia Commons

GM golden riceRice is a staple crop in Asia that provides 30-72% of the energy intake in the region. Many children in these countries rely on meager amounts of rice and almost nothing else. Enter genetically modified (GM) rice. GM golden rice is a revolutionary modified rice crop, characterized by its golden color and vitamin A fortification. This biofortified crop works to alleviate the issue of malnutrition in Asia, especially among children.

Vitamin A

In Bangladesh, China, India and elsewhere in Asia, there is a vitamin A deficiency problem. Annually, vitamin A deficiency results in the death of several million children and blindness in 250,000, according to a study done by WHO. Half of these children die within 12 months of losing their sight.

GM golden rice allows for beta-carotene (a Vitamin A precursor) synthesis in the edible portion of rice. This process may prove to be a promising remedy to this widespread vitamin deficiency. The body can actually use beta-carotene in the edible portion of rice, rather than the rice’s leaves. Not only is it usable, but it can supply 30% to 50% of a person’s daily vitamin A requirement.

Other Benefits

Besides the nutritional benefit, GM golden rice also lasts longer than its non-GM counterparts. A Purdue University researcher found that some GM foods have an increased shelf life by a week longer than it would have originally. Foods that can stay fresher longer help impoverished regions store food and aid food distribution across long periods of time.  

Furthermore, modified foods, like GM golden rice, are routinely screened for safety. Simon Barber, director of the Plant Biotechnology Unit at EuropaBio, the European biotech industry association, stated that before anything may be imported into Europe and used as animal feed or as an ingredient in food for humans, it had to travel through a security approval process.

In addition, the two genes inserted into GM golden rice, plant phytoene synthase and bacterial phytoene desaturase, are innocuous to the human body. Further, Dr. Russesll Reinke, IRR Program Lead for Healthier Rice,  stated that test trials in Australia, New Zealand and the U.S. found this rice to be safe for consumption.

Conclusion

As technology rapidly evolves, people will have reservations about the unfamiliar processes involved. However, GM golden rice has continued to be a proven and effective supplement for adequate nutrition. With new technological solutions, like GM golden rice, food shortages can continue to decrease.

Justin Chan
Photo: Flickr

terminator seeds threaten sustainable farming methods
One of the ways that companies that create genetically modified seeds protect their intellectual property is with terminator seeds, ensuring that farmers cannot save seeds from past harvests and need to buy new seeds every year. Because of this practice, terminator seeds threaten sustainable farming methods and make farmers reliant on the biotechnology companies producing the seeds.

What Is a Terminator Seed?

A terminator seed, also called a suicide seed, is a seed that is genetically modified so that any crops grown from it do not produce fertile seeds. Because the crops produce sterile seeds, farmers need to buy a new batch of seeds every year rather than using the traditional farming method of saving, reusing and sharing seeds.

Some biotechnology firms use seeds that require the farmers to use a special compound to activate the seed so that farmers that are using genetically modified seeds become dependent on the biotechnology firm if they want to plant the seeds from their crops.

Any technology that the biotechnology firms use to prevent the farmer from saving, sharing or reusing seeds and control the reuse of seeds threatens both biodiversity and sustainable farming methods in developing countries.

How Do Terminator Seeds Work?

Terminator seeds contain a repressor gene that kills the embryo in any seed that a genetically modified plant protected by terminator technology produces. Even though the seeds produced by the plants look normal, they are not viable and cannot be used to plant more crops, which forces the farmer to buy new seeds from the biotechnology firm selling the genetically modified plant.

Since saving and cross-breeding seeds is an integral part of traditional African practices, farmers in African countries are much less likely to use terminator seeds than farmers in other third world countries. In Africa, farmers use many varieties of seeds and are less likely to use biotechnology because the farming methods in Africa have been shown to be more sustainable than the solutions offered by biotechnology firms.

The Financial Impact of Terminator Seeds

Since biotechnology firms cannot use the law to stop farmers from reusing seeds, they are relying on science to stop farmers from reusing seeds. About 10 farmers a day commit suicide in India because the exorbitant prices of seeds produced by biotechnology companies are putting the farmers into a cycle of debt and despair that leads them to suicide.

