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GMOs… Still a long way to go in Nigeria

Thecla Ayoka FASLN and Abdulsalam Mahmud FASLN

Thursday, 15 October 2020

The idea, concept and rationale behind the birth of genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) foods may be welcoming and visionary to some experts. But not for Nnimmo Bassey.

Bassey, who is not only an architect, and a poet, but also a renowned environmental activist, in an interview, corroborated the fear of many anti-GMO exponents. He said genetically modified (GM) foods pose serious danger to humans, soil organisms and other living creatures.

The acclaimed environmentalist, observed that, “those promoting GMOs are fear mongers screaming that Nigeria cannot feed itself because of ballooning population, whereas the matter of food availability is not addressed by the GMOs they are promoting. In fact, the arguments used in promoting GMOs have always been the same over the years since 1996, when the first GMO was released.”

GMOs in Nigeria, other countries

Like in some other nations, Nigeria is where GM foods are also found in the market, though most of them are not actually produced in the country. GMOs are organisms, plants, animals and micro-organisms that have their DNAs altered using genetic engineering techniques. This, for example, can enable the particular crops or plants to develop some resistance against diseases, insects, pests, harsh weather conditions, as well as to enhance nutrition.

What GM crops’ farmers earn

According to a new global report, farmers that grew GM crops earned an extra $225 billion between 1996 and 2018. The report said that for each extra $1 invested in GM crop seeds, farmers gained an average $3.75 as income.

In developing nations, the benefits of using GM crops are even greater, where the average return was $4.41 for each extra $1 invested in GM crop seed. Only South Africa, Swaziland and Sudan are currently growing GM crops commercially in Africa. Nigeria, having approved GM cotton and cowpea, is now distributing the improved seeds to its farmers, while Kenya and Ethiopia are in the process of deploying BT cotton. A dozen other African countries have GM crop research projects under way, with some of the experiments ongoing for more than a decade now.

Approving GM cowpea

After nearly a decade of research by scientists, Nigeria approved its first genetically modified (GM) food crop, in January 2019. The cowpea, which is pest resistant, was released into the market after the National Biosafety Management Agency (NBMA), had affirmed its safety.

Prof. Ibrahim Abubakar, Executive Director of the Institute for Agricultural Research (IAR) at the Ahmadu Bello University (ABU) Zaria, explained that GM cowpea, which provides built-in resistance to the pod bearer (Maruca vitrata) insect, will significantly decrease pesticide use.

Abubakar, said scientists decided to venture into genetic modification in cowpea breeding because pest infestations had made cowpea farming difficult, economically unprofitable and even dangerous, as farmers were exposed to pesticide sprays.

Meditating on Beach
Covid 19

ASLN Fellow, Mahmud (seated left) interviewing Dr. Ebegba, the DG of NBMA in his office, in Abuja.

Not against GMOs, not promoting them--NBMA

In an interview with this reporter, Dr. Rufus Ebegba, Director General of the National Biosafety Management Agency (NBMA), said while NBMA does not promote GMOs, it is also not against their consumption.

On how NBMA makes sure that GM foods and products are safe for human consumption, Ebegba, explained: “What we do basically is to confirm the various risks assessment data and the analysis that has been carried out by the producers of the GMOs. We also do what is called toxicity test and food safety test, together with the socio-economic analysis of any GMO product. The laboratory we have basically is to confirm whether any food product is genetically-modified, and analyze the quantity of the gene of insert. We also look at it to analyze the genum, which is the totality of the morphological composition of any GMO product.”

According to the NBMA helmsman, when there is an application for the certification of any GM product, their agency constitutes what is called a ‘National Biosafety Committee’ made up of ministries and agencies that have relationship with the subject matter.

“Then, we also constitute another ‘National Biosafety Technical Committee’ made up of three or four persons who are highly knowledgeable in any particular crop we are looking at. These various committees submit their reports to the agency and the agency takes a decision. But before even doing that, we normally do a 21-day public notice advert in three media houses, and then deposit the application dossiers, and other relevant documents in our website for members of the public to look at the documents that have been submitted, so that they can guide the agency if they find anything unusual in the application or product that is about to be released,” he said.

