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What they do not tell you about Genetic Modification (1)

Nature has always served man. It will continue to do so until the end of time. Man’s duty to ensure the continuity is by maintaining…

Nature has always served man. It will continue to do so until the end of time. Man’s duty to ensure the continuity is by maintaining balance, as much as possible, in its vegetation and fauna, and, perhaps more importantly, in the sustainable use of its resources. These resources aren’t infinite; biological resources are even more precarious, for they can be extinct from our misuse and abuse. All the animals, produce and grains known to man have been naturally endowed; although man, through the years, in an effort to improve quality and yield, has crossed, back-crossed, inseminated, and grafted all different types of organisms, he didn’t create them ab initio. 
Conventional breeding, farming and husbandry have been practiced for millennia, and have given us all the food and animal varieties we now enjoy. These varieties arose from mixing of the genetic materials of the plants and animals through breeding processes; so strictly speaking, even the conventional breeding practice of crossing various types of strains of grains or animals involved genetic modification, although through naturally compatible processes. In instances, where the resultant plant or animal is severely abnormal, nature has a way of controlling their spread, as in a mule and hinny, it renders them sterile and can’t reproduce, because of the abnormality of their chromosome sets. This natural selective process of rendering abnormal varieties from spreading is a safeguard, where such varieties might be harmful. The conventional breeding process works; although it has enabled humanity to generate variety of plants and animals over thousands of years, it has two major drawbacks: it isn’t precise; it is random and requires years of trials to yield the desired traits. It is to remedy these drawbacks that scientists employed genetic engineering to help nature along, by putting genes of all sorts into other organisms in ways nature didn’t envisage.
Genetic engineering is a biochemical technique for speeding up the process, amongst other things, for obtaining desired traits in plants and animals. The genetic engineer is able to take genetic materials from any source, including animals, viruses and bacteria, to insert them into plants and animals, regardless of the species compatibility, to facilitate obtaining desired traits. The resulting transformed plant or animal, obtained through such direct genetic manipulation are transgenic, and are referred to as genetically modified organisms (GMO). This process, unlike conventional breeding is very precise, in that it shortens the time it takes to obtain desired traits by several years. However, it isn’t perfect, as the engineer doesn’t always have control in where the genetic materials he introduced are inserted. This precision and the short time it takes to accomplish it, is part of the reasons GMO can be dangerous, as the consequences of the random insertion to the overall physiology of the organism can’t be foreseen. Genes don’t act in isolation; they interact in numerous ways with other genes, in cis or trans, with consequences to the organisms. Those who claim that genetically modified organisms are just like conventionally produced organisms, since both involved genetic modification, are ignorant of the way genes are expressed. Firstly, in conventional breeding, the genetic alteration is at chromosomal level, where whole chromosomes are exchanged between the species; while in genetically engineered organisms, the modification is at molecular level, involving fragments of genes, or DNA (Deoxyribonucleic acids) sequences completely out of context with the genome of the modified host. Secondly, you can insert viral or bacterial genes into a host organism through genetic engineering; you cannot do that through conventional breeding; the latter only works when the exchange is between closely related organisms, and the former in violation of the inter-species genetic barrier. Clearly, modern genetic modification, as opposed to conventional breeding, alters nature of organisms, plants and animals, in ways unpredictable and with unknown consequences. Furthermore, what cannot be foreseen, following genetically engineered modification, also includes the implication of the transgenic food to human health. This is why most countries, including those that pioneered the process of genetic modification, are very cautious in adopting transgenic food for human consumption.
Nevertheless, it is important to highlight that molecular genetic modification are of two types: one type uses exogenous non-species genetic material, say a bacterial or viral gene, in a plant or animal; the other uses endogenous genetic material. The former usually is used to confer traits the modified host doesn’t naturally possess, while the latter is used to remove or enhance traits the host already possesses. The latter genetic modification poses no risks to the organisms or humans, since it is not addition of function, while the former is addition of function and genetic materials. This technical distinction is not usually clear to lay persons, but it is at the heart of the debate for assessing the risks posed to society in the use of genetically modified organisms. Clearly, not all genetically modified organisms are the same; this is why in debating what to allow or disallow, each modified organism must be examined on the merit and demerit for its use and consumption.
 There is a lot of confusion about the essential validity of concerns about genetically modified foods; the general public is being deceived that there really is no difference between genetically modified foods and those conventionally produced; this distortion was being peddled, here in Nigeria even by former minister of Agriculture, Mr Adesina, who is now president of the African Development Bank, and most recently, by the current Director-General of the National Biosafety Agency, Mr Rufus. Neither of these men is a molecular biologist, so they know nothing about which they speak. So, what clear and present danger does the adoption of GMO poses to the society? There are at least three clear dangers: (1) Threat to local seed and crop varieties; (2) Threat to biodiversity and human health; (3) Economic threat to farmers and national food security. The first and third threats are related, and overlap. Let us delineate what separates the protagonists of genetically modified organisms, and the antagonists.
Dr. Az-Zubair is a lecturer in Molecular Bioology & Microbiology, at Cambridge University, UK
 

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