By Dr Ian Clarke
President Ruto has recently changed Kenya’s stance on GM crops, so they will now be grown in our neighbouring country. This has caused alarm among those who feel that GM crops are highly dangerous and that their use in Kenya will contaminate our crops in Uganda. Genetically Modified seeds are those in which a gene has been inserted or manipulated to give the plant a desirable trait, such as increased resistance to drought or insecticides.
In Uganda we have developed Coffee Wilt Disease Resistant coffee (CWDR), which has increased resistance to coffee wilt, but CWDR has not been developed through gene insertion, but through the selection and cloning of plants that are naturally resistant. So we already manipulate plants to select for certain characteristics, but genetic modification does this through advanced laboratory techniques.
There is no proven scientific evidence that ingestion of food made from GM plants cause foetal abnormalities or cancer in humans, but there are concerns about GM plants being contaminated with chemicals which then get into the human food chain. For example, in the USA maize has been genetically modified to be resistant to glyphosate, which allows farmers to douse maize with weed-killer, which controls the weeds but does not harm the maize itself. This maize is likely to have absorbed glyphosate, which is harmful to human beings, and although the maize is mainly fed to animals, it still gets into the food chain.
On the other hand, GM maize grown in the USA is also resistant to Fall Army Worm so harmful pesticides do not need to be applied to kill this pest. However, in Uganda maize is not resistant to Fall Army Worm and pesticides are applied. So in this case pesticides could be getting into the food chain because the maize is not genetically modified.
The overuse of chemicals is an issue for both GM and non-GM crops, but the widespread use of glyphosate sprayed at a late stage on plants that we eat is of concern. One factor that could change our view of GM crops is climate change, since it might be necessary to develop GM crops that are resistant to drought in order to survive. When food security becomes an issue, there is a strong argument for using appropriate GM crops because in the hierarchy of need hungry people are not concerned about the long term effects of GM, they just need food.
On the other hand, factory farming, which uses huge quantities of chemical fertilisers and herbicides on GM crops, is doing more harm than good to the environment and possibly to the health of human beings.
The world is divided into those that are for GM, and those who are vehemently against, along the lines of those who are pro vaccination and those who are passionately against. While there are many arguments used against the use of GM crops that have no scientific basis, there are also cogent arguments against widespread indiscriminate use of GM.
I would be happy if we had GM maize seeds here, which are resistant to Fall Army Worm so that we did not have to use pesticides. But I would also not wish to see widespread application of glyphosate to late stage maize.
The real issue is sustainability, and as we face climate change, we will have to select the correct scientific tools in our arsenal to sustain food production and fight global warming. As global temperatures rise we may need to use GM crops with proven drought resistance traits. Understanding soil science is increasingly important, and we know that if we treat soil badly it will end up as dust and simply blow away. But if we cultivate the right soil environment, soil will not only produce life-giving plant food, it will become self-replenishing and sequester carbon from the atmosphere.
We need to use science to develop methods to nourish and preserve our soil, and at the moment we know too little about this field. However, we do know that the use of chemicals may help plants in the short term, but also breaks the natural cycle in which healthy bacteria work with fungus and rhizome root systems to generate plant food and sequester carbon. So by depending on chemicals we get a short-term fix at the expense of the long-term health of the soil.
Similarly, GM crops may unbalance the natural ecosystem so we get short-term gain at the expense of long term sustainability. The approach to GM should not be hysterical, but rationale and contextualised appropriately to the local situation, so that when GM crops are used, the benefits clearly outweigh the disadvantages.