Terminator seeds provide a viable way of protecting plants that cannot be protected by patent laws, and terminator technology is being used to ensure that farmers cannot reuse seeds that cannot be protected by other legal methods to regulate the use of new technologies that are sold by many of the world’s leading biotechnology firms. Technologies such as terminator seeds make it next to impossible for impoverished farmers to break out of the cycle of poverty.

Because terminator seeds threaten sustainable farming methods, many third-world farmers are starting to use organic and chemical-free methods to control pests and are starting to replace terminator seeds with seeds that are free to save and to share with other farmers. These practices can break the hold that terminator seeds terminator seeds have over farmers, while also helping them practice sustainable farming methods and become more self-sufficient.

– Michael Israel

Photo: Flickr

Technologies that can help end povertyDespite gloomy predictions for the future among pessimists, humanity develops the tools for a brighter tomorrow. At the Lisbon Web Summit on November 6, 2017, physicist Stephen Hawking discussed the pros and cons of artificial intelligence. Though Hawking is aware of how new technologies threaten jobs, he also believes that such advances can alleviate disease, global warming and poverty. Artificial intelligence isn’t the only gadget in development. Here are four technologies that can help end poverty, provided they’re used the right way.

  1. Blockchain
    Blockchain records transactions made in cryptocurrency, such as Bitcoin. These ledgers are publicly available. Brian Singer, a William Blair partner, predicted in 2015 that access to a cheap and transparent payment system through Blockchain would serve emerging markets well. How have Bitcoin and Blockchain helped the world so far? By allowing a transparent ledger, Blockchain prevents falsified land deeds from stealing the land of small farmers. With no need for a physical building, Blockchain can save foreign aid money; through the data provided, Blockchain can optimize a developing economy. Cryptocurrency provides a small, but significant, step in helping impoverished people begin their own businesses.
  2. Smart Survey boxes
    The World Bank reported how Smart Survey boxes in Tajikistan monitor energy usage. These boxes collect data on energy quality and power outages. At first glance, Smart Survey boxes seem an unlikely candidate for technologies that can help end poverty. But having the right data in a crisis ensures that the right cure can be provided. Automated information collection leaves little room for human error and little reason to put volunteers in unsafe areas.Utz Pape, a World Bank economist, summarizes the impact of data collection on poverty: “It can help improve data quality of existing surveys, it can help to increase the frequency of data collection to complement traditional household surveys, and can also… improve our understanding of people’s behaviors.”
  3. Genetically Modified Crops
    The use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in farming has led to fiery debated in the past decade. But the results are clear. Using seeds designed to resist pests and herbicides, GMOs led to more yields, fewer applications of pesticides, and more profits for farmers, according to a study by Penn State. Stephen Hawking warned about the careless application of technology, and GMOs are no exception. The impact of GMOs on other organisms has not been well documented. But when Penn State concludes that “The technology may be more appropriate for farmers that have difficulty spraying pesticides and herbicides,” it’s easy to see how developing nations benefit from the invention.
  4. Video Games
    Though considered fun distractions in America, video games have immense teaching potential. The United Nations described an initiative in India that taught English to children through mobile phone games. A similar project, in Somalia, taught money management skills to young Somali women. The Somali mobile game project boosted job training and placement for 8,000 people, both male and female, by 2015.

All these inventions— cryptocurrency, data collection, GMOs, and video games— destroyed the world in countless science fiction novels. In the real world, they’re technologies that can help end poverty.

In some ways, the brighter tomorrow has already arrived.

– Nick Edinger

Photo: Flickr

Feeding the World

About 800 million people (one in nine) worldwide are still undernourished. Creating food sustainability is a growing need across the globe. In recent reports by the Guardian, Africa could face the worst food crisis since 1985, with 50 million people going hungry.

