Opinion

Are the anti-GMO activists in Ghana following Crispr?

I have always been a staunch advocate for Genetically-Modified Organisms/Foods (GMOs) because of my understanding of the science behind it and the enormous benefits the technology offers.

I tried to make suchpoints in my previous write-ups a few years ago. For the purposes of a recap and in simple terms, genetic modification has always occurred in nature resulting in desirable phenotypical traits,which my mother and other subsistence farmers, selected for over several years.

Instead ofwaiting for 5, 10, 20 or 50 years for natural mutations to result in big, attractive and high-yielding tomato plants, scientists are able tospeed up the process. The result is genetically-modified crops we are currently rejecting in Ghana.

As the debate rages on, Ghana is at that cross-roads of either legitimizing the misinformation with the help of the courts or the courts will finally put a break on thefear-mongering.

Interestingly, our neighbor to the north, Burkina Faso, is one of the countries in Africa that has allowed the cultivation of GMO crop varieties. Has somebody goneto court to stop these varieties from Burkina Faso into Ghana?

I am only wondering if those spreading the misinformation are currently following the recent “super” GMO technique referred to asClusters of Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats(CRISPR), which is being hailed and accepted worldwide.

And will somebody go to court to stopCRISPR-modified crop varieties even thoughthe whole world is effusively embracing them?It is rather unfortunate that a lack of understanding of the scientific basis of GMO has resulted in a group of people taking the whole country hostage in their attempt to prevent a bill that commercializes Genetically-Modified (GM)varieties of corn and other crops.

The GMO debate has been raging for almost 40 yearsnow but the fear-mongers are yet to pinpoint any definitive adverse effecton human and/or environmental health. The only argument from the naysayers is bundled in a cocoon of the future “unknowns”, which is not based on any empirical data.

A recent publication in Nature (2018) by a group of Italian researchers reviewed a trove of meta-data involving 6,000 peer-reviewed studiesover the past 21 years on GM corn varietiesand arrived ata startling revelation about the health benefitswithout any harmful effects.

These are the same corn varieties we are screaming and kicking against in Ghana; these corn varieties are the subject of an ongoing court case filed by Food Sovereignty Ghana (FSG) and others.According to the study, theGM corn varieties have increased worldwide yield up to 25% as compared to non-GM varieties.

They are also up to 37% less likely to produce mycotoxins.Mycotoxins are a group of toxic chemical products produced by fungi that readily colonize corn and other crops. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), Africa and Asia have the highest acute exposure to mycotoxins with deadly consequences.

For instance, in 2004, 125 people died and over 200 hospitalized after eating aflatoxin (a mycotoxin)-contaminated corn. So why should we be resisting a variety that is beneficial to us as a country?

While we are fighting GMOs in Ghana so as tocontinue with our 18th century crop production and farm practices, the scientificcommunity is moving on with a more powerful form of Genetic Modification/Gene-editing techniques; CRISPR. This cutting-edge techniquewas recently developed in the field of Biotechnologyand it is being touted as holding the future for humanity.

I sharein this assertion, given the power ofthe tool in revolutionizing genome editing. The success of CRISPR is evidenced indifferent fields, including agricultural, environmental and biomedical fields. My question is; what would FSGdo with CRISPR-modified crops/organisms, given that CRISPR is even a more powerful genome-editing tool than previous GMO techniques?

Currently,CRISPR is being tested for its potential to correct debilitating genetic disease by excising mutated nucleotide(s)responsible forcausing thesediseases,such as sickle cell anemia, hemophilia, Barth syndrome, cystic fibrosis, and Duchenne muscular dystrophy.

I am looking forward to an argument againstthe use of CRISPR-modified mosquitoes that have been genetically engineered as unsuitable vectors of the malaria parasite in the questto prevent malaria-related deaths in Ghana.I am also waiting for the argument against using CRISPR to completely extract HIV DNA from human beings.

