It is any technique that uses living organism or parts of organisms or parts of organisms to make or modify products to improve plant or animals or develop micro organisms for specific purposes. The scope of biotechnology includes Virology, Medical biotechnology, crop biotechnology, fermentation, pharmaceuticals biotechnology, environmental biotechnology and industrial biotechnology.
Modern biotechnology or genetic engineering refers to a group of techniques that have a wide application in research and commerce .Modern biotechnology allows for the effective and efficiency transfer of genetic material from one organism to another. Traditional plant breeding that is cross breeding plants for many generations or introducing mutation to introduce a desired trait is imprecise and sometimes result in the introduction of unwanted genes. However through modern biotechnology scientist can identify and insert one or more desirable genes which introduce a particular trait into a plant or microorganism with greater precision and speed.
A genetically modified organism (G.M.O.) is any organism whose genes or genetic material has been modified in a way that does not occur naturally through mating or natural recombination. An example of a G.M.O. is Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) maize. This is maize that has been modified to contain a gene from a bacterium that gives it built-in resistance to the maize stalk borer.
Genetic Modification also known as modern biotechnology or genetic modification can be applied to all living organisms i.e. microorganisms, plants, animals and to develop useful products and services in industries as diverse as drug development, fish farming, forestry, fermentation, mining, industrial processing and environmental management.
A number of currently available drugs and vaccines are produced through genetic engineering. The bulk of insulin available in Zimbabwe is produced by GM microorganisms. Additionally the hepatitis B vaccine administered in Zimbabwe is genetically modified.
GM foods are subjected to very rigorous safety tests before their approval. Currently there is no evidence to support claims that GM foods are not safe. The World Health Organisation (WHO), the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) and the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), have declared that all commercialized GM foods are safe.
Consequently GM foods are consumed in a number of countries. For instance they have been consumed in the USA since 1996 and there are no reports of toxicity, allergenicity or other health complications.
- Maize for insect resistance and herbicide tolerance
- Soya bean for herbicide resistance and fatty acid content.
- Potato for insect resistance and starch content.
- Cotton for insect resistance and herbicide tolerance.
- Oilseed rape for herbicide tolerance and fatty acid content
- Papaya for virus resistance
- Alfalfa for herbicide tolerance
- Squash for virus resistance
- Sugar beet for herbicide tolerance
The above list is not exhaustive. It however shows the bulk of the crops commercialized to date. More and more crops will soon be coming out of biotechnology laboratories as the science of modern biotechnology gathers momentum and acceptance.
Although efforts have been made to ensure that GM foods are labelled there are serious constraints especially with processed and semi-processes products. This is especially true with imported foodstuffs. Most countries are still to segregate and label GM products. This creates problems for countries (e.g. Zimbabwe) that import a lot of foodstuffs especially in a processed and semi-processed form, as the labeling of GM foods is not mandatory in many countries.
Zimbabwe has not yet reached the commercial stage of GMOs. Therefore no GMOs have been released into the environment or the market. GMOs are still confined to laboratories, greenhouses and contained field trials. However due to inadequate foods stocks, the country had to accept donated GM foods. This decision was arrived at after realizing that there are no known adverse effects of GM foods on human health. The bulk of the donations received up to today are mainly in kind from GM producing countries. Measures have however been taken to prevent the planting of GM products by ensuring that donated maize grain is milled under supervision before being distributed to recipients. The donors have also been asked to label the modified food, to allow for informed consumer choice.
There has not yet been a commercial release of GMO animals for human consumption to date, internationally. The very big chickens from South Africa or Brazil that are found in the Zimbabwean markets are therefore not GMO. However they are fed on GMO food and there is surplus food hence they grow very big. Since they will have to be sold to markets far from where they are produced, they are injected with brine solution in order to prevent them from shrinking during freezing for such long periods of time. Consequently the chickens retain their large size after freezing but will shrink and loose taste once cooked.