African Biotech Specialist Disputes Concerns Over Genetically Engineered Foods

Kristof Nordin
Tuesday, 7th August 2012

Genetically Modified Foods (GM) as a solution to food security issues has been a contentious topic in Western countries for many decades. Now the front line for the debate is to be found on the African continent. Here Kristof Nordin, a permaculture educator in Malawi, vigorously argues about the perils of relying on one major crop such as maize

At a recent conference on biotechnology held in Accra, Ghana, Professor Jonathan Padi Tetteh stated that GM foods pose no health risks to humans and called on the African continent to embrace this technology to solve food security problems.

Professor Tetteh is attached to the University of Cape Coast in Ghana and works in the field of biotechnology. The theme of the conference where his remarks were given was entitled: "The Impact of Biotechnology on Food Production".

The full transcript of the article may be found at the following:

A response from Africa

There are growing efforts throughout Africa - with recent calls for a 'Second Green Revolution' - to convince local farmers that genetic engineering is 'progress' and will have no detrimental impact on their livelihoods, societies, or ecosystems.  Professor Tetteh makes the argument that genetic engineering is the way forward for Africa because this is the way that 'developed' countries are doing it. "GM foods", he noted, "had been consumed in many countries including USA, Canada, Brazil, India and China for over 16 years without any reports of adverse effects."

Unfortunately, this is also the same argument that we very often hear being given to justify the high-input, chemically-based, industrialized agriculture that has swept over the African continent during the past 50-60 years. It is even given to justify some extremely detrimental practices such as the spraying of DDT to eradicate mosquitoes in an effort to lower the incident rates of malaria.

Despite this chemical now being outlawed in many countries due to the problems that arose from its use, we still find some African leaders and politicians repeating the familiar mantra, "But that's how other countries did it". There are valuable lessons that can be gathered in learning from - rather than in repeating - other people mistakes.

Despite that fact that there have been several credible studies done that have called into question the safety and environmental impacts of genetically engineering, what Professor Tetteh and other pro-GMO advocates are failing to recognize is the fact that we simply don't need genetic engineering to solve the world's food security problems - we just need to start using what we have. A 1997 FAO document states: "Current research has identified approximately 250,000 plant species out of an estimated 300,000-500,000 in existence. Of that, about 30,000 are edible, and of these about 7,000 plants and an additional 700 animal species have been used throughout the world's history as food. Today, however, only 3 plants (wheat, rice, and maize) provide more than half of the global plant-derived energy. If we add six more crops (sorghum, millet, potatoes, sweet potatoes, soya beans, and sugar (cane or beet)) we cover 75% of the world's energy. And, if we go a bit further, it is estimated that 95% of the world's energy now comes from only 30 crops. (FAO, 1997, 'State of the World Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture'; and, World Resources Institute, 2005, 'Millennium Ecosystem Assessment')"

As we have removed agriculture from the diverse cycles of nature, we find that we are actually creating many of the current problems that we are facing. Imbalance in natural systems leads the increased susceptibility to - and even the creation of - such problems as droughts, floods, pests, disease, and even malnutrition. When these imbalances have arisen, the modern trend has been to adapt the plants and animals to these new conditions rather than attempting to bring harmony back to the system. In other words, we seem to continually trying to change 'Mother Nature' rather than making adjustments to 'Human Nature.' The majority of the current genetic 'alterations' that we see being made can be grouped into three main categories: higher yields, pest or disease resistance, and nutritional modification. When one looks at the use of diversified and organic agricultural methods that mimic natural systems, we find that these 'alterations' are suddenly rendered unnecessary:

• Higher yields can easily be achieved when one compares the overall production of year-round mixed crop systems to the single-season monocropped methods that are currently being used. With this in mind we don't need to be genetically modifying (or even artificially hybridizing) plants for higher yields, we simply need to use the ones that we've always had available to us more wisely.

• Insects and diseases become naturally managed as the balance returns to the land and we begin to take advantage of the plants that have adapted over many years to their various predators. This eliminates the need for genetically modified "resistant" plants as well as the use of harmful chemicals.

• Growing and eating a wide variety of healthy plant foods on a year-round basis eliminates nutritional deficiencies. This takes away the need to genetically alter (or bio-fortify) single food crops to include all of the nutrients that a person should be receiving. Trying to meet all of our nutritional needs through the use of a limited handful of plants is not only unhealthy for us as humans, but also for the environment from which we receive our food.

My wife and I have been working in Malawi, Africa for the past 15 years on issues of sustainable food security, diversified nutrition, and non-GMO agriculture. We can positively attest to the resilience, sustainability, and seasonal abundance that have come about as a result of using polycultural and integrated agricultural systems. We currently have a list of over 600 foods in Malawi that are being overlooked and overshadowed by the growing of one crop - maize - and we have over 200 of these open-pollinated, natural, and non-GMO foods growing around our home, which gives us daily access to organic, local, seasonal, and extremely diversified nutrition. We, as a global community, need to start getting people like Professor Tetteh to focus their research efforts in the right direction. Researchers, farmers, and consumers all need to start learning about - while at the same time learning from - the sustainable and risk-free use of all our natural resources.

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