Continued droughts have spread across Malawi, Mozambique, Lesotho, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Madagascar, Angola, Swaziland and South Africa, causing the season’s crops to fail.

Even worse, unsustainable farming practices have been destroying fertile lands necessary for food production. Soy production, for example, destroys 55 million tons of topsoil in Brazil each year. Similarly, destructive crops are coffee, palm oil, tobacco, wheat and corn. According to the World Wide Fund for Nature, 30 percent of global arable land has already been degraded.

While nearly a billion people still need proper access to food, expensive appetites and irresponsible corporations have been abusing land and practicing unsustainable farming methods.

The practice of raising livestock for meat has contributed to global warming by deforesting areas that would otherwise cleanse the air of carbon dioxide, and by adding methane to the air. Raising livestock also requires the use of massive amounts of water. Agriculture accounts for one-third of global greenhouse emissions and 80 percent of water usage in the US.

Because of the lack of sustainability of many current farming practices, and the need to feed much of the developing world, scientists have proposed new technologies to tackle these challenges. One proposed controversial method of sustainability is in vitro meat production — producing meat in a laboratory.

In theory, the practice would rid the food production industry of all the traditional worries of raising livestock and handling the waste produced. However, the procedure may be extremely energy-intensive in keeping the meat sterile and the process may eventually also contribute to global warming. Once optimized, the world’s growing desire for meat may have the chance to shift to this laboratory product.

Another technology currently under development by NASA is 3D food printing, which would convert basic proteins, carbohydrates and fats into actual foods. The technology could utilize alternative ingredients like insects or algae to source sustainably but also satisfy our specific appetites.

Genetically modified foods (GMOs) have the potential to be sustainable  and help end hunger, although they are also very controversial. In Uganda, the World Bank has helped introduce a non-native, biofortified sweet potato that would combat the stunting of children’s growth and help empower women farmers with economic independence. The sweet potato provides a child’s daily dose of Vitamin A in less than two ounces and gives women the opportunity to grow and sell the food.

While scientists have proposed many ideas for feeding the world in a sustainable manner, public opinion has been the crux to progress. With such bitter backlash to GMOs and other non-natural foods, funding will always be limited. These technologies will have to be supported and developed in the richest nations before they can safely and effectively be implemented for the poorest.

Henry Gao

Photo: Flickr

End World Hunger GMOs
GMOs, or genetically modified organisms, are plants or animals whose genetic codes have been altered by the insertion of genes from a different plant or animal in order to gain advantageous traits. Plants can be modified, for example, to better resist disease, pests and drought.

GMOs undergo rigorous testing (a period ranging from five to eight years) conducted by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration to make sure the genetically modified food is safe for human consumption. Currently, there is no legislation requiring food packagers to label the genetically modified food that sits on supermarket shelves.

AgriLife Research at Texas A & M investigated the introduction of spinach proteins into citrus trees to help protect them against citrus greening, a disease responsible for millions of dollars in citrus crop losses annually. The spinach protein-infused citrus trees were less susceptible to citrus greening compared to normal citrus trees, allowing a larger crop to be harvested for consumption.

 

GMOs Tackle World Hunger

 

With the success of many GMO projects, research is being done to determine how this technology can be used to address the issue of world hunger. Modified crops that can benefit developing countries include C4 Rice, which is being funded by the Gates Foundation. Rice naturally photosynthesizes through the C3 pathway, which is less efficient than the C4 pathway utilized primarily by grass crops such as maize and sugarcane. Converting the cellular structure of rice from C3 to C4 will allow the crop to support more people than is currently possible. While a single hectare of land in Asia produces enough rice to feed 27 people, the International Rice Research Institute has estimated that by 2050, that same hectare will need to produce enough rice to feed 43 people, a problem that genetically modified C4 rice may be able to address.

Since rice provides one-fifth of the calories consumed by people worldwide, more efficient rice crops have the potential to combat world hunger related to population growth.  Other projects, such as editing and deleting genetic information in crops using CRISPR-Cas9 technology, are making headway in an effort to produce crops that are less reliant on chemical pesticides and more adaptable to inhospitable growing conditions.

