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GMOs - building better food
published: Thursday | September 18, 2008

Vallana Hill, Contributor

Genetically modified organism (GMO) or genetically engineered organism (GEO) are organisms, whose genetic material has been altered, using genetic engineering techniques. These techniques are generally known as recombinant DNA technology. With this technology, DNA molecules from different sources, are combined into one molecule to create a new set of genes. This DNA is then transferred into an organism, giving it modified or novel traits.

Many GMOs currently being grown, were designed for a number of reasons including: Pest resistance, herbicide tolerance, disease resistance, cold tolerance, drought tolerance, nutrition, medicinal foods and pharmaceuticals such as medicines and vaccines and phytoremediation

Pest resistance - cultivating food crops which eliminate the application of chemical pesticides and reduce the cost of bringing a crop to market.

Herbicide tolerance - farmers usually use herbicides to destroy weeds and they need to ensure that the herbicide does not harm the crop. Crops genetically engineered to be resistant to herbicides could reduce production costs.

Disease resistance - scientists are working to develop GM plants that are resistant to viruses, fungi and bacteria that cause plant disease. For example, scientists have developed a GM papaya which is resistant to the ring spot virus.

Nutrition - rice is a primary staple for many developing countries and it does not contain adequate amounts of all necessary nutrients to prevent malnutrition. By genetically engineering rice so that it contains additional vitamins and minerals, nutrient deficiencies could be alleviated. One example is golden rice that has higher levels of vitamin A

Pharmaceuticals - medicines and vaccines: A number of medicines and vaccines are currently being produced, mainly by genetically modified organisms (bacteria). These include insulin for diabetics, blood- clotting agents, interferon, and anti-viral drug, and hepatitis vaccines.

Phytoremediation - In an effort to clean up soil and groundwater pollution, some trees such as the poplar tree have been genetically engineered to clean up heavy metal pollution from contaminated soil.

However there are risks associated with this form of biotechnology. This can range from human health risks to agricultural risks which can include allergic reactions, resistance to antibiotic, new diseases, insect resistance, disruption in the natural food chain, loss of biological diversity and plant adaptation.

Allergic reactions: The most obvious health concern associated with GMOs is the risk of allergic reaction. Over 90 per cent of food allergies occur in response to specific proteins in milk, eggs, wheat, fish, tree nuts, peanuts, soybeans and shell fish. The risk of allergic reactions may arise when a protein from one of these foods is incorporated into a food that is not a known allergen, possibility creating a new allergen.

Resistance to antibiotics: there is the concern that widespread human consumption of GM foods might lead to an increase in diseases resistant to several types of broad spectrum antibiotics.

Food Chain Disruption - natural consumers of genetically modified plants such as butterflies, have shown to have a change in reproduction and mortality levels

Jamaica is among 103 countries preparing for when the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, which came into effect on September 11 of this year. This protocol, which focuses on the international trade of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), represents the first regulatory, international initiative in the safe handling, transport and use of GMOs, which are derived from modern biotechnology.

Jamaica became a signatory to the Cartagena Protocol on June 4, 2001, and has indicated its general support for the objectives and stipulations of the Protocol. Although Jamaica has not yet ratified the Protocol, the country intends to subject its import and export of GMOs to the provisions of the agreement.

Presently, Jamaica is developing its National Biosafety Framework through a project which began in November 2002, and is jointly funded by the Government of Jamaica and the United Nations Environment Programme and the Global Environmental Facility.

Some examples of GMO's being developed in Jamaica are:

Papaya Resistant to Viral Infection: resistance to papaya ringspot virus (PRSV) processed Cornell University, USA & UWI, Jamaica

Virus Resistant Tomato: insertion of a mutant gene from the virus to prevent replication, processed at UW-Madison, Hebrew Univ., UWI

Jamaica's position on the global market means adapting to changes and ensuring the safety for those we provide for. With the introduction of new techniques for making food, every effort should be made to ensure that our health and safety are kept at hand.

The MIAS is a non-profit organisation of the University of the West Indies, Pure and Applied Sciences Department, offering analytical, technical and, web services and specialised science projects. If you have any question or comments about these articles please e-mail : or contact the MIAS Analytical Services Division at 970-2042 or 512-3067 for enquires on services offered.

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