A global vote for GMO

The right to food in a changing world through modern biotechnology and the role of biosafety

By Edel-Quinn Agbaegbu

Just like any food, genetically modified or other novel foods are complex mixtures of thousands of different substances in varying proportions. With trusted and conventional foods that have been eaten for generations there is little concern. They are considered safe based on experience, not necessarily based on scientific proof. GM food is vitally important to ensure global food security in the face of changing climate.  Ironically, virtually all our food crops have been genetically modified in some ways as humans have been manipulating the genes of crops for millennia by selective breeding. Breeders hand-pollinate blossoms in hope that they would give a desired result.

The truth is that GMOs have been studied intensively to understand that they work is a lot more prosaic than the hype contends and the technique does differ from the traditional plant breeding. In order to minimize the possibility of harmful and unforeseen effects, genetically modified plants and derived foods are subjected to thorough analyses. Nutritional value and vitamin content are measured along with levels of toxins that occur naturally in some foods. An increase in toxin content to unsafe levels is not permissible. If any other measurements are different from the plant’s conventional counterpart, it would suggest that problematic and unintended effects could exist. The health consequences of such differences would need to be thoroughly investigated.

The worldwide scientific consensus on the safety of genetic engineering is as solid as that which underpins human-caused global warming. Yet this inconvenient truth on GMOs that they’re as safe as conventionally cultivated food is ignored when ideological interests are threatened.  The European Commission’s anti-GM policies for instance prohibit the growing GMO-crops within all or part of their territories. A total of 19 EU countries initially decided to ban the cultivation of GMOs, even if they are already authorized to be grown within the union.

These countries include; Austria, Belgium for the Wallonia region, Britain for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Denmark, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, the Netherlands, Poland and Slovenia. The continent seemingly is shutting up shops for an entire field of human scientific and technological endeavor.

This is analogous to America’s declaring an automobile boycott in 1910, or Europe’s prohibiting the printing press in the 15th century. The historic irony is that Europe once led in biotechnology. In 1983, Marc Van Montagu and Jeff Schell at the University of Ghent in Belgium introduced the world to modern plant genetic engineering. Today, however, no rational young scientist interested in molecular techniques of crop breeding would choose a base in continental Europe. After all, no one would spend years developing genetically modified crops in the knowledge that they will most likely be outlawed by government fiat.

A vote for GMO
A vote for GMO

Fortunately, indications are that this phobia and its chilling effect on biotech science in Europe will end dramatically. Lately, despite a majority of the European Union officially saying “NO” to growing genetically modified crops (GMOs) within their territories, the latest move from the European Parliament’s environment committee (Environment MEP) will likely leave the door open for the controversial products to continue entering the EU through imports.

According to Reuters, “more than 60 GM crops are approved for import into the bloc, although you won’t see a lot of GMO-food products in the EU”. A substantial portion of the EU’s animal feed are genetically modified crops from North and South America. “Around 30 million tons of grain are imported per year from third countries, including 13 million tons of soybeans, 22 million tons of soymeal, 2.5 million tons of maize, 2 million tons of oilseed rape and 0.1 million tons of cotton,” says EuropaBio.

A 2011 survey estimated that European farmers’ failure to adopt GM crops had resulted in lost revenue of between 500 million and one billion euros per year. A former British environment minister complained that Europe was becoming a “museum of world farming.” Although, GMO is not the only answer to global food security and it is not essential but it is certainly one good thing in our arsenal.

GMOs must receive authorisation before they enter the market (Bild vergrößern). This applies to GMOs used in food and feed and to seeds for GM crops. The authorisation process is carried out by the EU, and the resulting decision applies to all EU member states. According to laws that apply to all EU member states, a GM food can only be allowed onto the market if it can be documented using scientific data that it is just as safe and healthy as a comparable conventional product. The essential foundations of the EU’s policies are tight safety standards and freedom of choice for consumers and farmers. For novel or genetically modified foods, proving safety is a legal obligation. Foods made from GMOs must be considered safe; otherwise they wouldn’t have received authorisation.

Following a comprehensive decision making process, the EU and the Member States are of the opinion that using genetic engineering in agriculture and food production is permissible. Additional applications are still awaiting decisions. On September 16, 2016, the European commission authorised GMOs for food and feed use. The commission authorised the placing in the market of products containing, consisting of or produced from GM maize and many more subsequent authorisations.

A global vote for GMO
A global vote for GMO

In Western Australia also, new act lifts Moratorium on GM crop planting. The parliament has repealed the GM crops Free Areas Act 2003 which imposed a moratorium on the commercial cultivation of GM crops in the country. The repeal of this act gives growers certainty that not only will they be able to use the existing GM technologies, but they will also have access to future advancements in plant biotechnology that could improve their productivity and sustainability.

With the increasing number of genetically modified (GM) events, traits, and crops that are developed to benefit the global population, approval of these technologies for food, feed, cultivation and import in each country may vary depending on needs, demand and trade interest.

Many genetically modified plants have previously been approved for use in food and feed in various countries of the world particularly Africa. There are many other approvals like number of biotech crops and events and approval for cultivation per trait category.