The technique was successfully used to snipout HIV DNA from the genome of live mice, setting the stage for treating HIV patients in the near future.How about using CRISPR totargetthe “command center” of cancerous tumorsthat essentiallystopsthe growth of tumors and thus boosting the survivalof cancer patients? Will there be an argument againstediting out Huntington’s disease using CRISPR? How about using CRISPR-skin grafts to replace insulin shots for people with diabetes? I am waiting for the argument against using CRISPR to correct the mutation linked to hypertrophic cardiomyopathy as carried out by scientists in Oregon Health and Science University in the United States.

Youmight have realizedthat the preceding examples are all related tothe biomedical fields and for curing human diseases. The examples above are not fictional scientific imaginations but are real scientific breakthroughs that are on the horizon. As alwaysis the case and hypocritically at best, when biotechnological tools are applied to the biomedical field, there is no resistance from both developed and developing countries.

However, if the same technology is used to improve crop yield, fight plant diseases, increase nutritional values, extend shelf-life of crops/food itemsetc, then we have “self-appointed-know-it-alls”championing an unwarranted resistance.

Just as CRISPR is breaking new grounds in the biomedical fields, so it is with the agricultural field.While we are fighting the commercialization of GM corn varieties in Ghana, the US Department of Agriculture has recently (March 2018) approved at least a dozen CRISPR gene-edited crops onto the market.

The changes in the crops are related to immunity to diseases, hardiness under tough weather conditions, or for bigger, better, tastier fruits andseeds. Companies have already developed soybeans to produce oil that withstands high-cooking temperatureswithout producing trans-unsaturated fatty acids (transfats).

Trans fats are unsaturated fats that tend to increase “bad cholesterol” and lower “good cholesterol” in our bodies with a detrimental consequence of increased risks of heart diseases.

Potato and wheat varieties are being developed for low-gluten and high-fiber productions. A single nucleotide has been tweaked in canola to create a herbicide-resistant variety which famers are currently growing in North Dakota and Montana in the United States.

Flax has been genetically-modified to boost its Omega-3 content. Using CRISPR, the Innovative Genomics Institute, an academic partner between University of California at Berkeley and San Francisco in the States, has developed cacao (cocoa) plants to withstand warmer conditions affecting our tropical rainforest, as well as resistant to viral and fungal diseases.

Given that Ghana is one of the leading producers of cocoa but also experiencing increasingdeforestation, why wouldsomebody or a group of people resist the introduction of these cocoa varieties in Ghana? Sweeter strawberries with a longer shelf-life willsoon be on our dining tables.Wouldn’t it be a good idea to have a tomato variety with a longer shelf-life to save our tomatoes farmers in Ghana from losinga significant amount of their produce due to early rotting ofshort shelf-life varieties? Why should we shoot ourselves in the foot by fighting a technology that could help us in the attainmentof food security and sustainability?

The prospects of using CRISPR to solve our food production problems, cure/eliminate debilitating diseases, and clean-up the environment, cannot be over emphasized. It is also very important to note that this is not an exhaustive list of uses to which the technology can be put.

But the question for Ghana is; how do we reconcile anti-GMcorn sentiments with positive sentiments toward the use of CRISPR-modified banana with high vitamin A content to fight blindness, especially in children? There is nothing wrong with constructive and healthy skepticism, but there is everything wrong with resistanceto a new technology based on misinformation, fear-mongering, non-existing facts, and lack of scientific understanding ofsuch technology.

As indicated earlier, the scientific community is not waiting for us,in fact, it has already moved on with CRISPR. The sooner we move along with thesebiotechnological advancements the better will it be for our food security. Otherwise, we will be rejecting CRISPR-modified banana with high content of vitamin A only to turn around and blame blindness in children on “witches and wizards”.

I rest my case and thanks for reading!
References:
Pellegrino, E., S. Bedini, M. Nuti and L. Ercoli(2018). Impact of Genetically Engineered maize on agronomic, environmental and toxicological traits: a meta-analysis of 21 years of field data. Nature Scientific Reports.

Author:
Benjamin Senyo Bey, Ph.D., P.Biol.

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