GMOs have the potential to help solve food production issues in the future, making a dent in the fight against global poverty. Yet it is important to recognize the reality of and work to address the downsides, as the introduction of GMO crops (large, industrialized yields) to a country’s economy could change local farming practices (smaller, local yields), may dominate their food markets, can harm the environment through the required pesticides and can result in large-scale monocultures.

– Bayley McComb

Photo: Flickr

Hunger_Africa

One of the major ways extreme poverty and hunger can be terminated is an increase in agricultural activity. Genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, could potentially be a part of solving the poverty challenge.

Food products with GMOs are genetically engineered to increase crop yields, lower costs for food production, reduce the need for pesticides, enhance nutrient composition and food quality, resist pests and disease and increase food security.

Technological advancement has also made it possible for GMOs to withstand environmental stressors, allowing them to grow in conditions where they may not otherwise be able to thrive.

Though there are risks and controversies surrounding the use of GMOs, they could play a role in creating a new green revolution in Africa. African governments and donors can initiate the use of GMOs in Africa, according to the Center for Global Development (CGD).

Primarily, governments in Africa can develop cost-effective regulatory policies for these organisms. The policies would cover developing, testing, commercializing and importing genetically modified crops—most areas. Clear strategies would reduce uncertainty for potential investors by ensuring breakthroughs that occur can be distributed to farmers.

African governments can also exchange experiences and information about GMOs among each other. A platform to share information would help governments make cost effective decisions and learn potential opportunities and risks associated with GMO traits under certain conditions.

Pursuing South-South cooperation on GMO trade and regulatory policies is another tactic African governments can execute. Though the European Union is the largest market for African agricultural exports, trade with emerging markets is growing at a much faster rate. Thus, African governments should coordinate with countries like Argentina, Brazil, India and China to develop regulations for trading GMOS.

Lastly, the CDG says that donors should provide technology-neutral support for research and development for food security. Donors should also build capacity to facilitate trade in GMOs. African countries need support for research on modified staple crops, which donors can provide. In addition, EU donors should also provide technical and financial support due to its role as a major market.

Genetic modification is just one of many technologies that can improve agricultural productivity in Africa and the investments required to implement them could improve agricultural productivity as a whole.

Kerri Whelan

Photo:  Flickr

africas_food_crisisGenetically modified organisms, or GMOs, are often touted as the solution to Africa’s food crisis. However, some argue that the solution has been there all along, in the form of native plants.

A 2010 study recently highlighted in Nature found that, in most cases, indigenous plants contained much higher concentrations of key nutrients, such as vitamins A and C, than non-native varieties. In the case of the native Moringa tree, its leaves pack three times more vitamin A than carrots and seven times more vitamin C than oranges.

While some modified non-native crops do contain much higher percentages of certain nutrients, such as the well-known “Golden Rice” which was created to combat vitamin A deficiency, the harsh climate in much of Africa makes growing non-native crops much more challenging. In addition to having considerable nutritional content, indigenous crops are hardier and faster growing than their exotic counterparts.

With predictions of global climate change causing weather patterns to become more erratic, with sudden rains and long periods of drought, native plants that have spent thousands of years adapting to Africa’s already intense climate could offer a much more reliable food source in the face of such dramatic changes. “Most of the traditional varieties are ready for harvest much faster than non-native crops, so they could be promising options if the rainy seasons become more erratic—one of the predicted outcomes of global warming,” wrote Cernansky, author of the Nature article.

Despite their advantages, native crops make up only a tiny fraction of total agricultural sales. In Kenya, native plants only account for roughly 6 percent of the market, despite the country seeing a 25 percent increase in the land area dedicated to native plants from 2011 to 2013. Much of the lag is due to poor or unreliable infrastructure restricting access to market opportunities. According to Lusike Wasilwa, assistant director of horticulture at Kenya Agriculture and Livestock Research Organisation, more research is needed to address the issues of production, storage and marketing of native plants.

