OPPORTUNITIES AND RISKS

HUMAN HEALTH CONCERNS

Given the uncertainty over the risks associated with GMOs, it is not surprising that strong and often polarized opinions are held around issues of food safety and human health. Consumer and environmental organizations and several governments have adopted cautious approaches to GM-derived foods, preferring to err on the side of safety rather than take unknown risks. Similar concerns have been expressed about the use of GM ingredients in livestock production systems via incorporation of GM-derived oilseeds and cereals in animal feed. The UK, Germany and France have eliminated the use of ingredients derived from GM plants from foods manufactured for direct human consumption or that enter the food supply chain (Soil Association 2003b).

Labelling of GM foods is an important consumer concern. It provides information for consumers and users of the product and allows them to make an informed choice. On this basis the EU, for example, has adopted labelling and traceability regulations (EC 2005). In the late 1990s, Austria, France, Greece, Italy and Luxembourg imposed national bans on a number of GMO products. Poland is the second central European country to ban a GMO maize type after Hungary, which outlawed the planting of Monsanto’s MON 810 hybrid seeds in January 2005 (Reuters 2005). In the United States, labelling has not received the same level of attention. In Africa, several countries have prohibited the import of GM foods, as shown in Box 4. Consumer concerns about GM foods include health and ethical considerations (Mohamed-Katerere 2003).

Some human and animal health risks have been identified (Spinney 1999, Cox 1995). Most of the examples are from regions where GMO technology has been in use far longer than it has in Africa. This information provides important lessons for Africa – a region that is now a target for rapid expansion of GMO technology. The limited experience with GMOs indicates some possible risks.

First, increased use of herbicide-tolerant GM crops may pose new risks for environmental and human health. For example, glyphosate is a major formulation of “Roundup Ready” crops and is now the world’s bestselling “total” herbicide. Due to the introduction of GMO-Roundup Ready crops, human and environmental exposure to the herbicide is expected to increase (Brown and Gow 2005). However, there is strong evidence that glyphosate-containing products are acutely toxic to animals and humans (ISIS 2005a).

Second, there are new medical risks from GM technologies. For example, gene therapy involves the use of a virus to carry a modified DNA segment and the virus is potentially pathogenic. The risks of these treatments are largely unknown. There are concerns that medical applications involving genetic engineering may produce cancer-causing genes from normal human genes (Portfolio 21 2005).

Third, the insertion of genes from one crop into another may increase allergic reactions, especially where consumers are not informed about the origins of the transgene. For example, soybean seeds genetically modified to include a gene from Brazil nuts in order to fortify a protein supplement containing soy resulted in people allergic to Brazil nuts reacting to the soy product (Mills 2005). The modified soy product indicated no negative reactions when it was tested on animals, illustrating the difference between the reactions of laboratory animals and humans to GM food products. This warrants further study of this new technology before it is widely embraced. The soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis, from which endotoxin (Bt) genes are extracted and widely incorporated into GM crops as biopesticide, is a close relative of the anthrax bacterium, Bacillus anthracis, and exchanges genes with it. Potentially this can generate more deadly pathogens (Altieri 2002, ISP 2003). Some Bt genes are known to cause toxic or allergic reactions in humans (ISP 2003). However, GM technology can also be used to prevent food allergies by deleting the major allergen, such as the case with soybean developed by Pioneer International (Mills 2005).

Fourth, increased antibiotic resistance may result. For example, Novartis’ Bt maize contains a marker gene, which codes for antibiotic resistance in E.coli. There is a risk that if animals or humans consume Bt maize-based products such as cattle feed or starch, some antibiotics would be rendered useless (Spinney 1999).

Fifth, vitamin toxicity from nutritionally enhanced crops may be an unintended consequence. When GM crops such as rice and rapeseed with high vitamin A concentrations are planted, there will be no way to distinguish them from normal crops, with the contingent risk of liver damage if too much vitamin A is consumed (Spinney 1999).

ETHICS

GMO and ethics issues centre among other things on patenting, cloning of life forms and biopiracy. These concerns have a direct bearing on achieving sustainable livelihoods and conservation of environmental resources. In Africa, many communities and consumers express ethical concerns about “playing god” as plants are transformed in unnatural ways and about the implications for traditional beliefs and values.

If not properly managed, gene patents could be instrumental in promoting and institutionalizing social inequity (Portfolio 21 2005, ERA 2005). Patenting genetic material traditionally available to a community, without allowing the community free use of the material or providing any return to the community, affects the fair and equitable distribution of resources, a necessity in the development of a sustainable society (ERA 2005). There is concern that the access and intellectual property issues related to “terminator gene” technologies will lead to increasing dependence on industrialized nations by African countries, and domination of world food production by a few multinational companies.

Biopiracy is also of growing concern, particularly as many African countries lack the legislative and enforcement systems to control illegal extraction of genetic resources. Additionally, the benefit sharing systems for the use of these assets and of traditional knowledge are poorly developed.

The issues of proprietary science have complicated the ethical and safety issues of GM technology. In particular there are challenges around reconciling the rights of product developers with those of consumers. Many public protests have centred on ethical or ecological grounds, the uncertainty about the impacts of the technology, and the public right-to-know and to have access to information, including through labelling.

In several countries, concerns have been raised as to whether “the technology is tantamount to playing god, interfering with nature, contrary to local ethics and also whether gene insertion would play havoc with the totem system that lies at the heart of local cultural association” (Mohamed-Katerere 2003).