Monday, November 26, 2012

Blanket ban on GM food imports overlooked benefits of science

The recent Cabinet ban on the importation of GM foods citing health risks was unfortunate.

It was clear proof that we are still sceptical about the role of science in economic growth.

I fully support the Cabinet’s concern on the rising cases of cancer. However, this should be investigated holistically without pointing fingers at GM foods.

It should be noted that genetic modification, which is the application of scientific knowledge to transfer beneficial genetic traits from one species to another to obtain desired results, is not alien science.

This technology was first accomplished in 1973 and soon found commercial applications in medicine.

In 1982 the Food and Drug Administration of the US approved the use of human insulin produced by a genetically engineered bacterium.

Genetically modified animal vaccine came next, followed by genetically modified agricultural crops, first approved for commercial use in 1996.

Approximately one-quarter of all the drugs coming into the market today are produced using GMOs and the boom in GM medical drugs is likely to continue.

No one has raised a voice against GM drugs even in cases where there is clear evidence, developed from clinical trials, of extreme side effects.

For example, zevalin, a popular GM drug for non-Hodgkin lymphoma, can cause severely reduced white blood cell count resulting in both gastrointestinal and respiratory complications.

This is a clear indication that the opposition meted on GMs foods is not all about the technology. We should not apply double standards.

The development of a GM crop normally requires at least 10 years, during which rigorous laboratory and field trials are done.

Feeding trials are then done with animals. The scientific methods used to develop GM products assure safety.

In fact, there are reports that in the case of maize, the consumer health risk is decreased when eating food from GM varieties.

Modern crop biotechnology has the potential to improve use of scarce land, improve crop yield, enhance nutritional value of some food crops and most importantly minimise the use of pesticides, insecticides and herbicides.

Yet, despite this immense potential, genetic modification is still widely misunderstood and is a victim of premeditated smear and scare campaigns.

As a country, we stand to gain a lot in terms of food productivity if we adopt GM technology, hence it is paramount that we make decisions based on proven facts; we should not reject this technology out of ignorance.

KWAME OGERO, Nairobi

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