GMOs safer than conventional foods

Maintaining that the domestication of GMOs is already taken place in Nigeria, Dr. Rose Maxwell Gidado, revealed that the GM cowpea, which is undergoing field demonstration in some selected states, is responding very well.

Gidado, a Deputy Director at the National Biotechnology Development Agency (NABDA), argued that GM foods or products are very safe because they have history of safe use in developed countries where the technology is being adopted. She said GM products are highly scrutinized, and even safer than our conventional foods that are not regulated.

Dr. Maxwell Gidado, who is also the Country Coordinator for the Open Forum on Agricultural Biotechnology (OFAB) in Africa, said NABDA’s intensive awareness campaign and media sensitization on the benefits of GMOs helped bridge the information gap on GMOs between scientific and non-scientific community in Nigeria.

Farmers don’t know GM crops exist--FAN

While the breakthrough the country recorded by producing the GM cowpea is laudable, Dr. Nwosu Godfrey, the Secretary General of the Farmers Association of Nigeria (FAN), said its application by farmers will be another different thing entirely.

“Until it gets down to the grassroots, and become adopted by farmers, it will be difficult to say that the GM technology can play a great role in ensuring food security. Besides, I have not come across farmers who are talking about the GM cowpea for now. They don’t even know anything about it,” he added.

Godfrey, who is also an animal scientist, while pointing out that FAN does not have any objection to the GM cowpea and other modified crops so long as they help to improve farmers’ yields, however emphasized the need for massive enlightenment of rural farmers on improved crops by extension workers.

'Don’t waste resources on failed technology’

While maintaining that Nigeria does not need GMOs, Mr. Bassey, who was one of Time Magazine's ‘Heroes of the Environment’ in 2009, stated: “What we need is a farming system where farmers are adequately supported and assured of good farm gate prices for their harvest. We need well-funded research Institutes, where students learn the best techniques of agroecology, local knowledge and technologies. Our researchers can study GMOs in their laboratories and build knowledge in that direction. Government should not waste its time and resources funding propaganda, which only seeks to promote a failed and risky technology that is a potent driver of species contamination and possibly extinction.”

Why fear of GMOs persists

On why there is growing apprehension on approving the use of GMOs imported into the country, Thecla Ayoka, said, among several other factors, there is the fear of depending on industrial countries for food production, as the food market will be controlled by them.

Ayoka, a lecturer at the Department of Science Laboratory Technology, University of Nigeria, Nsukka (UNN), added: "To the best of my knowledge, I am yet to see anybody that was negatively affected from eating GMO foods but that does not remove the negative effects of GMOs. The reason may be that those around me consume less of GMO foods."

Varsities should brainstorm on GMOs

According to Dr. Charles Nnadi, consumers of GM foods, generally, are always afraid of some unfounded deleterious effects such as allergic reactions, harmful genetic changes, less nutritious foods and cancer.

Nnadi, Senior lecturer in the Department of Pharmaceutical and Medicinal Chemistry, at UNN, noted that some GM foods are produced from DNA containing allergens.

According to him, where non-labeled, these allergens can be consumed unknowingly and may trigger anaphylaxis which is a serious allergic reaction that happens very quickly and in some cases may be lethal.

"Some allergic diseases such as allergic rhinitis, eczema, hives, asthma and food allergy can also be deteriorated by allergens in GM foods. While some claimed effects have not been proven, consuming non-labeled GM foods can worsen underlying terminal disease conditions," he said.

As the hub of experts, Dr. Nnadi, called on Nigerian universities to organize workshops and conferences regularly to brainstorm on the challenges of GM foods in Nigeria.

His words: "All Nigerian universities should be able to establish a separate Department of Biotechnology and Food Safety, and hire experts in GM foods to man the establishment. This will provide the researchers with facilities and manpower to carry out researches on crops’ genetic modification, to boost food security and nutritional health of GM foods consumers."

This special report was supported by the African Science Literacy Network (ASLN).

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