By Dr Jack Aston
GM technology has benefitted farmers and hungry people in many advanced countries for over a decade now. The technology has been exhaustively, tested and proven safe, beyond doubt, in leading markets with sophisticated testing capabilities and rigorous registration legislation.
With over one billion hectares already harvested over the last few years and areas put down to GM modified crops expanding rapidly year by year it is difficult to see reasons for any negative approach to science.
Put bluntly, GM technology is a business, much like the development of crop protection products, and new conventionally bred crop varieties etc – it will service and prosper on acceptance and market demand.
Much of the worry about the safety of GM crops is based on a lack of understanding or knowledge of the status of genetic research findings. As a branch of science, genetics has, in recent years, revealed many, many secrets about life, inheritance and ability to use recent (i.e. in the last 25 years) findings to the benefit of mankind.
Advances in the discovery of the nature of genes cloning, stem cells and the genetic make-up of living matter (including ourselves) is beyond the understanding of nearly all of us, much in the way that modern medicine and communication technology leaves us all in a dark haze. Who among us can really understand how a plastic knee joint or a mobile telephone with a tiny magnetic chip that fits in the palm of a hand can speak to anyone in the world?
Most articles on GMO work make no reference to what a gene is or how they work. Genes, the building blotches of life are found in all living organisms. A single gene is, simply put, a line of joined protein molecules from four different proteins.
Advanced animals have very many thousands of genes, differing in the arrangements of the protein molecules in the chain. Each single gene has the capability to develop into a specific life character (i.e. eye colour). We share;
if research findings are to be believed 99% of our own genes with higher primates and that some plants have 30% of their own genes the same as ours.
Science can now identify individual genes and relate them to specific features. This is the basis of GMO technology. If a gene is removed from the chromosome it can be transformed to another organism. The gene will carry out its function in the new ‘home’ hence bringing benefit. In simple terms that is what is being done, with the ability to move across different species (transgenic). This represents a major or step forward in plant breeding which hitherto was only able to move genes within a single species.
Few understand that at conception we are all a mass of genes in chromosomes in a cell less than a size of a pinhead!
Now, GMO technology is applied in much the same way in medical genetics, the benefits will be incredible and are already starting to be seen and realized. Things can be achieved that will raise serious ethical issues but advances will bring help and possible cures to many inherited conditions. Cost could be a major limitation.
Having tried to explain a few important points in a simple way it remains to say that Africa has been losing out on these issues due to unfounded worries. Leading developed economies are benefitting despite environmental worries in Europe. This was well presented in an article a couple of weeks ago by JOHN LYNES – African needs GMO varieties that are both salt and drought tolerant, existing GMO varieties can also reduce crop losses caused by weeds and insects. Famine and hungry people need better help. Not that GM technology is the answer to these intractable problems, however they can help.
As a last word, GMO technology is progress – one thing is absolutely certain, it is here to stay, it will become accepted and those who are anti will slowly be seen as “doubting Thomases” and possibly even deliberate scaremongers.