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How Anti-GMO Attitudes Could Hurt Developing Countries

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Posted January 9, 2019

In the Western world, there’s a push toward non-genetically modified organism (GMO) products, and momentum is growing for the clean label movement, which increases the transparency associated with consumer products.

But, a recent research paper by Walter Suza of Iowa State University asserts that the trend against genetically engineered products hinders adoption of genetically modified (GM) crops in Africa.

Agricultural field. Image credit: Reto Bürkler

Agricultural field. Image credit: Reto Bürkler, free image via Pexels

An Attempt to Give Clarity to a Hot-Button Issue

Suza pored over nearly 60 research papers related to Bt corn, a GM crop approved in 1996 that can resist pests including the European corn borer. He concluded that Bt corn is safe for humans and the Earth. Furthermore, he believes that Bt corn could give African farmers immediate relief from a pest called the fall armyworm, which is proliferating throughout the continent and affecting corn crops.

Suza points out that getting rid of the fall armyworm with traditional plant breeding techniques could take years, all while the nuisance harms people and the environment. In contrast, he says that using Bt corn throughout more parts of Africa would be a much faster way of getting relief.

United States Wants Africa to Adopt GM Crops

Suza was raised in Tanzania and has tackled food security projects in Africa. Through his experience, he’s noticed that a global misunderstanding of GM technology has restricted the adoption of GM technology and caused unnecessary hardships by making farmers and government authorities resist bringing the crops to that part of the world.

Although 13 countries in Africa are testing GM crops, only one — South Africa — has approved them for commercial use. African farmers may get influenced by the anti-GMO sentiment that comes from the West, but the United States, in particular, is encouraging the adoption of GM crops in Africa.

In August 2018, an official from the U.S. Department of State traveled to Africa to meet with officials and urge them to show more openness toward this arm of biotechnology. Besides limiting the destruction of the fall armyworm with GM crops, supporters say other applications could bring more drought-resistant crops to Africa or increase the Vitamin A content of some crops to reduce blindness.

Many People in Developing Countries Can’t Afford to Be Picky

Three-fourths of Americans polled in a study say they read food and ingredient labels and believe it’s important they contain mostly recognizable ingredients. Indeed, it’s a consumer’s right to shop around and buy the consumables that most closely align with their preferences — assuming they can afford to do so. Some organizations offer dedicated label indicators to confirm that products are GMO-free, too.

But, in places where food shortages are ongoing and daily realities for residents, the most desperate need they face is getting food at all rather than ensuring it doesn’t have certain ingredients. According to food scarcity statistics from 2016, the percentage of people affected by that problem is almost four times higher in Africa than in any other region.

More specifically, 27.4 percent of the population there face severe food insecurity. In North America and Europe, however, the percentage is only 1.2 percent. When people are urgently concerned whether they’ll be able to eat at all, they won’t care if the food supplies received have ingredients they can pronounce or not.

Scientific Evidence Against Claims of Danger

Going back to Suza’s investigation, his full research paper includes a portion that examines whether cry proteins, which target certain types of pests, are harmful for humans to consume. Another section of the study focuses on whether the use of Bt corn could harm the monarch butterfly.

The level of detail in the research is impressive and should make people pause before arguing that GM crops are hurtful. A different study published in 2016 by the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation looked at anti-GMO campaigns — primarily those originating from European activists.

It found that those efforts disproportionally harm the nations most in need of more productive agriculture methods, such as those that could be spurred by GM technology.

A Complement to Suza’s Other Work

Suza is the director of the Plant Breeding E-Learning in Africa program. It’s a 14-module initiative geared toward African students who have futures as plant breeders.

And, Suza believes that one way he can empower African scientists for what’s ahead is to get them well-equipped to understand topics such as crop improvement and molecular plant breeding.

The Need for a Scientific and Balanced Approach

Suza’s findings, as well as the supporting content here, show how crucial it is to support the distribution of GMO content based in science instead of fear.

People with the means to do so can still choose not to buy GM products, but they should not spread information of questionable accuracy or validity at the expense of others who could benefit from genetically modified produce.

Written by Kayla Matthews, Productivity Bytes.

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