The interchangeable concepts of Biotechnology and Genetic Engineering can refer to the application of engineering principles to the processing of materials by biological agents to provide goods and services. These concepts have become commonplace of debates around the globe. One common element with the two is “genetic modification”, which simply implies the manipulation of an organism’s genetic make-up in order to create or enhance desirable characteristics from the same or another species (Australian Department of the Environment and Heritage, 2001).
In 1980s, the scientific discovery became eminent that specific pieces of DNA could be transferred from one organism to another and that became the basis of the genetic modification process (Cramer, 2001). The first genetically modified food to reach peoples’ dining tables was the transgenic Flavr Savr tomato grown in California. And it received Food and Drug Administration approval in 1994, after two years of testing and assessment. However, increasing production costs made the crop product unprofitable and therefore forced its production to cease in 1997 (Diana Bocco, 2014)
On a flip note, organic agriculture has attracted conventional producers, due mainly to the price premiums in the market. The consumption of organic food products has grown significantly throughout the industrialized world. Sale of organic foods in Europe, North America, Australia and Japan has exceeded $114.5 billion (Makatouni, 2002). Studies have shown that consumers’ selections of foods are influenced by many factors including health concerns, convenience, and environmental considerations.
Keeping the balance between organic agriculture and genetic engineering, or transitioning from the latter to organic farming can be confusing partly due to the arguments in favour of genetic engineering. Notwithstanding the increasing commercial successes of the application of biotechnology, a widespread debate focusing on the ecological, human health and socio-economic effects like everywhere, is taking place in Sierra Leone.
Increasing public concerns on food safety issues using GM organisms, pesticide residues and hormones, have shown huge effects on the markets for foods produced by alternative processes such as organic and integrated pest management (IPM). Many studies have sited reasons why consumer preferences have moved toward organic food products.
The greater question to deal with could be, are the perceived risks of agro-biotechnology powerful enough that marketers of organic food can use them to attract more consumers?
The Debate - Risks and Benefits of GMOs
Consumers who are opposed to the application of genetic engineering in food production argue that using this technology in crop production has significant negative consequences. They fear that inserted genes could be allergenic or harmful to human health (Moon and Balasubramanian, 2003; Hansen, 2001; Vogt and Parish, 1999). Examples of such fear included a possibility of new genes inadvertently causing plants to produce toxins at higher levels than are present naturally, which could create long-term negative health consequences. Further, genes from genetically modified plants may escape into the environment through cross-fertilization, posing risks to the natural ecosystem (Caplan, 2001).
Moral issues surrounding the technology have manifested in the form of a belief system that it is immoral to alter God’s creations using genetic engineering techniques. Others have pointed to the inequitable distribution of the economic benefits of such technologies (Wohl, 1999). For example, many believe that multinational biotech corporations are the main beneficiaries of agro-biotechnology while consumers assume most of the risks involved. Further, increasing control of multinational corporations over small-scale family farming and gradual disappearance of small farms (e.g. dairy industry) are some of the negative attributes of agro-biotechnology. Other risks of genetically modified crops include potential hazards to natural ecosystem and human health.
On the other hand, supporters of technologies of genetic manipulation argue that the application of such to crop production will bring substantial benefits to societies while revolutionizing the way crops are produced (Moon and Balasubramanian, 2003). Some of the specific benefits of the technology include improved environmental quality (e.g., less soil erosion and infertility) by reducing the use of pesticides and herbicides in crop production (Magnusson and Hursti, 2002; Pinstrup-Andersen and Schioler, 2000) and improved nutritional value of foods (e.g., rice with improved quantities of Vitamin A; soybean with fatty acid and reduced phytate contents). More importantly, supporters of genetic modification believe that that technology will mitigate food shortages in developing nations by increasing yields with crops resistant to various pests, insects or drought (Moon and Balasubramanian, 2003). Mainly therefore, the benefits include its ability to potentially reduce world food shortages by increasing yields, followed by its ability to improve environmental quality by reducing the use of chemicals in agricultural production.
In Sierra Leone, the level of acceptance or rejection of the technology appears to corroborate with surveys that showed that the levels of education and gender have significant difference in explaining public acceptance of biotech foods. Some results showed that males and respondents with higher education were more likely to accept biotech foods (Moon and S, 2003; Nature of Science, 2000). Heiman, Just, and Zilberman (2000) also showed that education had a significant role in explaining consumers’ attitudes toward biotech foods. In other instances, there is a general lack of effective information/education programs that promote or discourage the use of such technologies or produce of the same.
Threat to Organic Farming
To a large extent, farming in Sierra Leone is by default organic. This could be so, due to the high and unaffordable costs of agricultural inputs including agro-chemicals. In the Eastern District of Kailahun for instance where cocoa farmers are now benefitting from opportunities of fair trade, could be satirically attributed to long neglect of the farms during the 11-year civil war and its aftermath. The lands were untouched by pesticides and other chemicals for more than a decade, making them ripe for organic cocoa.
In the short term, this trend may yield dividend. However, there is an imminent long-term threat as Bio-Technology food, which has no room to spare, continues to creep in. The now organic farmers may suffer from a seeming bio-warfare for a place in global food production, especially in situations of loose regulations. A possibility of gene transfer to non-target species has huge implication to organic farming, in that crop plants engineered for herbicide tolerance and weeds may crossbreed, resulting in the transfer of the herbicide resistance genes from the crops into the weeds and these super weeds can subsequently impact on crops under organic farming.
Current investigations reveal that due to the high rate of gene transfer on bio fields coupled with the rate of proliferation of GM foods, within 50-100 years, the majority of organic foods today may no longer be organic. This therefore poses serious food insecurity threat for Sierra Leone and the continent at large.
Trade and Policy Perspective GM Foods in the Wake of Ebola
Though Sierra Leone like most parts of Africa is highly naturally resourceful, yet, it is among the weakest countries on the continent, and on the globe with the lowest capacity for such resource utilization. Industrial nations may often take advantage of this weakness, and of which Biotechnologists and GM food producers are no exception. In essence food safety is not often given priority in a region where food insecurity, political instability, communicable diseases, natural disasters and other major concerns dominate government agendas. However, noting the UNFAO assertion, food safety is of critical importance to Africa because of its aggravating impact over the above listed concerns.
In Sierra Leone, linking resource poor farmers to profitable markets and industrial users of new emerging raw materials and urban food items represent huge opportunities. This reposes huge responsibility on the Sierra Leone Standards Bureau which is the National Statutory body responsible for the management of food safety related issues in Sierra Leone and by law, also a conformity assessment body mandated by the Standards Act No. 2 of 1996 to carryout products assessment through inspection, testing and issuance of certificates of conformity to quality.
Consistent with the Government’s Agenda for Prosperity, the Sierra Leone Produce Marketing Company (SLPMC), through diversification initiatives beyond its traditional exports of Coffee, Cocoa, and Palm Kernel is engaged in the development of niche market of the non–traditional agricultural commodities such as Rice, cassava, sorghum, Cashew nut and palm oil. Mindful of production, particularly for access to international markets, these commodities must meet specific requirements in terms of varieties, sizes, packaging and labelling, agronomic practices, and certification (organic/fair trade), for which a seed bill has been developed and a Seed Board formed.
In wake of the Ebola crisis, Sierra Leone seems to suffer from the lack of choices in production and introduction of crop varieties that could meet international benchmarks. However, this trend may be short-lived because the country places prime importance on food safety while making food sale and purchase, as long as organic food consumers are willing to pay premium price. Growth in organic food market is largely dependent on continued reinforcement of consumers’ belief that organic foods are safer than GM foods.
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