Dr I. D. K, Atokple Explains Myths And Misconceptions About BT Cowpea And The Right Explanations

A retired scientist of CSIR-SARI and the first Principal Investigator (PI) of the Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) cowpea project at CSIR-SARI, Dr I. D. K, Atokple, schooled about 100 participants at a field day organised at a confined field trial site of the project on myths and misconceptions about (Bt) cowpea, in Upper East Region.

He said, before the Bt cowpea, just like any Genetically Modified (GM) crop, is released, it is intensively analyzed for human, animal and environment safety.

Despite their historical high safety record and popularity with farmers, there are diverse groups of people opposed to biotechnology and GM crops. They claim GMO crops are not as safe as any other food crop.

Speaking to the media, Dr Atokple debunked it saying before any genetically modified (GM) crop is released, by law it undergoes intensive safety evaluations. GMO food and feed have more than two decades of safety record. During these over twenty years, each day hundreds of millions of people consume GMO derived food in the USA, Canada, Brazil, China, Australia, Argentina, Japan, Korea, South Africa, and even in Europe.

He added, each signatory country of the Cartagena Protocol should have biosafety laws and a biosafety agency to enforce these laws, and Ghana has done so. GM crops are analyzed for their potential to cause adverse health effects and potential to cause harm to the environment. To this end, laboratory and field tests supervised by biosafety authorities, and specifically designed following guidelines agreed upon by the Government agency and the international communities are conducted with high scientific vigor. Their results are analyzed by the national regulatory authorities, drawing on assistance from experts in the disciplines required to properly analyse the data. The chemical composition of the GM crop is compared to the composition of its sister line; if differences other than the ones intended by the transgene are found, then the GM crop is denied approval. This is called the equivalent compositional analysis, and guidelines for performance of such comparison provided by international organizations such as the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and Codex Alimentarus, a commission established by the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and World Health Organization (WHO) are usually followed. The Genetic make-up of the GM crop is also analyzed and submitted to the national biosafety for evaluation.

Dr. Atokple said, persons opposed to the cultivation of GMO also falsely claim that GM foods cause cancer and other health problems. It is a well-established fact that the scientific publication that reported that genetically modified foods are associated with cancer development in rats has been retracted and debunked by informed opinion: genetically tumour-prone rats were used; a defective research protocol was followed; and the statistical approach used did not satisfy confounding factors. The publication was apparently not subject to satisfactory objective refereeing, and certain tainted financial interests were also operative. All the foregoing factors skewed the results, rendering them invalid and not significant.

He said, Eating fresh foods is preferable to eating processed foods, and fresh GM foods (or the nutritional derivatives from GM foods) are regularly and globally eaten in vast quantities without any proven side effects. It is worth noting that, industrialized countries have been successful in producing ample sustenance for their populations from GM foods. The reality is that GM crops reduce and prevent cancers as well as a dozen other serious health problems from occurring, not only in regions where they are grown, but more widely as food products are traded globally. The human health benefits of GM crops are poorly understood by most people, but by far, they are the most significant benefits offered by any agricultural technology ever developed.

Dr. Atokle added that the first human health benefit is that GM corn varieties for instance are significantly healthier for humans to consume due to the lower concentrations of harmful mycotoxins, fumonisins and thricothecenes. All three of these can cause serious health problems.

According to The World Health Organization (WHO), mycotoxins causes acute poisoning to longer term impacts like immune deficiency and cancer, particularly esophageal cancer. Fumonisins are another variety of mold commonly found in warmer climates and where corn is grown. In regard to fumonisins, the WHO states that they are linked to birth defects and cancer. Thricothecenes are also dangerous molds, linked to reduced function of reproductive organs and immune systems.

He said, the use GM crops also drastically reduce the number of pesticide related poisonings as in the case of Bt cowpea. Again, opponents of GM crops argue that multinational companies and other powers (G8 countries) seek to control the lucrative cowpea seed business and the whole seed business of West Africa by promoting GM crops like cowpea.

This, he said is untrue; such stories are meant to arouse the patriotic chauvinistic feeling of the public and to direct them against other people perceived to be foreign agents. With the Bt cowpea currently being developed, farmers don’t need to always come back to CSIR – SARI to buy the seeds. They can save the seeds from their current season and replant it in the next season. Opponents of GM technology often confuse their listeners/readers by stating that all GM crops are hybrids. For hybrids, a farmer will need to buy seeds each year for planting. However, the Bt cowpea that is being developed by SARI is not a hybrid.

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