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Here to stay and redefine: The Brave New World of GMO

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The conventional breeding methods such as cross-breeding of plants have been altering the genetic structure of some organisms for centuries. However, biotechnology has made it possible for this and much more to be done in a lab, at a cellular level, and far more precisely. Over the past three decades, genetic modification has reached widespread application for business, nutrition, and health, yet it remains a controversial issue for many.

On 19 August 2020, UK based biotechnology company, Oxitec, announced a landmark agreement on its website that will see Oxitec release some 750 million genetically modified male mosquitoes in the Florida Keys, US, across 2021 and 2022. The reason for the release of the mosquitos is to counter the spread of the female Aedes aegypti mosquito, an invasive species that spreads dengue fever, Zika, chikungunya and yellow fever. The male of the species is relatively harmless, as it does not bite humans or other animals, living on fruit instead, while the female lives on a diet of fruit and human blood.

What Oxitec have done is create genetically modified male mosquitoes with a “self-limiting gene” that prevents possible female offspring from surviving once the genetically modified males mate with the wild females. Should the offspring be male, it will survive, but also carry a copy of the self-limiting gene, so that when it breeds, its female offspring will not survive. The goal is to suppress the mosquito population and the spread of disease by limiting the reproduction of females.

Closer to home, similar GMO (Genetically Modified Organism) based projects exist to kill off the mosquito population, which is responsible for the spread of Malaria. According to the World Health Organisation, annual malaria deaths stood at 405,000 in 2018, 94% of those in Africa.

The fight against mosquito-borne illnesses is but one of the ways in which GMO technology is being used to target societal and health challenges. As per the name, GMO literally refers to genetically modified organisms, across all various forms of life. This could refer to animals, plants, bacteria and viruses. For example, in the field of medicine, one of the most well-known uses of genetic modification comes in the form of insulin given to people with diabetes. While natural insulin could be taken from the pancreases of pigs or cattle, that insulin causes an adverse reaction in some people, and there might be ethical concerns from animal rights groups as well as some religious groups. Hence today, the overwhelming amount that life-saving insulin is genetically modified from bacteria and human DNA.

Perhaps the best known and most controversial examples of GMOs are the agricultural kind, in the form of GMO foods. As with other forms of genetic modification, even in food, this refers to a change or a tweak in the genetic code. Admittedly, conventional breeding methods such as cross-breeding of plants have been altering the genetic structure of some organisms for centuries. However, biotechnology has made it possible for this and much more to be done in a lab, at the cellular level, and far more precisely.

Today, the overwhelming majority of maize, soybeans and cotton grown across the world are genetically modified. In Africa, South Africa and Sudan got in early and are now leaders in GMO crops across the continent. South Africa started in 1997, with genetically modified cotton. According to the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA)’s annual GMO report for 2017, 85% of maize grown in South Africa is genetically modified, as well as 95% of the soybean crop, and 100% of cotton.

For farmers, besides the crop itself, there are three external factors that concern them when it comes to the yield: insects, weeds, and the weather. Much of the genetic modification is targeted at these. For example, in the case of maize, various genetic modifications include making the crop more resistant to insects, worm infestations, and even drought.

Additionally, proponents of GMO foods cite food insecurity, especially in developing countries as a key reason why more countries should adopt GMO agriculture.

“The United Nations Food & Agriculture Programme has noted that global production of food, feed and fibre will need approximately to double by 2050 to meet the demands of a growing global population. Organisations opposed to modern plant breeding, with Greenpeace at their lead, have repeatedly denied these facts and opposed biotechnological innovations in agriculture. They have misrepresented their risks, benefits, and impacts, and supported the criminal destruction of approved field trials and research projects. We urge Greenpeace and its supporters to re-examine the experience of farmers and consumers worldwide with crops and foods improved through biotechnology, recognise the findings of authoritative scientific bodies and regulatory agencies, and abandon their campaign against ‘GMOs’ in general and Golden Rice in particular.”

The above excerpt is from the opening lines of an open letter published in 2016, and initially signed by 129 Nobel Laureates, across the fields of Chemistry, Medicine, Physics, and Economics. Since then, the number of signatories has gone up 156, covering Nobel Laureates from 1962 to 2018.

In a follow-up paper to the above letter, published in 2018, and written by the initiator of the open letter, British biochemist, molecular biologist and 1993 recipient of the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine, Sir Richard John Roberts; he cites banana farming in Central and Eastern Africa as, “an interesting example of how GMO approaches might have significant economic and nutritional effects”. The paper highlights what is still an ongoing problem in many banana cultivating African countries, a disease called “Banana Xanthomonas wilt” (BXW) for which there is no known naturally resistant variety of banana available.

