GMO concerns are just fear of the unknown

By Diana Bauza and Imrah Mokango

“A lie often told becomes the truth. The intention behind the Food Evolution film is to change public opinion. If we accept GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms) on bananas, it will not stop on only bananas, it will go on round nuts, apples, apricots seeds and yet these are sources of Vitamin B17 which is an anti-cancer agent in these foods. This means we are going to make people suffer from cancer for the next 10 years. You are granting this bill [The National Biotechnology and Biosafety Bill 2012] which paves way for the cultivation and marketing of GM crops in Uganda but after 20 years, you are going to make our sons and great grandchildren to suffer from consequences. It is good to make money but we shall also spend that money in hospitals. By welcoming GMOs, we are going to deny Uganda a chance to produce its own seeds. We are going to bring in an industry for food supplements that I presume will be from the US and thus risk our health.”

“I have no problem having genetically modified bananas, but my biggest worry is, is there market to export our products? The US that is encouraging us to use these products does not allow us to access their markets. Can they assure us that if we produce GMOs, ready markets will be there?”

“Our ancestors in Mbarara used to plant bananas for generations but there was no case of such diseases like the banana bacterial wilt, where did these pests and diseases come from? All I know is that GMOs have side effects on the soil, and the environment; why aren’t you investigating the other side of the story?”

“When communicating about GMOs, the word science is used often. Science is right but scientists make mistakes. Manufacturers call back cars all the time if there is a problem but there will not be time to call back a human being once his or her life is lost. You need to tell people the truth. Like what was said in the film that whatever food we have been eating has been genetically modified by nature overtime. We can trust nature’s system but if I am going to trust some guy out there and his test-tube and after a few years from now, his son comes on TV to inform us that Daddy made a mistake, we cannot live with that.”

“In physics, Newton’s third law states that for every action, there is a reaction in opposite. Yes, you have genetically modified crops. In science, it is said that a man came from a monkey. While we do not look like monkeys, it has been scientifically proven that we came from monkeys. I have had a chance to travel to the US; most of their food stuff is genetically modified and totally tasteless. So, at what cost shall we accept the GMOs? Are we losing taste? Are we getting sickness? So, at what cost shall we accept them because for every action, there is an opposite reaction.”

These are some of the concerns that were expressed by the audience which included science lovers, farmers, science students, journalists comedians and business people after watching the ‘Food Evolution’ film at Century Cinemax at Acacia Mall recently.

The Food Evolution film is a documentary where filmmaker Scott Hamilton Kennedy examines solutions to the controversies around GMOs. In the film, he shows how people can make decisions based on fear rather than facts. He offers a debate on GMOs interviewing experts on both side of the GMO issue including scientists who answer claims that GMOs are not safe for both the consumers and the environment, and protestors who are genuinely concerned for themselves, their families and the environment. In the end, the film presents evidence in favor of the safety of GMOs while depicting that the real harm in the controversy surrounding GMOs could be in the spread of misinformation and fear of the unknown.

According to World Health Organization (WHO), genetically modified organisms (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’. Foods produced from or using GM organisms are often referred to as GM foods.

The process of producing GMOs involves generating and testing genetically engineered organisms in the laboratory for desired qualities. The most common modification is to add one or more genes to an organism’s genome. Less commonly, genes are removed or their expression is increased or silenced or the number of copies of a gene is increased or decreased.

Once satisfactory strains are produced, the producer applies for regulatory approval to field-test them, called a field release. Field testing involves cultivating the plants on farm fields or growing animals in a controlled environment. If these field tests are successful, the producer applies for regulatory approval to grow and market the crop. Once approved, specimens (seeds, cuttings, breeding pairse.t.c) are cultivated and sold to farmers. The farmers cultivate and market the new strain.

Responding to the concerns of those that had been dissatisfied by the film on the studies of GMOs, Scott Hamilton Kennedy gave an example of Uganda’s biggest export which is coffee. He related this with someone reading online that Uganda’s coffee causes cancer. “Shouldone just believe that? It could be true or it could not, how would one know? That is the same with GMOs,”he said. “There are a lot of concerns on its side effects – is it going to happen tomorrow or is it going to happen later on?”

While there is a lot of misleading information online, he gave his assurance that the GMOs on the current market have been studied more than any other products in supermarkets.

