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GMO testing vital for SADC

DTI Globalwatch : 18 October, 2006  (Technical Article)
Twenty-six scientists from Botswana, Lesotho, Mozambique, Malawi, Zambia, Swaziland, Namibia and Zimbabwe attended a four-day Sadc GMO testing training course at the Tobacco Research Board centre at Kutsaga in Harare, which was jointly run by the TRB and the University of Zimbabwe.
This course, which was funded by the Regional Agricultural and Environment Initiative (RAEIN-Africa), was vital to the strengthening of the region's capacity to make and implement policies that govern the safe handling of GMOs.

There is growing concern about the transfer of genetic material through cross-pollination, its impact on other species and the effects on human beings, animal and plant health.

Opponents of GMOs fear that transgenic crops could cause loss of biodiversity by displacing wild species and could also 'contaminate' organic crops.

South Africa is the only country in Africa that is commercially growing GM foods and it is important for the eight countries with scientists that participated in the GMO testing course to be able to verify whether these products are safe or not.

South Africa remains a big player in the production of foodstuffs and all the eight countries, in one way or another, import these foods from that country.

The training course enabled scientists in the other Sadc countries, excluding South Africa, to test and verify food imports before they are allowed into their own territories.

And, if they are allowed in, the countries will then have to ensure that the foods are labelled so that consumers have a choice whether to buy GM products or not.

Consumer watchdogs have a role to play here to check the validity of the 'Non-GMO', 'GMO-free' or 'Organic' labels on most products that are imported into countries in the region.

Biotech crops and related foodstuffs have sparked controversy in Africa with some countries in Southern Africa refusing to accept GM food aid or insisting that it be milled before distribution to avoid contamination of local seed stocks.

To address these concerns, Zimbabwe's Science and Technology Development Minister Dr Olivia Muchena said Sadc member states must speed up the mobilisation of resources for national bio-safety systems to enhance their capacity to test for the presence of GMOs in food, stockfeed and seed.

This, she said, was important for the region to safeguard itself against the dumping of GMOs on its markets and the environment.

To achieve this, she said, there was need for capacity building in terms of infrastructure development and human resource capacity to test food, stockfeed and seed for the presence of GMOs.

Zimbabwe and most countries in the region have biotechnology policies and laws that enable them to use the benefits brought by biotechnology while at the same time providing frameworks for the management of potentially harmful technologies and other processes.

Professor Idah Sithole-Niang of the University of Zimbabwe and Dr Dahlia Garwe were the principal trainers at the four-day GMO testing course.

Apart from lectures on the status of biotechnology in selected Sadc countries, the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety and its implications on Sadc countries, Dr Garwe said training also involved practicals on plant transformation techniques, qualitative and quantitative GMO analysis using both the Polymerase Chain Reaction, and the Enzyme-Linked Immunosorbent Assay techniques.

The PCR approach uses a machine that photocopies or multiplies deoxyribonucleic acid samples in a test apparatus which then assists in the detection of minute quantities of the GMO in a given sample.

The ELISA technique uses an anti-body that can recognise the presence of the GMOs in a sample. ELISA is also used widely in many laboratory tests, including HIV, and home pregnancy tests.

Dr Garwe and Prof Sithole-Niang said the detection of GM crops has become necessary to allow consumers to make informed choices on whether to accept or reject GM foods or products derived from them.

Moreover, they say, legislation in many countries has been introduced that mandates the labelling of food which contains or has been produced from GMOs.

'The need to monitor and verify the presence of the amount of GMOs in agricultural crops and in products derived thereof has generated demand for analytical methods capable of detecting, identifying and quantifying molecules (DNA/RNA or other proteins) that are specifically associated with the genetic modification of interest,' Dr Garwe said.

The participants were taught the process of testing for the presence of GMO or GMO derivatives in foodstuffs using steps that included sampling the material to be analysed, homogenisation of the sample, isolation and purification of the DNA/RNA or protein and the detection of the DNA/RNA or the protein.

'It must be noted that it is difficult to determine the reliability of a method and uncertainty in the final estimate must be determined,' Dr Garwe said. 'How well a method performs must be tested through comparisons with samples of known content and preferably by independent comparison between several laboratories.'

Fears on GMO foods centre on the potential for allergic reactions, the possible introduction or increase in production of toxic compounds as a result of GM technology and the use of antibiotic resistance markers in plant transformation.

There are also fears that giant multinationals and research institutes which hold patents and licensing agreements will refuse to share GM technology and restrict the poor farmers from propagating their crops.

Scientists in favour of biotechnology argue that there are following benefits: combating animal diseases through the development of vaccines, increasing yield from plant resistance to pests and diseases, reducing environmental pollution by reducing pesticide use, and better product quality.

Sadc countries all agree on the need to tap the benefits that come with biotechnology while promoting the safe and responsible use of biotechnology for development purposes.

Most of the countries in the region have developed or are still developing appropriate policy, legal, institutional and administrative frameworks that promote the safe use of GM technologies while at the same time addressing the concerns, human, animal and plant health.

There are still many challenges facing the region concerning the management of GMOs.

Experts have posed numerous questions that need to be addressed: How much capacity (infrastructure and human capital) is required for adequate and effective testing? Is the region fully aware of the dangers or risks associated with lack of capacity to test?

Just how much do people know about GMOs? Does the consumer have a choice on whether to eat GM foods or not? How can the region guard against dumping of GMOs?

These are nagging questions for governments and scientists in the region.

It is then important for Sadc countries to undertake research to determine the uptake of GM food into the human food chain as well as to determine the validity of the 'Non-GMO', 'GMO-Free' or 'Organic' labels on local and all other imported products.

According to a study that was done by the University of Free State in South Africa, of the 58 products selected and sampled randomly for different maize soya products, 44 tested positive for the presence of GM (Africa Journal of Biotech, 2006).

Furthermore, the researchers said, of the 20 products with a GM-related label, 14 tested positive for GM.

These findings highlight the need for effective regulations to protect consumers against misleading claims by companies bent on reaping huge profits at the expense of the public.

SADC GMO training courses are vital and point to the need for the region to move with speed to undertake research that reassures consumers about the food they eat, creates a data base about GMO information and aids the creation of biosafety boards that will draw up guidelines and have authority to enforce them in line with the Cartagena Biosafety Protocol and the draft African Union Biosafety Model laws.

The harmonisation of positions on biotechnology, biosafety and the handling of GMOs between Sadc member states is the way forward.
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