Thursday, July 31, 2008

Conventional Breeding Vs Genetic Modification

Have a look at the pictures below. These are pictures of the wild parents of some of the vegetables we consume almost every day. Try identifying them and guess their offspring. The wild varieties have undergone tremendous evolution due to conventional breeding. The answers are at the end of the article.
Genetic Modification or GM technology has been singled out by activists to create alarm and fear among the public. The scaremongering of this technology is often not based on solid scientific principles but based on emotions, personal beliefs and sentiments. However, the scaremongers and naysayers should realise that their actions are causing huge economic loss to Malaysia. With the current global food crisis and price hike, we certainly cannot afford to overlook the potential of the technology which has been proven to be safe and in use for more than a decade. We import most of our food causing our food bill to skyrocket. Our poultry industry is entirely dependent on important soy and corn – almost all are GM.

Crops have been modified by human since time immemorial. None of the cultivated crops today exist in its original wild form. If they do, we will not be able to feed the world. In fact, the wild varieties will not even flourish under cultivated conditions. Modifying the genetic makeup of crops to develop better varieties was initially carried out through conventional breeding. Various methods are used, one of it using gamma radiation to produce mutants with beneficial traits. However, with conventional breeding, there is little or no guarantee of obtaining any particular gene combination from the millions of crosses generated. Undesirable genes can be transferred along with desirable genes; or, while one desirable gene is gained, another is lost because genes of both parents are mixed together and re-assorted more or less randomly in the offspring. These problems limit the improvements that plant breeders can achieve. Another limitation to this technique is that hybrids can only be produced with the same species or between closely related species.

It is mind-boggling that the use of gamma radiation and its safety is never questioned. We are all aware of the serious implications of radioactive rays to human, animal and the environment. Moreover, the resulting variety may carry some toxic or allergen producing genes as the breeder has no clue of how the genes have recombined. Nevertheless, conventionally bred crops do not require any testing and approvals, unlike GM crops which are the most tested products in the history of mankind. Yet, they also invite the most public scrutiny and debate – thanks to opponents of GM technology and environmental activists!

In contrast to conventional breeding, genetic engineering allows the direct transfer of one or just a few genes of interest, between either closely or distantly related organisms to obtain the desired traits. Plants may also be modified by removing or switching off their own particular genes. Scientists who develop GM crops know exactly the sequence of the inserted gene, the exact location where the gene is inserted, the function of the gene, and the way it will be expressed.

Having had a look at the pictures above, we need to ask these questions:

1. Will we be able to feed the world with these wild varieties?

2. If plants have been modified in the past beyond recognition using conventional techniques and we have been consuming them without questioning the safety, why so much of uproar on a technology that has been rigorously tested, monitored, regulated and approved?

I am often perplexed by stand taken by environmentalists and other groups that oppose GM technology – they want to champion conservation of biodiversity, and healthy and safe food but at the same time reject a technology that can help produce more food on smaller land area, use less chemicals, and produce healthier food.

One thing is sure – we once had the luxury to reject GM food but we will not be able to continue this in the wake of the current global food crisis. There will come a time when we have the money to buy food, but there will be no sellers. Before this happens, the Malaysian agriculture sector need to adapt itself, evolve and embrace the latest technology to stay competitive and self-sufficient. Even Europe is reviewing their positions on GM crops and farmers and livestock producers are demanding for these crops to be approved.

Food for thought: Products and NOT processes should be regulated.
Picture 1: Parent stock of corn
Picture 2: Parent stock of lettuce
Picture 3: Parent stock of carrot

- Mahaletchumy Arujanan


Flame_Z said...

Very interesting and convincing. Maybe the reasons why conventional breeding hasn't attracted such stringent regulation would be the history of safe use of the species involved. This however is not a guarantee of safety. So, before we can criticize GM, it is only fair that we subject conventional breeding to the same safety assessment protocol GM is subjected to.

This not withstanding, i do not believe that there is any scientific justification to say that GM has been tested and proven safe. If there is any such, i'd be glad to know. What we have is "uncertainty", and the lack of information should not be taken as a proof of safety. There are several unanswered questions and the safety assessment protocol itself is flawed in some ways. Not to talk about the trade and intellectual property rights and the manner in which the GM giants are going about things. There is no evidence that GM crops are actually reducing agro-chemical use, indeed some reports rather suggest an increase in their use and some even suggest yield losses. So really, it depends on who you are listening to; i.e. the issue of conflict of commitment. Until we have independently funded research and fair minded scientists to comment on the issues, we’d be where we are!

GM is a powerful tool with great potentials to revolutionalized the agricultural sector. Instead of deriding opponents of the technology, we should rather try to understand their concern and hasten slowly in other not to repeat the mistakes of the green revolution. Remember, others believe that there is enough food to go round the world and we don’t need another technology to "deliver us from hunger".

Let us not play to our sentiments, whether pro or against. What are the issues, how do we develop this marvelous technology to the benefit of all eliminating the associated risks? Those are the questions, because clearly, you are presenting the issues as though conventional breeding is the “monster” which has been let loose and GM is being “victimized”; the scapegoat! GM has its risks just as conventional breeding does. Yes, those of conventional breeding have been ignored, but that is no reason to allude that GM is so “precise” that it’s devoid of risks! Indeed, my understanding is that the transformation process is random.
So, let us look at the issues and address them. Thank you

Godwin Lemgo (Ghana)

Jennifer Cecelia said...

Something very important is WHAT genes are to be transfered and TO WHAT they are being transfered. Also TO WHERE they actually transfer. This is the 'make or break' of what will strengthen or sicken someone.