Inadequate information and a lack of communication by the scientific community were the main contributors to the reluctance by developing countries to embrace the benefits of genetically modified technology, especially among impoverished small farmers of the developing world where crop yields are being diminished by drought, plant viruses and insect attacks. This was some of the feedback from the floor at the United Nations when Professor Jennifer Thomson delivered an address there late last year as a guest of Secretary General Kofi Annan.
Thomson (molecular and cell biology) was one of two guest speakers at the second in a series of lectures hosted by the Secretary General in New York. She shared the podium with Professor Daphne Preuss of the University of Chicago.
Food safety issues took centre stage and Thomson reported that genetically modified foods were currently the only foods being subjected to standard toxicological trials. "So we know they are safe," she said.
"But this doesn't mean we won't continue to monitor them." However, she added that environmental safety issues were of more interest to her. "We need to be doing studies on a very broad scale. We don't want herbicide resistant genes being transferred to weedy relatives, developing super weeds. The environmental impacts need to be addressed on a case by case basis."
Pleading the case for GM technology, Thomson said that the risks had to be weighed up against the benefits, especially in developing regions such as Africa where a cereal shortfall of 90 million tons was expected by 2025, if current agricultural practices were employed.
Looking at a broader application of this technology, Thomson encouraged her audience to view GM applications as potential saving technologies. "In 1974 we didn't know AIDS or the HIV virus existed. If the lobby against genetic modification had been successful in stopping genetic engineering dead in its tracks, we'd never have had a hope of developing a vaccine against HIV/AIDS. If we stop GM technology for crops, we may be losing out on a potential saving technology."
Thomson will be the guest speaker at the first of a new series of discussions, the Vice-Chancellor's External Forum, which will showcase UCT's research expertise to a cross-section of influential decision-makers from government and the corporate and non-profit sectors. The first of these will be held on May 20. Attendance will be by invitation only.
In another coup, Thomson's book Genes for Africa: Genetically Modified Crops in the Developing World
has been short-listed for the Alan Paton Award for Non-Fiction, to be announced on May 10.