Much ado about genetically modified food

SAMSON BENJAMIN in this report examines the raging debate over a bill in the National Assembly which seeks to expand the scope of genetically modified foods in Nigeria amidst growing safety concerns.

One of the greatest global challenge today, especially in Africa, is how to make food more sustainable. In Nigeria, as in many other African countries, food security and nutrition remain a critical challenge. Production constraints like invasion of insects/pests and diseases, inadequate rainfall and poor quality of agricultural input are some of the major contributors to low agricultural output.

In a bid to solve these challenges, many countries are adopting genetic engineering in agriculture thus the introduction of Genetically Modify Foods (GMOs).

Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) are plants, animals, microorganisms or other organisms whose genetic makeup have been modified in a laboratory using genetic engineering or transgenic technology.

Despite the clear link between agricultural productivity and technology, there are, however, uncertainties and confusion in government responses to a wide range of agricultural, health, social, economic and environmental issues associated with the application and regulation of modern biotechnology in agricultural practice. Thus many African countries are reluctant to approve the use of GMO.

Nigeria officially signed the Biosafety Bill into law in 2015, making it eligible to join the league of nations that are already using genetic engineering (GE), also called genetic modification (GM), to boost food production.

Since then, there has been a protracted debate over the application of genetically modified crops into the food system in Nigeria. These protracted debates over their use and possible dangers have birthed two groups- Pro-GMO and Anti-GMO.

Similarly, a proposed bill to expand the scope of the 2015 National Biosafety Management Agency (NBMA) Act; to include evolving aspects of biotechnology such as ‘gene drives, gene editing and synthetic biology’ has further set the Pro and anti GMO groups on collision course.

The controversial bill

The bill, sponsored by the chairman, House Committee on Environment and Habitat, Obinna Chidoka, representing Idemili North/South Federal Constituency in Anambra state, has  passed first reading and second reading, as well as public hearing and is now at the committee stage.

The preamble of the bill reads: “An Act to Amend the National Biosafety Management Agency Act, 2015 to enlarge the scope of the application and include other evolving aspects of the application of modern biotechnology in Nigeria with a view to preventing any adverse effect on human health and the environment; and for Related Matters.”

The bill also seeks to amend Section 43 of the NBMA Act by predominantly inserting the three advanced biotechnology methods.

They are: Gene drive which is a genetic engineering technology that can propagate a particular suite of genes throughout a population by adding, deleting, disrupting and modifying genes.

Gene editing, which is a type of genetic engineering in which DNA is inserted, deleted, modified or replaced in the genome of a living organism using scientific techniques?

Synthetic biology is a field of study that encompasses the design and engineering of biological components that can be used to construct a variety of biological systems.

CSOs kick

The amendment to the bill is in spite of growing opposition by a coalition of Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) against the introduction of GMOs in the country.

Health of Mother Earth Foundation (HOMEF), an organisation at the forefront of the campaign against GMO products raised concern over the three major components of the proposal.

Director of HOMEF, Mr Nnimo Bassey, argued that use of gene drive organisms has the potential of wiping off whole species of organisms.

“At this time there is no agreement on how to carry out risk assessments or establish risk management measures for gene drive organisms…

“Until a global agreement is reached on how to carry out risk assessments exist; we would be concerned that any new framework enabling new gene-edited changes might also have the effect of creating loopholes…”

Going by the definition of ‘Synthetic Biology’, in the bill, Mr Bassey argued that doors will be open for all sorts of synthetic organisms to be released or experimented in Nigeria.

 “Our stand on this proposed bill is that the current regulatory system should first be strengthened. Or better still, we recommend an outright prohibition of the dangerous, evolving technology.

“We ask Hon. Obinna Chidoka and other supporters of the NBMA Amendment Bill to call it off in consideration of the highlighted risks that adoption of extreme biotechnology poses to food webs, ecosystems, biodiversity, our national economy and overall human and environmental safety.”

Also, the Nigeria Institute of Food, Science and Technology (NIFST) warned that Genetically Modified Seedlings would be inimical to the country’s local seedlings.

President of NIFST, Dahiru Adamu, told the News Agency of Nigeria (NAN) that “the genetically modified seeds would make it impossible for our local seedlings to be productive for farmers and the nation.

“Once we allow genetically modified seeds to come into Nigeria to be planted by our farmers, which may mark the end of Nigeria. This is because by the time these seedlings are planted, one, two to five years, it will compare with our local seedlings and will not allow them to germinate.

“This will lead us to buying seeds from them and therefore, hold us to ransom, and become the determinant factor whether the country gets food or not and in turn become a big problem for the country,” Adamu said.

Health concerns

In a chat with Blueprint Weekend, the Managing Director of Global Prolife Alliance (GPA), a leading health, legal and environmental organisation, Prof. Philip C. Njemanze, pointed out that over 80 million urban population may be eating GMOs on a regular basis ranging from simple foods like foreign apples and bananas to biscuits and soya products.

