A cartoon of a gigantic tomato with a syringe and hypodermic needle beside it has become the go-to image for media when discussing biotechnology, creating an unceasing negative public opinion about the industry. Nevertheless, scientific efforts in Africa have been advancing, and may be the salvation for the ever-growing populations of the continent.
“People think that the technology is foreign, that monsters are trying to dump it in Africa, yet recently more African scientists have been working on developing it,” said Margaret Karembu, the director of ISAAA AfriCenter. “Every week there is a new development in the field,” she added.
According to the United Nations, 20 million people are on the brink of famine. Africa will be the home of half of the world’s population by 2025. While education around reproduction is a necessity, biotechnology might come into the picture at a critical point. Indeed, the COMESA is the only regional community that has a common policy on biotechnology and biosafety.
Karembu gives a brief explanation to what biotechnology and genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are to help unlock some myths around them.
The Science of Biotechnology
Biotechnology uses either living material or biological products to create new products for their use in various applications, with the ultimate goal to benefit humanity.
It is a broad field that can be categorized into three phases, namely ancient biotechnology that was characterized by domestication of plants; classical biotechnology that opened doors to fermentation and brewing; and modern biotechnology that involves the manipulation of genetic material and a combination of cells beyond normal breeding barriers.
Today, there are three main types of biotechnology, namely medical, agricultural and industrial biotechnology. All of these can use GMOs but for one reason or another, the term GMO has mostly been associated with agricultural biotechnology.
GMOs can be defined as organisms (i.e. plants, animals or microorganisms) in which the genetic material (DNA) has been altered in a way that does not occur naturally by mating and/or natural recombination. The technology is often called “modern biotechnology” or “gene technology”, sometimes also “recombinant DNA technology” or “genetic engineering”. It allows selected individual genes to be transferred from one organism into another, also between non-related species.
Karembu said that “there is no technology developed that doesn’t have both benefits and risks”. However, she asserted that thus far scientists have not found any link between illnesses and GMOs.
As of 2015, 28 countries planted approximately 180 million hectares of biotech crops. The following infographic shows details as to which countries these are and what crops they grow.
Biotechnology and the Environment
In agricultural biotechnology, GM crops have reduced the impacts of agriculture on biodiversity through enhanced adoption of conservation tillage practices, through reduction of pesticide use and through increasing yields to alleviate pressure to convert additional land into agricultural use. A global meta-analysis of 147 studies for the last 20 years reported that “on average GM technology adoption has reduced chemical pesticide use by 37%”. In 2014, biotech crops reduced CO2 emissions by 27 billion kilograms, equivalent to taking 12 million cars off the road for one year; and conserved biodiversity by saving 152 million hectares of land from 1996-2014.
Some environmentalists are concerned that biotech crops could hurt the environment. However, the fact is that current farming practices, including the use of pesticides and herbicides, could be harmful to the environment, and to human health—of farmers and consumers—as well. Biotech crops that are designed to be pest resistant will significantly reduce the use of pesticides, thus reducing the risk to the environment and to human health.
There are also concerns that biotech crops will lead to the evolution of “super bugs” and “killer weeds” as pests and weeds evolve or adapt to overcome the crop’s genetic modification. To this, we inform them that excessive and irresponsible use of existing pesticides and herbicides are responsible for the evolution of “super bugs” and “killer weeds.” Adaption of pests and diseases to resistance genes occur in both conventionally-bred and GM lines, but with compliance to resistance management, this phenomenon can be minimized.
The knowledge about this technology has not been shared; however, environmental NGOs oppose it. Karembu does not mind the criticism, but she wants people to argue from an informed position.
Karembu points out the small number of investments from African governments into the technology, but the Kenyan scientist remains optimistic. “The narrative in Africa is changing. It is not all doom and gloom.”
Food for thought.