Are GMOs Answer to Food Insecurity in Nigeria?

Food stuffs market

Abuja, Nigeria, June 18, 2018//-The application of genetically modified crops into the food system across the world has been a subject of controversy.  Two major groups have emerged in this debate, those who promote it and those who are opposed to it.

According to United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) “are produced through techniques in which the genetic material has been altered in a way that does not occur naturally by mating or natural re-combination.

Another school of thought defines it as a “technological advanced way to select desirable traits in crops.”

It is also called genetic engineering, modern biotechnology, agricultural biotechnology, genetic modification.

In Nigeria, various groups comprising farmers, faith-based organisations, civil society organisations, and students work relentlessly to oppose the introduction of genetically modified (GM) into Nigeria’s food and farming system.

It would be recalled that in 2016, National Biosafety Management Agency (NBMA) issued two permits for the commercial release and placing on market of genetically modified cotton, and the confined field trial of maize, to Monsanto Agriculture Nigeria Limited.

The NBMA established by the National Biosafety Management Agency Act 2015, is saddled with the responsibility of providing regulatory framework, institutional and administrative mechanism for safety measures in the application of modern biotechnology with the view to preventing any adverse effect on human health, animals, plants and environment and other related matters in biosafety in Nigeria.

As a result of this move by NBMA, one of the civil society groups, Health of Mother Earth Foundation (HOMEF), a non-governmental organisation, in the forefront of the campaigns against the introduction of genetically modified foods in Nigeria strongly criticised the activities of the Agency.

The HOMEF has consistently argued that Nigerian farmers have the capacity to meet the food needs of Nigerians if they are supported with extension services, processing and storage facilities as well as adequate rural infrastructure.

“The way to improve economic situation for farmers is to invest in organic agriculture, provide farmers with extension services, needed infrastructure, good roads and access to land and loans. Support for farmers should include investment in research and exploration of agro-ecology approach to the problems of pests and diseases,” HOMEF said.

Nnimmo Bassey, the Director of the Health of Mother Earth Foundation, In an interview with our correspondent, explained why the group is opposed to introduction of GMOs in the country.

According to Bassey, “We are concerned about the safety of the Nigerian environment and about our biodiversity and about our food systems and NBMA’s job to regulate and we want them to regulate according to law.

“We believe that an unhealthy environment cannot produce a healthy population. When you lose biodiversity, you are losing capacity to produce a healthy environment or a resilient environment or to allow people to produce food that will best support them.

“Genetic engineering of any specie has the tendency to reduce diversity. Maybe, there are hundred varieties of maize, and you genetically engineer one and release it to the environment, it is going to cross pollinate with other varieties and once this dominant artificially generated trait enters into the ecosystem it will bring other varieties in a position where they can be affected by disease or by pests or by something that was attracted by that new element that has been introduced, thereby eliminating the capacity of other varieties to survive.”

Speaking further on the health implication of consumption of GMOs, Bassey said: “We believe modern genetic engineering in agriculture is totally unnecessary, it is like a solution looking for a problem.

There is nothing they (GMOs) do that normal crops do not do. They don’t yield higher than normal crops and this is very easy to see. In USA, almost all the corns are genetically engineered but the bulk of the corns’ variety in Europe are not. There, agricultural practices are almost the same but there is no much difference in the yield.

“Now the health problems caused by GM foods come from two major angles and these are two major reasons why crops are engineered. They are engineered to withstand the herbicides produced by the companies who manipulate the seeds because nobody makes the seeds ab initio.

Now when the herbicide is sprayed across the field and these GM seeds are planted, every other thing dies including the organisms in the soil. A lot of things will be killed in the process including useful soil nutrients. Some of these herbicides will penetrate the crops. Though they won’t kill the one you planted, but it’s already there. And when you eat these foods, the chemicals will now be transmitted into the human body.”

He contended that serious challenges which GMOs posed in the areas of toxicology, allergy and immune dysfunction and genetic disorders have made it imperative for Nigeria to adopt precautionary principle.

In the same vein, the Nigeria Institute of Food, Science and Technology (NIFST) had also warned that Genetically Modified Seedlings would be inimical to the country’s local seedlings. President of NIFST, Dahiru Adamu, said in an interview to journalists that “the genetically modified seeds would make it impossible for our local seedlings to be productive for farmers and the nation.”

However, the Director General of NBMA, Dr. Rufus Ebegba, has maintained that “Science does not thrive on emotion or hear-say.