BXW effectively causes bananas to rot from the inside out. According to research published by the Plantwise Knowledge Bank: “The disease starts to attack the plant at the seedling stage. Initial symptoms of the disease on inset include the presence of bacterial ooze in the leaf petioles and leaf sheaths, excretion of a yellowish bacterial ooze, internal yellow discoloration of vascular bundles and progressive wilting and yellowing of the leaves from the top downwards. Eventually, the whole plant wilts, the leaves dry out and the plant dies.” The disease can cause losses up to 100%. Although it was first reported in Ethiopia back in 1968, spread beyond Ethiopia was not reported until 2001, when it was found in Uganda. Since then, it has spread relatively rapidly, to Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Tanzania and Burundi, threatening the livelihoods of millions of small banana farmers.

However, in his paper, Roberts states that: “Local scientists working at the National Agricultural Research Organization in Kenya noticed that the sweet pepper, which is widely grown and eaten, is resistant to the Xanthomonas bacterium. They found that two genes in the pepper are responsible for this resistance and so they isolated these two genes and moved them into banana plants. The results were spectacular. The bananas were now resistant to Xanthomonas wilt and had no obvious problems. This was a massive scientific breakthrough, but again because the new bananas were made by GMO methods, the anti-GMO activists have been trying very hard to stop its dissemination. However, it has been shown by bioinformatics analysis that these GM Bananas do not pose a risk of allergenicity or toxicity. However, recently a bill was passed in the Ugandan Parliament that set out the regulations that would be necessary to grow this new Xanthomonas wilt-resistant banana. This has not yet been signed into law by the President, but it is very much hoped, especially by the farmers in Uganda, that it soon will be.”

The overwhelming body of research has led to consensus in the scientific community, that GMO foods are not any more harmful than conventionally bred plants, with some going as far as saying they could be potentially healthier due to the reduction of dependence on chemicals and pesticides.

“All serious scientific studies; ie those published in prestigious journals, show that the plant varieties prepared by GM methods are not more dangerous than those available by traditional breeding techniques. If anything, the GMO varieties are likely to be safer than traditionally bred varieties because they are subject to many more controls. Traditional methods are not precise in the way that the GM method is,” states Roberts is his paper.

However, anti-GMO activists, such as Greenpeace, state numerous reasons for their opposition to GM crops. One such being the potential corporate takeover of farming by big business, as illustrated by this quote from an article published by Greenpeace in October 2019, in opposition to growing GMO cotton in Kenya: “The push for GMO crops represent a corporate takeover of our food system. GMOs block the real solutions coming from sustainable farming that are addressing the impacts of climate change being felt by farmers and people all over the world.

“While it is important to revive the textile industry in Kenya,  KALRO and other government agencies should look at encouraging farmers in Kenya to grow conventional cotton varieties that use organic and sustainable ways of controlling bollworms.”

The field of genetic modification is still very much in its early stages. There is no denying the overwhelming body of research that supports GMO crops for both economic and health reasons. Scientific research has repeatedly found GMO crops to be no less healthy or any more harmful than regular crops. However, with regards to potential for monopolistic practices, much remains to be seen.

An article published by Devex, a development and aid worker media platform, highlights Greenpeace and Fairtrade International as the main bodies that are opposed to GMO crops, stating: “According to Juliet Perry, from Greenpeace’s Asia Pacific Communications Hub, the promotion of GMO crops represents a corporate takeover of food systems with six corporations — Monsanto, DuPont, Dow, Syngenta, Bayer, and BASF — now controlling 75% of the world pesticides market, 63% of the commercial seed market, and more than 75% of all private sector research into seeds and pesticides. GE [genetically engineered] crops are used as a lure to make farmers dependent on buying seeds and agrochemicals every year from big corporations that market them as wonder crops. The reality is vastly different, but once hooked, farmers lose control of the seeds they once used and are unable to continue using ecological pest management. Instead, farmers have no choice but to buy the full package of pesticides that need to be used with the GE seeds to ensure they perform.”

While the science may be on the side of GMOs, at this relatively early stage of biotechnology, the cost of development and regulations does favour big corporations. For example, according to information published by the website, which is funded by some of the biggest players in the GMO seed economy, such as Syngenta, BASF, and Bayer (which acquired Monsanto in 2018), it takes some 13 years and a $130-million in research and development before a single GMO product can make it to market, and the regulatory process can take between five to seven years. The time and money invested in that alone greatly reduces the opportunity for smaller companies to get involved, resulting in a handful of companies owning the seeds and pesticides market. As reported by the Washington Post, the 2018 merger of Monsanto and Bayer in particular, combining Bayer’s pesticide business with Monsanto’s GMO portfolio, makes Bayer the “largest seed and agrochemical company on earth”.

