While the ongoing debate on the safety of genetically modified food shows no signs of abating, a local scientist believes that some facets of that technology could be beneficial to local agriculture.
Officer-in-Charge of the Plant Pathology Unit of the Ministry of Agriculture, Food, Fisheries and Water Resource Management, Michael James, gave this view while speaking on the topic Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) and You during a recent Staff Seminar Series held at the Ministry’s headquarters at Graeme Hall, Christ Church.
A GMO is one in which the genetic material (DNA) is altered in a way that does not occur naturally.
Mr. James maintained that rather than reacting in fear or ???burying one’s head in the sand’, there is so much that can be done with the technology.
He, however, suggested that the right legislative and regulatory framework must be in place before any foray is made into such a scientific endeavour.
"We have to use the technology to the best of our ability and to train persons to use it but we must have safeguards in place for our biodiversity. There is no point in saying if GMOs come, they will come. It is how we handle it; that is the point.
"We have to find our niche and use it… Don’t let us close our eyes to a technology that we can use because we are afraid. How are we going to use this technology to benefit us? That’s what we should be looking at," he said.
Mr. James cited the use of genetic modification in the medical field as an example of utilising the technology to the best advantage. Referring to the production of insulin, he explained that previously, the hormone was extracted from pigs but through modern genetics, it was now developed using bacteria.
"That was expensive and not to mention, you had to euthanise the pigs to get the insulin…That did not sit well with organisations such as the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. So, now you can produce insulin from bacteria.
"For Hepatitis B, vaccines are being produced on the surface of potatoes. The Parvovirus vaccine is now being produced in honey and the rabies vaccine is being produced in tobacco… It is much easier and cheaper to produce in a plant than to use an animal and it is better for the animal as well," Mr. James explained.
He gave another example of the technology being used to increase agricultural production, with chickens now being bred to mature in six weeks and cows reared to produce more milk.
The agricultural official noted, however, that while GMOs have been around for some 40 years, there was still no clear picture on whether they could have serious long-term effects on humans.
Mr. James listed some of the advantages of GMOs as: pest resistance; reduction in the use of pesticides; reduced maturation time; increased nutritional value, increased shelf life; and drought, flood, salinity and temperature tolerance.
The disadvantages include: unknown side effects in humans; negative effects on the environment and other organisms such as birds and bees; genes can mutate with harmful side effects; allergenicity, that is, the transference of food allergies via the genetic modifying process and the transfer of antibiotic resistance.
Some examples of genetically modified crops are: sugar cane; sweet pepper; soya beans; corn; potatoes; pineapples; tomatoes; canola; honey and rice.
While Mr. James acknowledged that there were valid arguments both for and against the use of GMOs, he maintained that genetic modification was here to stay.
"Right now in Barbados, we use genetically modified corn. Every time you open a box of corn flakes, you have used genetically modified corn. Every time you eat chicken, you have used it because the feed is made from genetically modified corn. Ninety-one per cent of the corn in the world is genetically modified," he pointed out.
As such, the agricultural official urged Barbadian consumers to read as much as they could on the subjects of genetic modification and biotechnology.
"You have to read and digest the information for yourself and decide what you believe…A lot of research is being done in this area but it is inconclusive…It is something that is here with us to stay. You can’t say we should never use it. I think, at some point in time, we have to acknowledge that we will have to use this particular technology to the best of our ability and don’t be afraid of it," Mr. James said.
While the jury is still out on the long-term effects of using Genetically Modified Organisms, the reality is that it has become an essential component in the field of agricultural science and biotechnology.
Barbadians, government officials and agricultural stakeholders must, therefore, continue to keep abreast of such issues to ensure the technology is used to the benefit of the local sector and for the safety of consumers.