A global vote for GMO
A global vote for GMO

In Nigeria, the Nigeria Academy of Science (NAS) has declared that genetically modified foods are safe for consumption for now. NAS, during a media roundtable on GMOs in Nigeria, on November 16, 2016 at its office in Lagos, said the country was ready for the products and that they were safe for both production and beneficial to the nation based on carefully-documented evidence from developed countries. The academy noted that the technology, though new with expected fears and concerns, would be useful to the country because of its potential to boost the nation’s agriculture, which would resolve food insecurity. The outgoing president of NAS, Prof. Oyewale Tomori, said though the technology seems fresh, but nothing is new with it, as the academy, in accordance with its mandate, has examined available evidence from researches in advanced countries. Tomori, who noted that there were no forecasts of long-term effect, stressed: “We cannot predict the future and what is going to happen with these GMOs, but so far so good, there are no problems from where they have been used; but that does not mean that it is going to be good forever. We must be on the alert to know when changes are coming up.”

Another speaker, a professor of plant breeding and crop biotechnology with the Department of Genetic and Biotechnology, University of Calabar, Effiom Ene-Obong, who said there were no scientific evidence that agree with the raised health concerns of GMOs worldwide, “as they are safe for both production and consumption.” He noted that “though genetically modified foods are not commercially produced in Nigeria yet, three quarters of countries in the world are keyed into them and as a new technology, fears being entertained are expected, but rather, the benefits outweigh the worries” Ene-Obong added: “Before these products are sent into the market, lots of trials and investigations are done by so many agencies, such as the Academy of Sciences Worldwide, United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), World Health Organisation (WHO), to monitor and make sure they are safe for human consumption and they have recommended.

GM Approval Updates

November 23, 2016          South Africa approved the maize events 4114 (HT +IR) and NK603 x T25 (stacked HT) and the argentine canola event 73496 (HT) for food and feed use.

November 16, 2016          South Korea approved the maize event MON87427 x MON89034 x  MIR162 x NK603 (HT + IR) and the cotton event COT102 x MON15985 x MON88913 x MON88701 (HT + IR) for feed use.

November 7, 2016            Canada approved the maize event MZIR098 (HT + IR) for food, feed and cultivation use.

November 4, 2016            USA granted the nonregulated status to two new potato events, Ranger Russet potato X17 and Atlantic potato Y9. These two new events have reduced acrylamide potential, black spot bruising tolerance and resistance to potato late blight.

November 3, 2016            South Korea approved the soybean event DAS81419 (stacked IR) and the cotton event 81910 (stacked HT) for food use.

October 19, 2016 South Korea approved the maize event MON87411 (HT + IR) for food use.

October 12, 2016 Malaysia approved the canola event MS8 x RF3 (HT + PC) for food and feed use.

October 12, 2016 South Korea approved the InnateTM potato event E12 (PQ) and the maize event MON87403 (Altered Growth/Yield) for feed use.

October 5, 2016     Vietnam approved the maize event MIR604 for food and feed use.

September 26, 2016         The United States of America granted the non-regulated status to the new non-browning Arctic™ Fuji Apple event, NF872.

September 21, 2016         The European Union approved the following maize events for food and feed use: Bt11 x MIR162 x MIR604 x GA21 (HT + IR), Bt11 x MIR162 x MIR604 (HT + IR), Bt11 x MIR162 x GA21 (HT + IR), MIR162 x MIR604 x GA21 (HT + IR), Bt11 x MIR162 (HT + IR), MIR162 x MIR604 (stacked IR), and MIR162 x GA21 (HT + IR)

September 21, 2016         Singapore approved the maize events MON87427 (HT) and 59122 (HT + IR) for food use.

September 8, 2016           Australia and New Zealand approved the maize event MON87419 (stacked HT) for food use.

August 31, 2016     Taiwan approved the cotton event 81910 (stacked HT) for food use.

August 24, 2016     South Korea approved the soybean event MON87751 (IR) for food use.

August 12, 2016     Brazil approved the maize event MON89034 x TC1507 x NK603 x DAS40278 (HT + IR) for commercial use.

August 12, 2016     Brazil approved the herbicide tolerant  soybean events FG72, FG72 x A5547-127 and DAS44406-6, as well as the maize events(stacked HT), DAS40278 x NK603 (stacked HT) and 5307 x MIR604 x BT11 x TC1507 x GA 21 x MIR 162 (HT + IR) for commercial use in late 2015.

July 27, 2016           The European Union approved the soybean events FG72 (stacked HT) and MON87705 x MON89788 (HT + PQ) for food and feed use.

July 29, 2016           Malaysia approved the maize event 59122 (HT + IR) and the soybean event SYHTOH2 (stacked HT) for food and feed use.

July 28, 2016           Australia and New Zealand approved the maize event MZIR098 (HT + IR) for food use.


Edel-quinn Agbaegbu is the Executive Director,Every Woman Hope Centre,Abuja,Nigeria based NGO and Publishers of LifeCare Journal.

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