Gatsha Mazithulela The race to the top or to the bottom
Biotechnology has revolutionised agriculture and medicine to the point that former science fiction is now available as over the counter medicines or any number of foods on your supermarket shelve. How is that possible in our country, I hear the people cry? This is because these fearsome scientific disciplines and acronyms like GMOs (genetically modified) have been abused to the point of being meaningless.
I’ve heard people even talking about GMO chickens and let me tell you that there is no genetically modified chicken on the market anywhere in the world! If there was, we would all know the beautiful mind that would walk away with the Nobel Prize in Medicine for that achievement. Yes, there are chickens that have eaten genetically modified maize and soyabeans.
That does not make the chicken on your plate a GMO itself. Imagine if I called you a GMO because you ate cornflakes made from GMO maize? By the way, almost all maize from South Africa, the USA, Brazil etc is genetically modified. And we have been eating the cornflakes, mealie meal, bread etc for a long time. This does not make us GMOs and I’m sure those lovely chickens don’t appreciate you calling them names either.
So what is this biotechnology and when and where did it come from? The earliest biotechnologist that I can find was the Biblical Noah, when he used fermentation technology by encouraging yeast to convert some fruit juice sugars into ethyl alcohol. He had a merry old time after that.
The use of any number of techniques to deliberately interfere with natural biological processes so that you can come up with a product that you want is called biotechnology. All those people currently enjoying sour porridge, amahewu, cheese, sour milk (amasi) this morning have all interfered with nature. None of these listed products are natural products.
In other words, you don’t find any of them in nature. We human beings interfere with nature so that we can have them on our plates. So everyone from Noah to your grandmother making amasi, to a scientist making your antibiotics are all dabbling in biotechnology albeit at different levels of sophistication. So is the basic idea of biotechnology wrong, if so why?
Let’s go up another notch and deal with these technologies in animals and plants. We are very familiar with animal and plant breeding where we have selected the animals and plants with the characteristics that we want in order to use them for our purposes. Yes, we took cattle from the wild and domesticated them, for example.
We hence interfered with nature and by doing so; all cattle in the world have become too stupid to survive on their own if you returned them to the wild. They would be very easy food for some very surprised carnivores and most would die of so many diseases that don’t affect other animals. Cattle have become too weak to live without vaccinations and dipping because we interfered with nature by domesticating them. Their genetic makeup has changed, so are they GMOs and should they be banned from the market?
Before I’m accused of oversimplifying things, let me explain why everything I’ve said above is very similar to genetic engineering which produces the famed GMOs and then I will also tell you what the differences are. In all cases above, human beings have selected genetic traits of everything from bacteria to plants and animals to suit their own needs.
The characteristics that we promote when we are breeding cause a selection and a genetic change and eliminates the unwanted genetics from our herds, our pets, our crops, our yeast – everything that we interfere with on a daily basis. Genetic engineers like me, almost a lifetime ago, started to ask how they could make this selection process more predictable, more efficient, faster and so on. We also discovered that the chemical which determines all these matters in all living things can be manipulated directly.
So instead of watching your favourite animals mating for years until you get that red animal or one with more wool or whatever you are breeding for, we said let’s try to get that change in one generation. It takes about 10 growing seasons to watch maize pollinating in the fields and you selecting the character that you want before you can say you have bred a new variety of maize.
I have a lot of respect for those patient animal and plant breeders that do this sort of thing. What I learnt was to find the gene that I want, chemically cut it off from one plant and put into another and then observe a new character in, say, 4 months instead of 10 years! That is the contribution of genetic engineering and how to create GMOs to solve the most difficult of breeding genetics.
Of course for a full understanding of this, there is no way except at least 7-10 years of university study followed by lifelong learning as the science changes every day. Therefore it has to be understood that your remaining questions can’t be answered on a newspaper article.
Also, we genetic engineers do not play God, as I have told many relatives accusing me of playing God. It is not true that we can be able to do anything that is Godly. The powers we use in genetic engineering are God-given skills in chemistry, medicine, biology etc and nothing more.
I think the most important question that people want answered is how safe the products made in this way are. My view is that we engage in far much more dangerous things on a daily basis compared to eating some porridge made from maize that is drought-resistant using the genetic approach.
Indeed, I have seen anti-GMO demonstrators smoking cigarettes and no doubt some illegal things too, as they chase well-meaning scientists out of town. Who will die first I wonder -the anti GMO rioter smoking a packet of cigarettes per day or the guy quietly eating his Kellogg’s cornflakes made from GMO maize?
In all that we do, there is a balance of good points and bad points that must be considered and I have heard many arguments, often with no proof, against GMOs. I have even heard of the famed miracle of the GMO chicken from Brazil as a result of interested parties taking advantage of marketing local chickens by confusing ordinary people on these fairly complex issues (again, please, there is nothing like a GMO chicken on the market).
GMOs have been eaten for over 20 years now and there is not one death that has ever been ascribed to the eating of GMOs. When I used to practice this technology in my previous jobs, an important farming publication renamed GMOs as Gatsha Mazithulela’s Organisms in a clear smear. What is quite nice is that the same publication, some 10 years later, is now full of GMO technology every week! Things change and often for the better especially as technology advances.
Technology does not kill people, it is people that kill each other and we have the very familiar argument for and against nuclear power as a reference. You can choose what you want to use it for and so it is like that with all technology – a tool or a weapon and the choice is yours. What is more important is to use technology properly and regulate what comes onto the market very rigorously. Otherwise we should ask to be excluded from hospitals, for instance.
Overseas, I have seen anti-GMO rioters rushing to hospital to get the best GMO medicines when riot police have given them a hiding. We need to communicate honestly as scientists, avoid skewing the argument towards our own interests and avoid GMOphobia, a new word that I have just invented. It means “the irrational fear of GMOs”.
It is not a small issue though because we know food has often become political poison even while it is gastronomically edible. Hence we must tread with care, patience and preserve the primacy of science in our explanations. Next week: “How GMO’s have enabled the feeding of a planet that has exceeded its carrying capacity”.