Agriculture has experienced several revolutions including the Green (cross breeding) and now the Gene (genetic engineering) Revolution. Although the Green Revolution increased food productivity and saved lives particularly in Asia, the technologies used – pesticides, fertilizers, mechanization and irrigation – have introduced serious economic, social and environmental challenges. The new seed varieties require heavy doses of pesticides, large amounts of fertilizers and irrigation water which pollute the soil and water. The use of high yielding seed varieties are replacing older ones such as millet and sorghum and small scale farmers are being squeezed out because they cannot afford the high costs of the new technologies.
The development of the genetically modified organisms or the Gene Revolution is an attempt to overcome the problems associated with the Green Revolution. Genetic engineering refers to artificial processes that alter the genetic make up of an organism such as a plant or animal or its offspring by transferring genes say from salmon to a tomato in order to transfer a desired trait such as drought or pest resistance.
Gene technology has been promoted as a green technology. It is believed to have the potential to increase productivity, reduce the incidence of famine and malnutrition and protect biological diversity. It can produce more nutritious crops, resist pests and grow in salty soils and store longer. Besides, biotech crops can lower pest management costs and enhance yields. In fact, genetic engineering has already contributed considerably in the production of corn (maize), soy beans, cotton and increasingly potatoes, wheat and tomatoes.
However, the idea of manipulating the genetic structure of a living organism has caused much unease around the world. Some countries have imposed a ban on genetically modified crops or heavy restrictions have been imposed on their importation.
Resistance to genetically modified crops has been triggered by the emergence of potential allergies that could cause reactions in humans, the rising resistance rates of pests to toxins and the presence of toxins in sediments that threaten non-target insect populations and the unintended crossing of new genes into wild relatives.
Most importantly, governments, researchers and the general public need to understand the full implications of Terminator Technology. In simple terms, terminator technology means that a seed is genetically modified or programmed so that grains from its planting will be sterilized. The terminator gene is triggered by the application of tetracycline to the seed at the time when it is being marketed. The farmers are therefore forced to purchase the seed every planting season and become dependent on the few companies that sell these seeds because the farmers’ knowledge becomes obsolete. The political and security implications of such arrangements should not be underestimated.
It is also important to note that genetically engineered crops are not designed to increase yields but for herbicide resistance. Therefore herbicide tolerant gene has no effect on yields per se.
It has been recognized that biotech is extremely controversial. There are different schools of thought on biotechnology regarding the environment and human health. Therefore, a responsible technological agenda needs to take these schools of thought into account.
Against this background, public-private partnership should be established and should involve all stakeholders so that all interests are taken into account. Currently, the Gene Revolution is being driven by the private sector for profit motives. Under the public-private partnership the major food crops of low income populations such as beans, millet and sorghum should receive commensurate coverage in research funding.
As a complement, government institutions in agriculture, environment and food safety should be established and/or strengthened where they already exist to address the opportunities and challenges of the Gene Revolution in a comprehensive, accountable, transparent and participatory fashion.