03 September 2018 Photo Leonie Bolleurs
New appreciation of GMOs after video screening
A group of students and lecturers in the Food Science and Plant Breeding fields at the UFS recently had the opportunity to view the documentary Food Evolution. From the left are: Lesito Lehlohonolo, student in Food Sciences, Dr Adre Minnaar-Ontong, Department of Plant Breeding, and Prof Garry Osthoff, Food Science researcher.

Banana bread, fruit salad, smoothies … Now, imagine a world without any papayas and bananas. 

According to the Institute of Food Technologists (IFT), genetically modified organisms (GMOs) do have a role to play to save food sources such as these. 

In the documentary film, Food Evolution (funded by the IFT), three main GMOs were discussed; the rainbow papaya of Hawaii, the banana of Uganda, and the herbicide-resistant field crops developed in the US. All three needed scientific interventions in order to save them from mass extinction. Should the latter be the case, those countries would have suffered economical losses as well as starvation of large numbers of people.

Seeing is believing

A group of students and lecturers in the Food Science and Plant Breeding fields at the University of the Free State (UFS) recently had the opportunity to view this documentary. The film explores food-related challenges we face globally, the critical role that science will play in addressing them, and the public perceptions and misperceptions involving the science of food.

The IFT funded the documentary to inspire discussion and show the critical role science and innovation play in building a safe, nutritious, and sustainable food supply for everyone.

The SA Association of Food Science and Technology, of which lecturers of the Food Science and Plant Breeding sections are members, made the film available and the Open Forum on Agricultural Biotechnology in Africa sponsored the viewing.

Prof Garry Osthoff from the Department of Microbial Biochemical and Food Biotechnology at the UFS, who convened the viewing of the video at the university, said the content of the film weighs up facts over rumours with regard to GMOs, specifically genetically modified plants. 

The film projects that over the years rumours have spread about the potential health risks caused by GMOs. It was shown that most of these rumours are not true, or are based on unsound scientific research, some of which has been withdrawn from the scientific press.

According to the producers of the film, genetic modification complements normal plant breeding. The large seeds and fruit that we know today, were not like that when agricultural selection started some 5 000 years ago. Breeding for traits of large products with desired taste, took many years. The same accounts for other traits such as disease resistance.

Time is not on our side

According to Prof Osthoff gene modification is nothing more than the selection of the gene of a specific trait in one plant, and the transfer thereof into another. This can be done within once species such as a papaya or wheat. Finding such a trait in the same species may take years, and breeding it in, even longer. Meanwhile, the time elapsed might wipe out the world population of the cultivated species. 

The alternative is to find a trait in one species and implant the responsible gene into another. In the rainbow papaya, a virus resistance gene was donated by a sweet pepper.

The film projected that the greatest challenge is to persuade people of the usefulness and safety of the technique. 

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