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The What, How and Why behind GMOs

Written by Ingrid Marais (Biotechnologist)

GMO – Genetically modified organisms – a word that sparks controversy. You’ve probably seen these types of headings on certain articles: “GMO’s are bad for you!” “Ban GMO’s!”

But have you taken a minute and thought objectively about it? Be honest?

Society unfortunately, has a misperceived idea of what a GMO is, and how important it really is.

So let me, as a scientist, explain this to you a bit more in detail.

If you have seen the documentary, “Food Evolution“, you may have an idea to where I’m heading. If you have not seen it, do yourself a favour and go and watch it.

What is a GMO?

A GMO can be any organism including a plant, animal as well as a micro-organism that has been modified genetically to give you a product with certain desired traits. This organism is identical to its conventional counterpart except for a few genetic traits.

Genomes have been altered for over thousands of years using traditional breeding methods, whereas the use of GMO technology, have opened up advancements of new and different trait varieties. Aspects which could be altered include making a crop more tolerant to extreme environmental conditions, tolerant to pests and diseases as well as more nutritious.

How does a GMO work?

Lets start at the beginning, what is a gene?

The unique set of instructions which set down how all organisms develop, grow and function are called the organisms DNA. The DNA is compartmentalized into small sections which control specific characteristics and these sections are called genes.

For instance, let’s say we want to make an important food producing plant more drought resistant. A gene within a specific organism (non-harmful bacteria) has been shown vital in drought tolerance. This gene is then taken and placed within the desired plant’s DNA, making the plant tolerant to drought conditions and causing the plant to still produce a good yield, ensuring food even though there is water scarcity. No other function of the plant, other than its tolerance to drought, has been changed and the nutritional composition is still exactly identical to the non-GM variety.

Before a GMO product can be commercialized and brought onto the market, a very rigorous process is followed to test this final product including an environmental, nutritional/health, socio-political and economic assessment.

The registration and commercialization of GMO products are under legislation which is collectively called the National Biosafety Framework (NBF) and under this framework is the Genetically Modified Organisms Act, 1997 (No. 15 of 1997).

Why are GMOs important?

The biggest reasons for using this technology is the environmental benefit and ultimately food security. One of the Sustainable Development Goals of the UN include Zero Hunger, and by using GM technologies this goal is achievable.

GMO plant/crop varieties can be insect tolerant, thus allowing larger yields with less chemical pesticide usage (a win for the environment). The varieties which are herbicide tolerant allow farmers to adjust their farming practices to no-till, leading to less tillage practices, and ultimately a significant reduction in the amount of fuel used, thus less greenhouse gas emissions. Since biotech crops have been introduced globally, it helped prevent the release of 34 billion kg of CO2, cut fuel use by an estimated 12 799 liters and caused a 8.6 % global reduction in pesticide usage.

Did you know South-Africa only has 3 GM crops grown currently, which include:

-Maize (up to 80% of our maize production in SA is GM)

Next time you enjoy your mielie-pap remember to think where the food on your plate came from and what important role scientists together with farmers play to ensure you get to enjoy your next meal.

For a quick recap of what I just explained look at this very short informative video from Biosafety SA:


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