Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Ongoing GMO debate has little to do with health

Lukoye Atwoli
Sunday Nation 31 July 2011

Kenya, and the wider Horn of Africa region, is in the throes of a devastating famine, and millions of our people are at risk of starvation.

The truth is that we have proved unable to produce enough food to prevent cyclic famines and starvation deaths.

It is with this in mind that the government passed legislation allowing the importation of genetically modified maize for local consumption. Unfortunately, the resulting debate on genetically modified organisms (GMOs) has been less than illuminating.

There is a lot to be said about the environmental and economic impact of growing GMOs in a country like ours whose priorities do not include policing biotechnology to ensure the products are not harmful in a wider socio-economic sense.

However, if we keep in mind that the current debate centres on the importation of maize by millers for use as food and not seed, the whole problem necessarily collapses into a single issue — health.

The question we should be trying to answer is this: Are GMOs safe for human consumption?

Even more specifically, is the GM maize that has been given the green light for importation safe for our consumption?

To answer this question, we must turn, not to politicians or other social activists, but to scientists.

The global health authority is the World Health Organisation (WHO). The WHO is a largely conservative outfit, and is slow to accept new technologies as mainstream before a huge amount of evidence accumulates to confirm the health benefits.

When addressing the health effects of GMOs, the WHO isolated three main issues — tendencies to provoke allergic reaction (allergenicity), gene transfer (to human consumers or bacteria in the human gut) and outcrossing (mixing with non-GM crops).

The conclusions of an exhaustive review of the then available evidence were revealing.

On allergenicity: “No allergic effects have been found relative to GM foods currently on the market”.

On gene transfer: “Although the probability of transfer is low, the use of technology without antibiotic resistance genes has been encouraged by a recent FAO/WHO expert panel”.

On outcrossing: “Several countries have adopted strategies to reduce mixing, including a clear separation of the fields within which GM crops and conventional crops are grown”.

Of these three issues, only the first two have a direct bearing on the health of the consumer.

The evidence of harm due to both allergenicity and gene transfer is minuscule, compared to the many lives saved due to timely availability of food that has been engineered to maximise benefits to the consumer.

A scientist writing in the journal Nature Biotechnology in July 2003 observed that both conventional methods of breeding (read natural foods) and recombinant technology (read GMOs) can affect the expression of genes and raise questions about food safety.

He, however, concluded that “to date, no food-derived health problems have been identified with the use of GM plants”.

It is, therefore, absurd to get hysterical about the risks of GM foods when our own food stores are full of products of research and breeding — including the seeds we buy from Kenya Seed Company!

As long as the food and seeds are products of rigorous scientific testing, and have proven benefits to consumers, we should not let our people starve in furtherance of some ideological ideal of food purity.

Lukoye Atwoli is a consultant psychiatrist and lecturer at Moi University’s School of Medicine www.lukoyeatwoli.com

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