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GMOs: Food for Thought

Chantel Arendse
Lead: Plant Biotechnology

Contrary to popular belief, farmers have been altering the genetics of organisms for 10 000 plus years while they domesticated plants and animals. The more traditional methods of crop improvement involved saving seeds from the best-looking plants for succeeding growing seasons and eventually selectively breeding the most desirable parents to produce offspring with superior characteristics. The limitations with traditional methods are that the exchange of genetic material allows both desirable and undesirable genetics to be transferred to offspring, and breeding is restricted to related species.

The inclusion of genetic modification in the plant breeding toolbox has led to the development and commercialisation of genetically modified (GM) crops. A GMO is an organism whose genetics have been altered by the transfer of selected individual genes from an unrelated  donor organism to introduce useful traits such as disease or pest resistance. Foods produced from or using GM organisms are often referred to as GM foods.

What about safety?

Within the GMO public discourse, food safety concerns almost always feature prominently. It is an emotional issue that stirs up lots of questions because of our close relationship with food as a source of nutrition for our health and wellbeing. While consumer scepticism lingers, here are some documented narratives on GMO health and safety that you need to know:

Since 1992, GMOs have been subjected to rigorous safety assessments by government regulatory agencies across the globe before being approved for food, feed, and cultivation. Regulatory assessments of GMOs involve evaluating potential risks posed to both human health and the environment. For GM food, this includes reviewing data on allergens, toxicity, nutritional composition and animal feeding studies. After overwhelming regulatory reviews, as well as consensus amongst independent scientists and global organisations, the bottom line is that GM foods are as safe as their non-GMO counterparts. This safety declaration has also been endorsed by the World Health Organization (WHO), the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), the International Seed Federation(ISF) and various other scientific associations.

Conventionally produced foods (with a historic record of safe use of consumption) are used as a comparator during GMO food safety assessments. From a health and safety perspective, there is no difference between GMOs and their non-GMO counterparts as various safety assessment studies have demonstrated equivalence on the basis of nutritional composition, allergenicity, toxicity or unintended health effects resulting from the introduced GM trait.

It is important to remember that GMOs are the most highly regulated and tested foods in the world. After more than 20+ years of GM food consumption by humans and animals, there has been no evidence of adverse health risks or food safety incidents due to GMOs.

Additional safety considerations and benefits

A recently published report looking at environmental impacts has shown that GM seed technology has helped farmers be more efficient with their application of crop protection products, contributing significantly to a reduction in environmental impact associated with insecticide and herbicide use on GM crops. This further supports the health and safety associated with GM crops, not only in terms of reduced pesticide exposure for farmers but also reduced pesticide residues for consumers.

PG Economics -“From 1996 to 2018, crop biotechnology reduced the application of crop protection products by 776 million kilograms, a global reduction of 8.6 percent. This is equal to more than 1.6 times China’s total crop protection product use each year. As a result, farmers who grow GM crops have reduced the environmental impact associated with their crop protection practices by 19 percent.’’

One of the many useful applications of genetic modification is biofortification – the process of improving the nutritional value and quality of staple food crops through modification. “Golden Rice” is the first case of genetically modified biofortification  – a GMO rice crop enhanced with vitamin A to help combat irreversible childhood blindness. Despite many years of testing and regulatory scrutiny, its approval for commercialisation was only recently granted in the Philippines. The arrival of golden rice paved the way for a new area of research to address global health challenges such as vitamin deficiency and micronutrient malnutrition in developing countries. Examples of research collaborations on GM  biofortification of crops in Africa include the BioCassava Plus Project focusing on increasing micronutrient deficiencies in cassava, the Banana21 initiative developing a GM cooking banana with increased micronutrients and vitamin A levels, and the Africa Biofortified Sorghum Project (ABS) developing sorghum varieties with improved vitamin A and micronutrient availability.

Biotech crops have an added food safety benefit that is often overlooked, namely reducing the levels of naturally occurring mycotoxins in crops.  How is this achieved? Studies have shown that reduced pest damage by insect resistant maize results in less penetration of the mycotoxin producing fungus  on maize plants, which in turn reduces mycotoxin contamination in field or in storage.

In Africa, where maize is an important staple food, high rates of mycotoxin exposure in addition to an already malnourished population spells bad news. The low rate of adoption of plant biotech by African countries means that the continent is yet to take advantage of the health and economic benefits relating to reduced mycotoxin contamination conferred by insect resistant maize.

Looking ahead

The next generation of plant breeding technologies has already arrived in the form of genome editing tools that enable precise, efficient and targeted changes to be made at the genomic level. This dynamic field of genome edited crop research has the potential to make an even greater contribution to agricultural food production by helping to improve crop yields, resistance to emerging pests and diseases, climate resilience, nutritional quality, agrobiodiversity and much, much more.

While modern breeding techniques are not a panacea for addressing the world’s food problems, its importance cannot be ignored in view of the growing world population and the challenge of having to produce enough food for everyone. Faced with additional threats from extreme climate change events such as extended droughts, flooding and severe storms, agricultural production needs to change its trajectory as traditional breeding methods alone cannot deliver on the scale and scope required.  It is therefore important to consider all available breeding tools that modern biotechnology offers and their potential to contribute to food security and sustainable agricultural development.


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