While it is clear that native plants will not be able to solve Africa’s food crisis overnight, they may offer a cheap and elegant solution in the future.

Gina Lehner

Sources: SciDev.net, Mother Jones
Photo: SciDev.net

The Debate on GMOs in Nigeria

A small study conducted seven years ago showed that a majority of Nigerian scientists had low awareness about genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and their harmful effects. But today, with the help of the Internet and the explosion of social media in Nigeria, people are even more aware.

And with this awareness comes resentment and resistance.

By becoming educated about genetically modified plants, opponents have pointed out their damage to biodiversity. Native plants have become sparse compared to the genetically modified plants that seem to grow with ease.

Opponents have also raised the question over whether consuming genetically modified plants has negative health consequences.

Although Nigerian scientists and GMO supporters reassure that genetically modified food is safe for the consumer, the critics counter that developed countries do not consider GMOs to be safe. By taking into account that developed countries have even stronger risk assessment and regulatory systems, there are still many critics in Nigeria.

GMOs have been coined “the Monsanto Poison” in Nigeria because of the Monsanto Company’s role in Agent Orange. This herbicide was used during the Vietnam War by the United States and has had lasting effects on the health of veterans. Agent Orange was strategically used to deplete vegetation cover and as a way to force starvation on the population. This has caused Nigerians to have a generally negative view of GMOs.

However, there are still some scientists and proponents in Nigeria that would like to expand the use of genetically modified plants. By being able to modify the plants, scientists are able to better understand their biology and physiology.

Genetic engineering has also improved crops such as cotton, soybeans, tomatoes, coffee and bananas. Plants can also be modified to have a higher protein content and higher oil yield. This could all improve the nutrition of those that consume them.

Scientists in support of GMOs in Nigeria also note that GMO technology could be a solution to the challenges that face global food production. Climate change, population growth and competition for land have all affected how food is produced and its quantity.

The debate over the safety of genetically modified organisms has been developing for over 40 years. However, if this technology can be scientifically proven to be safe for consumers, GMOs could feed the world’s hungry. The approval of GMOs in Nigeria would not only be a huge success for science, but also for those in need of food.

GMOs could be the key to solving food shortages, but only time will tell if GMOs are deemed safe for consumers.

– Kerri Szulak

Sources: Genetic Literacy Project, Risk Science Center
Photo: biodiverseed

Genetically Engineered Bananas
Deficiency in Vitamin A causes preventable blindness and an increased chance of disease and death for children across the globe in developing countries. Approximately 250 million preschool-aged children are deficient in Vitamin A. Between 250,000 and 500,000 children become blind every year due to Vitamin A deficiencies and around half of these children die within a year after becoming blind.

Recently, scientists at Queensland University of Technology have been working on genetically engineering a banana that will help prevent deficiencies in Vitamin A.

Genetically modified foods are foods that do not occur naturally but, instead, are created by scientists altering their genetic material. Genetically modified foods have been used to increase food production by making plants larger or making them more resistant to disease. Genetically modified foods could be used to increase the amount of nutrients in food — such as with Vitamin A-concentrated bananas — decreasing food allergies or making foods easier to grow.

While recognizing the advantages to global health that genetically modified organisms (GMOs) would offer, many are worried about the possible negative side effects. Critics have noted the lack of research about future health issues that may arise due to the consumption of genetically modified foods. More research over time would be necessary for scientists to weigh their advantages and disadvantages.

These genetically engineered bananas have an increased level of beta-carotene in them. Beta-carotene is then converted to Vitamin A by the body after being ingested.

In the past few years, similar research has been done to create “golden rice”— rice with increased levels of beta-carotene. Critics have also been skeptical about the risks involved with this project.

If the bananas are effective in increasing Vitamin A levels, the scientists will work to begin distributing these genetically engineered bananas in Uganda by 2020 to begin decreasing the rates of Vitamin A deficiency-related diseases, blindness and death.

– Lily Tyson

Sources: The Guardian, HealthLine, PHG Foundation, WHO
Photo: Carnarvon