It also doesn’t help their cause nor endear them to the public, that in the past, companies like Monsanto and their products, have been at the centre of controversial lawsuits. One of the most recent examples being RoundUp, a weedkiller which contains glyphosate, a chemical first patented by Monsanto, until the patent expired in 2000, and now used by numerous companies. In their assessment of glyphosate, the France based International Agency for Research on Cancers (IARC), ranked glyphosate as a “Group 2a carcinogen, a substance that probably causes cancer in people,” as reported by This has led to numerous lawsuits in the US against Monsanto. RoundUp remains a best seller for Bayer, especially for GMO farmers using the company’s seeds, which are modified to be resistant to the weedkiller.

Then there are the questions of what we don’t yet know about the environmental impact of long-term GMO farming. A study published in 2016, studying the correlation between GMO farming and pesticide use between 1998 and 2011 in the US, found that: “Over the period 1998–2011, our results show that GE variety adoption reduced both herbicide and insecticide use in maize, while increasing herbicide use in soybean.” That is to say that when it comes to maize, the engineered seeds reduced the amount of herbicide chemicals used over the period, but with regards to soybeans, the modified seeds built up tolerance, and resulted in increased use of the chemicals.

The field of genetic modification is still very much in its early stages. There is no denying the overwhelming body of research that supports GMO crops for both economic and health reasons. Scientific research has repeatedly found GMO crops to be no less healthy or any more harmful than regular crops. However, with regards to potential for monopolistic practices, much remains to be seen.

According to Roberts, the vilification of GMO plants stems directly from this campaign against the potential takeover of agriculture by big business, rather than legitimate scientific concerns about the safety and toxicity of GMO foods. Writes Roberts: “When Monsanto first tried to introduce GM crops into Europe, the Europeans became afraid that Monsanto and other big US agricultural companies were trying to take over their food supply. However, they could not ban Monsanto because most of the seeds grown in Europe came from Monsanto and had been produced by traditional methods. They decided therefore, to launch a campaign against GMOs by claiming they were dangerous and in this way, they could link GMOs with big agribusiness. This was wildly successful.

“They were able to raise visions of ‘Frankenfoods’ and other scary scenarios, which caused many people to become frightened by the term GMO. This turned out to be the best fundraising campaign that Greenpeace ever had. This was a campaign based on fantasy. It ignored the science available at the time and has continued to ignore the science to this day, even though we now know that GMOs pose no unusual risks. Greenpeace continues to ignore the science, ignore the potential benefits from this technology and is still trying to spread the word everywhere about the dangers of GMOs. This has been successful to a point where even now, when there is so much scientific evidence showing that GMOs are safe, that fundraising opportunities continue to overwhelm the science.” DM/ML


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • John Strydom says:

    Fascinating and balanced article, thank you!

  • Andrew Swart says:

    I valued reading Malibongwe’s article on GMO. However, there are several important omissions:

    1. Glyphosate apparently does not only kill weeds, but eliminates many bacteria in the soil, including healthy bacteria which humans / other animals need to eat for the health of their microbiomes.
    2. Apparently humans have about tenfold more symbiotic bacteria in our bodies than we have human body cells. What will the long-term effects be on health of not eating organically or bio-dynamically farmed food?
    3. There are claims that genetically modified maize is linked to a significant increase in leaky-gut syndrome. The insecticide apparently destroys the lining of insect digestive systems.
    4. He mentions genetic modification through selective breeding and cross pollination, which takes longer, giving other organisms time to adapt through mutation.
    There are claims that Monsanto sued peasant farmers in India and Mexico for planting their own hybrid GMO seeds and breaking their contracts with Monsanto. The farmers could not pay for their legal defense and had their farms taken over in compensation. Is this just anti- pharmacy propaganda, or is it unethical business practice?
    5. How much of the research was funded independently from “big pharma” ?

