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Are Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) our friends or foes?


Test tube babies, Dolly the Sheep, scaleless fish and others. All these are Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs). “What are GMOs?”, one would ask. In scientific terms, they are those living organisms whose genetic material have been manipulated – using genetic engineering techniques –  to suit or serve a specific purpose. These organisms are then used to produce medication, food and other goods. Like hairless cats, seedless fruits, pest resistant vegetables, and others.

These organisms are modified to suit the human condition and its needs. With climate change and global warming, environments are changing and evolutionary processes take too long to keep up with the change therefore this modification induces and/or accelerates the process. For example, with genetic modification, we can optimize agricultural performances through increased yields at low costs and have it result in reduced food prices. It also “produces good quality foods with good nutrient composition” Advances have also been made in developing crops that mature faster and tolerate heavy metals, drought, frosts and other environmental stressors, allowing plants to grow in circumstances where they might not have prospered. Another practice is that which is known as ‘xenotransplantation’; which is the utilisation of genetically modified organisms to grow transplant tissues and human transplant organs.

Though the intention for this practice is for the betterment of mankind, there are reservations about it. AfricaBio, which is an association advocating for ethical biotechnology applications (amongst other things) and to keep biotechnology stakeholders informed, say that “the real beneficiaries of GMOs are multinational biotechnology and agribusiness and that GMOs are wreaking havoc on  – amongst others – the climate and human health. Other known disadvantages include the possibility of exposure to new allergens (substances that causes an allergic reaction) and the transfer of antibiotic-resistant genes (from ingested products to human). Other ‘unintended’ consequences and dangers emerge from the profit-ridden society that we live in; where private companies might monopolise on the product and refuse sharing them at reasonable prices with the public. There is also the concept of an oral vaccine expressed in plants (fruits and vegetables) for direct consumption by individuals. This concept is said to being examined as a possible solution to the spread of diseases in developing countries (of which South Africa is). This is done because “it would greatly reduce the cost associated with conducting large-scale vaccination campaigns”.

// Maboni Mmatli
Maboni is a Biologist by profession, Science enthusiast and self-proclaimed people’s scientist who is a journalist at MashTowRadio and Seipone, interning as a Science Journalist with SAASTA and is the founder of the Science Students’ Association at the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University.

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