He lamented the rising use of Monsanto Glysophate pest controller called ‘roundup’ that has been linked with infertility, hormonal abnormalities, birth defects and cancer.

This he attributed to the ‘mysterious’ rise of autism in Nigeria adding that the prevalence of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) among sub-Saharan African children with intellectual disability is about 0.7 percent more than three decades ago according to a research by International Society for Autism, Wiley on  ‘Autism spectrum disorder in sub-Saharan Africa’

According to him, “In an environment like Nigeria where corruption prevails, the biotechnology companies could bribe officials to look the other way on crucial information on the health hazards of GMO crops.”

He maintained that the GM beans scheduled for market release in Nigeria causes cancer, liver disease and renal failure.

Njemanze hinted that despite several letters written to the Presidency, Federal Executive Council (FEC) and governors on the health hazards of GMO crops they failed to respond.                            

“The rising rate of cancers, infertility, mental diseases, and autistic spectrum disorders in children in Nigeria is related to the increasing use of Monsanto Roundup pesticide – Glysophate. The pesticide when used kills weeds but spares GMO crops.”

The expert said that the European Environmental Protection Agency which intercepted beans from Nigeria exported into the EU noted that it has 400 times contamination with dangerous chemicals like dichlorovos which is above the threshold allowed for humans.

This he said was why importation of food into the EU from Nigeria was banned adding that crops from Nigeria which showed one per cent contamination with GMOs would earn a total ban in EU, Russia, USA, China and among others.

Pro-GMO groups hail technology

However, pro-GMO civil society groups led by the National Biotechnology and Biosafety Consortium (NBBC) has said the development of the Pod-Borer Resistant Cowpea (PBR-Cowpea), a GMO product is a confirmation of our expertise in Nigeria to be able to provide a home grown solution to our pest and diseases problems in agriculture.

President of NBBC  Celestine Aguoru in a chat with Blueprint Weekend said those behind the call condemning the achievement of Nigerian scientists are enemies of the country who are bent on opening up the country to unregulated GMOs and chemicals so as to make farming unattractive.

Aguoru argued that the modification of beans, just one crop has brought so many benefits to the country. He said: “The benefits include reduction in the use of dangerous chemicals, protection of Nigeria’s position as the largest producer of beans.

“Reduction in the spending of Nigeria’s foreign exchange in the purchase of over 500,000 tons of beans annually from other countries.

 “Farmers can now heave a sigh of relief from chemicals which they have to spray about 10 times for each beans season and that Nigeria is going to save a lot of foreign exchange used in the importation of chemicals.”

Aguoru noted that all over the world, countries that have attained appreciable heights in their development strides had relied on their universities and science and technology.

According to him, “our universities here have started living up to their expectations, so the call by arm-chaired activists should be seen as a serious disservice to the nation.”

“Would they prefer we stagnate our research and development while other nation’s progress? He asked.

He enjoyed government to increase funding for more research into GMO’s”

He further said: “We are also using this platform to call on the federal government to ignore the call by the non-scientific activists to ban the GM beans because it is safe and poses no proven harm to human or animals.

“We urge the Federal Government to increase budgetary allocations to universities and research institutes to enable them undertake research that meets national aspirations as we have seen in this case PBR Cowpea.

“The achievement from ABU Zaria has shown clearly that the need for a research and innovation funding for the country is long overdue,” he said.

Similarly, National Coordinator, Real Life Global Humanitarian Foundation, Akinsoji Akinsola, said that as responsible civil society groups they are in support of any meaningful technology that will lessen the burden of stress farmers go through.

Akinsola, who is coordinator of over 76 NGOs, said that the only way to make farming profitable in the country is to introduce technologies.

Biosafety management emphases safety

At a one-day workshop organised as part of the government’s efforts to strengthen the Nigerian biosafety system, the Director General, National Biosafety Management Agency (NBMA), Dr. Rufus Ebegba, reiterated the firm commitment of the Agency to put safety first in the regulation GMOs in Nigeria.

Ebegba stressed that government deemed it fit to establish NBMA so as to save Nigeria from becoming a dumping ground for unregulated GMOs and their by-products with the state-of-the-art GMO Detection and Analysis Laboratory of the NBMA ensuring that proper safety analysis are carried on GMOs.

He said: the Nigerian biosafety system is the best in Africa as government has resolved to exploit the potentials of modern technology with a proper regulatory mechanism in place to safeguard human health, environment and biodiversity from potential adverse impact.

“Modern biotechnology is an improvement on the traditional modification of organisms and there is need to regulate this practice. Government has put in place the necessary legal framework to regulate modern biotechnology; with this, the Agency will not condone breach of law by individuals or organisations to trade in GMOs without a biosafety permit from NBMA,” he said.

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