He said the decisions made by NBMA are not based on emotion or democracy but on verifiable scientific evidence which can be proven anywhere in the world.

Ebegba accused HOMEF of “frustrating government’s efforts to attain food security through the application of technology.”  In a statement, the Agency said: “The attention of the National Biosafety Management Agency (NBMA) has been drawn to a series of incisive and unpatriotic statements peddled by the Health for Mother Earth Foundation (HOMEF) about the agency and its activities.

“While the agency does not want to banter with HOMEF or any of its kind, it is important to state here that NBMA is a government agency established by law as a regulatory agency to ensure the safe handling and use of modern biotechnology and its products which include Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs).

The agency defended its approval of permits for the confined field trials of some genetically modified crops, explaining that due process was followed in the review of the applications and it ensured that the necessary requirements were met before the permits were granted.

“The agency has no intention and will never verbally engage HOMEF, but these statements made against the agency are not only incisive, but negate the efforts of the Federal Government of Nigeria to ensure safety in the application of the technologies that assure Nigerians of food security and food safety. It will be wrong and indeed out of place to accuse the Agency of complicity as the Agency is an unbiased umpire and has the interest of Nigerians at heart in the process of regulation and as such can’t be involved in anything that will cause harm to the people and the environment,” Ebegba said.

In her submission, the Country Coordinator of Open Forum on Agricultural Biotechnology (OFAB), Dr. Rose Gidado, said the only solution to achieving hunger-free Nigeria and self-sufficiency in food production remains the application of Genetically Modified (GM) technology in agriculture.

In an interview with DAILY INDEPENDENT in Abuja, Gidado explained that the technology develops crops that are highly nutritious, disease-resistant and climate-smart which conventional crops cannot address.

Gidado who dismissed the protests of the anti-GMO group as “mere propaganda and politically-motivated,” insisted that the technology is evidence-based and highly regulated in the country.

“The GMO technology is science and science has not failed us. The technology is evidence-based. The issue of portraying GMOs as poison is not factual. It is highly safe. It is only GM technology that can take Nigeria to the promised land of zero hunger.

“With this technology, we can develop climate smart crops that will withstand rise in temperature and drought. With adoption of GM crops, farmers need fewer chemicals to spread on their crops. It is cost effective and environmentally friendly. The yield is high and in the long run, the farmers smile”, Gidado said

Gidado, who also a Deputy Director in the National Biotechnology Development Agency (NABDA), further explained the reason for low acceptance of GMOs in Nigeria and Africa.

“The acceptance of the products of this technology is low, Africans and other people globally; even policy-makers are confused when it comes to decision-making on the issue of genetic modified products due to mis-information, the myths that have been placed by the green pigs and other anti-genetically modified groups.

“They have said the products from these crops cause cancer, they are hazardous. They mystify these products. They will draw a tomato and put teeth on it. This has led to low acceptance as they put fears into people which ordinarily are not supposed to be like that. The products are original. They are produced through natural means. The technology was developed to solve just certain problems that cannot be solved by other means except this technology. We are trying to de-mystify the crops. Our vision is to ensure a food secure Africa through the use of modern technology.

“Every technology that has come to stay had its own challenges at the beginning. I believe that with time, government officials will get to understand. With global warming, climate change and huge population in Nigeria, this technology will be adopted in Nigeria,” she assured.

In her remarks at the faith-based workshop in Abuja organised by OFAB, Nigeria Chapter, Prof. Longe, a Fellow of Nigerian Academy of Science, said for the past 20 years, GMOs have been consumed globally, they have been researched upon and no evidence has been scientifically found against it.

“There are results of researches that have been carried out especially those sponsored by FAO to look into the deleterious effect of GMOs. And the statement made by FAO, after the research, was that, there is no deleterious effect from the consumption of foods derived from GMO worldwide,” she enthused.

To quote Pope Francis, “There is no conclusive evidence against GMOs but there are concerns.” To address these concerns, there is the need for sustained awareness and enlightenment for policy-makers, farmers, civil society groups, health practitioners and other critical stakeholders on the benefits of GMOs.

Undoubtedly, with the setting up of NBMA and the enactment of biosafety law by the National Assembly, “Nigeria has clearly positioned itself to take its rightful leadership role in biotechnology enterprise, leading to the development and commercialisation GM crops and other useful products,” in the words of Dr. Abdulrazak Ibrahim, a Biochemistry lecturer at Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria.

By Chibuzor Emejor

This article was originally published on Independent.ng 

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