Biotechnology is a way to improve food, crops and animals by selectively giving them new qualities, such as more vitamins and minerals and better nutritional value.
Genetic modification is a form of biotechnology.
The idea comes from the early practice of cross-breading and selection to develop new crop varieties and animal breeds – this practice created the seedless grape!
However, with modern biotechnology, instead of mixing thousands of traits from two plants, only the specific characteristics are added to a plant.
Why use it?
Using biotechnology, a desired characteristic can be added to a plant. This means that food can be improved to have extra nutrients and therefore contribute additional and unique health benefits.
Some of the food improvements related to biotechnology include tomatoes with a higher lycopene content, bananas that fight diseases and have added nutrients, and coffee beans that are grown naturally without caffeine.
Farmers benefit most from biotechnology as it gives them new tools to control weeds, pests and diseases. Since 1997, South African farmers have had multiple benefits of increased productivity and decreased use of pesticides using biotech cotton.
By having the new ways to fight pests and diseases, food can also be grown in a more environmentally friendly way.
Why would it be beneficial to Africa and South Africa?
People in Africa do not have enough to eat. Both smallholder and large-scale commercial farmers need new ways to protect the environment and grow better crops.
Genetic modification can contribute to sustainable food production, greater food security and the alleviation of poverty.
Are biotech foods available to us?
In SA the authorities have approved the production of genetically improved cotton, which has been grown for almost ten years, white and yellow maize, and soybeans.
There are no genetically modified fruits or vegetables in SA at present.
Are these foods safe?
The biggest concern when it comes to biotech foods is the safety of these foods. Safety issues that need to be studied include possible toxicity of foods and allergic reactions to these foods.
Biotech crops undergo years of research and testing and are only released for commercial production when they have satisfied the requirements of the National Departments of Agriculture, Health and Environment.
In SA there is a functioning genetic modification legislation in place.
How do we know if we are eating genetically modified foods?
Food labelling regulations are also becoming stricter and more informative so that the consumers can make an informed choice when buying their food.
The regulations for foods with genetically modified organisms were published in January 2005, but have not become compulsory.
- (Kim Hofmann, The Lean Aubergine, August 2006)