Clet Wandui Masiga, a bio-scientist correlated this by saying that the production of GMOs is regulated throughout the whole process.

“When someone is applying to produce GMOs, scientists, regulators, chemists, all of them including the biotechnologists know the science and they can prove what you are saying is wrong or is right. Once your application does not satisfy them from application day one, you will not go beyond that. So, once it is approved that the gene you are going to use is safe for consumption and the environment then you will go beyond the application to research to next the stage of field testing and if it is successful, then one can cultivate and market the product. So when you talk of quality, what comes out is fit for human consumption and the environment.”

As a way to combat the issue of fear of the unknown, Dr. Emma Naluyima, an agriculturalist disclosed that GMOs is not the only issue under biotechnology, vaccines are also under biotechnology, and artificial insemination is also under biotechnology among others.

“When you are born on day one, you are given vaccines until day 5. This is acceptance of biotechnology,” she said.

Naluyima argued that when the public ask the Parliamentarians not to pass the national biotechnology and biosafety bill, it is going against biotechnology which covers all the above issues.

Professor Ogenga Latigo, a Member of Parliament and champion of biotechnologies supported Naluyima’s statement by saying: “If there is not any human who was cloned, then all people are genetically modified. To form a baby, it requires getting a gene from a man and a woman and putting them together.”

In order to explain this better, the best example he gave of this where genetic modification would be more evident is when a white man marries a black woman; the child they will produce is a genetically modified child.

“So, when you talk of GMOs, do not think it is a chemical. This is something we do every day. This is the command of God. GMOs mean getting one gene from one place and putting it in another. Each one of us has hundreds of thousands of genes involved in our lives. A chimpanzee, me and you, we share 99% of our genes,” Prof. Latigo said.

In the past, he disclosed: “You could get a nice maize plant growing next to your maize and then they would cross naturally and you get maize with multi-colored seeds and now, you can just pick a gene of that color. You do not have to bring the whole maize and put it in the maize that you want and you get the color.”

Speaking of cancer, he said that genetic mutation can take place even without biotechnology. “Naturally all genes break and become something else. When it is bad, it becomes cancer even without biotechnology,” he said.

“I know that the public wants us to supply it with a technique that is more precise and that gives them the results they desire so quickly rather than GMOs but when you talk about bananas, you cannot cross it but if you are lucky and you find a banana that is resistant, then this is where science comes in. This is not about GMOs. This is about science; how we can utilize what God created to meet our needs,” Prof. Latigo added.

He further explained the use of GMOs by revealing that in South Africa, there is a natural plant called the recreation plant. “That plant, when the drought comes, it dries and when it rains, when you go there, the next day or two days later, it is green. Now, scientists are struggling to pick the gene from that plant, put it in the maize so that when drought gets your maize, it will dry and when it rains, it will be green again. I want to ask any of you, if that maize came, how many of you will go against it?”

Latigo said that all the concerns are just fear of the unknown, but if the intention is understood and the process is understood then science does not matter because “you would have understood the intention and you would have understood the process and therefore acceptability would become logical.”

According to MP Innocent Kasiime Pentagon, professional nutritionist from Kyankwanzi as well as chairman parliamentary forum on Nutrition, there is no need to fear GMOs because these are changes, and innovations that happen in our everyday lives.

“I know that something new brings a lot of anxiety. Anxiety is fear of unknown and indeed one may remember that the first time they made a plane, there was a lot of fear and even a vehicle, people feared it. Look at the first phone that was hard to press to today’s smart phones where one just needs to touch the screen and swipe away. We need to accept that changes happen.”

As a professional nutritionist, he revealed that GMOs are safe and already here in Uganda but not from our food trials but from elsewhere due to porous borders.

“GMOs are not only in crops, we have GMOs in terms of vaccines, we also have insulin treatment for diabetes. As Uganda, we are already applying GMOs but we need a law to regulate this kind of behavior,” he said. “So, the next time you hear that parliament is dealing with something, feel free to come and give in your view. As an individual, you can just write to the clerk or Speaker of Parliament or committee chairperson and I can assure you, you will be invited as an individual, a group or a community so that you give your views.”

Scott, who made the film Food Evolution Filmmaker said: “I didn’t make this film to save GMOs or to benefit the GMO industry. I made this film to talk about how we can use science to make decisions from parents to politicians.”

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