  • Bruce Danckwerts says:

    Thank you for bringing up this subject again. It is one that we still need to resolve. I feel the trouble with this debate is that (as is so often the case) we throw the baby out with the bathwater. There is absolutely nothing wrong with Golden Rice. The scientists that developed it made it open source, so that it could not be monopolized by Big Business, and it would definitely improve the nutrition of millions of people. The Banana story is similarly beneficial – and there are others. On the other hand, “Roundup Ready” Maize and Soyas encouraged farmers to use more Glyphosate which isn’t good for the Environment and was a bad policy as those farmers now face a massive challenge from Glyphosate resistant weeds. Our mistake is to tar all GM Organisms with the same brush. Some are definitely beneficial, almost essential to our futures; the benefits of others are still uncertain and “more research is needed” and some (like those that encourage more use of herbicides) are downright dangerous. Life is nuanced and this debate should match that complexity. Bruce Danckwerts, CHOMA, Zambia


    This article ignores the effect of pesticide-resistant plants on our human gut biome. Pesticides like Glyphosate play havoc with our gut biome, along with antibiotics, they weaken our immune systems and interrupt our digestion.

  • Bright Eyes says:

    The author should familiarise himself with the findings of the 2020 white paper titled “Failing Africa’s Farmers: An Impact Assessment of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa” Readers can download the report here

    “The study also shows that AGRA in fact harms small-scale food producers, for example by subjecting them to high levels of debt. In Zambia and Tanzania, small-scale food producers were unable to repay the loans for fertilizer and hybrid seeds after the first harvest. AGRA projects also restrict the freedom of choice for small-scale food producers to decide for themselves what they want to grow. This has dramatic effects on crop diversity. AGRA’s focus is on the one-sided cultivation of maize. Traditional climate-resistant and nutrient-rich crops have thus declined. According to the study, millet production fell by 24 percent in the 13 AGRA focus countries from 2006 to 2018. Moreover, AGRA lobbies governments on behalf of agricultural corporations to pass legislation that will benefit fertilizer producers and seed companies instead of strengthening small-scale food production and alternative structures. Indeed, it is being courted by governments worldwide for precisely this service.
    When reviewing the impact of AGRA (Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa) mostly funded by Bill & Melinda gates foundations that subsidizes and distrubutes GM crops and agrichemicals around the continent, the study found that: “There is no evidence AGRA is reaching a significant number of smallholder farmers. Productivity has increased just 29% over 12 years for maize, the most subsidized and supported crop. This falls well short of doubling yields, which would be a 100% increase. Overall staple crop yields have grown only 18% over 12 years. Meanwhile, undernourishment (as measured by the FAO) has increased 30% in AGRA countries. These poor indicators of performance suggest that AGRA and its funders should change course. We review more promising approaches African governments and donors should consider.”

    Building our soil is the most important aspect of food security for the future – something that the chemical reliant GM crops obliterate. The soil is killed with GM farming and its heavy reliance on toxic chemicals. So toxic, application needs to be done in what resembles full space suits. Readers and the author shoul refer to the book Silent Spring – in which our agricultural practices kill the ecosystems that sustain us – resulting in a world without birds, insects etc. We are almost there already.

    Also – many of the qualities marketeers find very attractive are unhealthy… fruit and vegetables that do not bruise or blemish have had essential enzymes removed. Humans NEED enzymes in their systems to help them digest their food – these enzymes should come from the produce we consume – but our produce is pretty much dead like the soil. Look at how many new products their are in the health stores promoting digestive enzymes and gut bacteria. WHY???? This should come from our food – but our food has been so tampered with and nuked that we all have digestive issues and need to rely on supplements to help us with our basic biological functions… I guess this is great for the biotech firms because they are also BIG pharma – and then sell us medication for the ailments we develop from our food.

    Retailers and farmers should investigate local indigenous crops that are adapted to various climates and regions and popularise those with their consumers… We have African superfoods growing across the country that thrive in our environment and are nutrient rich. We can build our own local food industry on these naturally drought resistant crops that do not require heavy inputs. We do not need Western crop varieties to continue standardizing and limiting our food basket… Bring back cultural foods… Most African consumers have no access to the foods they ate growing up – these are the foods that grow easily right here. Retailers – get on it!

    We do not need BIOTECH to save us with smart agriculture that automates farming, putting millions out of work to produce toxic modified food that is nutritionally inferior due to how the soil is nuked and nutrients leached. We do not need subsidized farmers in debt with expensive inputs, reliant on international BIOTECH companies to every year to buy sterile seed and use their chemicals on a few commercial farms. Seed should be able to be saved and propogated. That’s how farmers make more money and profit – the way they used to do before BIOTECH tampered with our seed.
    We only have 60 years left of fertile top soil capable of feeding the world. We need to build the soil, and for our tattered economy, broken food system, and impoverished communities we need 2 million small scale farmers working right now to do just that.

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