Beguiling attraction of GMO foods

The Director General of the National Biotechnology Development Agency (NABDA), Prof Abdullahi Mustapha, recently said that it has become imperative for the agency to partner with medical practitioners in the country on sensitising Nigerians about the safety of Genetically Nodified Organisms, GMOs, in order to disabuse their minds from wrong information they have received.

He was addressing a one-day biotechnology and biosafety sensitization workshop for the medical practitioners on the theme: “Science Safety and Benefits of Agricultural Biotechnology Products’, pointing out that ‘’Nigeria is growing poorer and the agricultural environment is deteriorating.

Seed varieties perform low and are obsolete and do not correspond to the new climatic factors.’’ GMO, according to World Health Organisation, is a plant, animal and microbe whose genetic material has been changed using genetic engineering techniques.

According to experts, to produce a GM to plant, a new DNA is transferred into plant cells, then the cells are grown in tissue culture where they develop into plants. The seeds produced by these plants will inherit the new DNA.

Potential advantages of GMO crops reportedly include increased attractiveness to consumers for example, apples and potatoes that are less likely to bruise or turn brown, enhanced flavour, longer shelf life and therefore less waste, increased nutritional value as in golden rice which can boost the health of people with limited access to foods, and the ability to grow in salty soil.

However, people have concerns over the safety of GMO crops to human health and the environment. GMOs are still a relatively new concept which experts say create the risk of long term environmental damage such as infertile soil, biodiversity loss and new GMO – resistant pests. There is evidence that GMOs can cause cancer and allergies.

GM crops are plants and, as such, cannot be easily controlled. Contamination from GM plants could have serious ecological, economic and social impacts. Pollen from GMO plants can travel long distances by way of wind and insects .

Such gene flow from GM crops pose a threat to wild and weedy crops species to non-GM crops and to organic farming. Therefore GM crops can never co-exist with non-GM crops of the same species without the risk of contaminating them, especially in Africa where tight controls over seeds and farming is unrealistic. In fact the use of some GM crops can have negative effect on non-target organisms and on soil and water ecosystems.

Experts say A-terminator and A-traitor technologies are two examples of genetic use restriction technologies (GURTS). A-Terminator seeds are genetically modified so that the plants that they grow into produces sterile seeds which cannot germinate in the next season. A-traitor technology produces GM crops that need to be sprayed with certain chemicals in order to grow properly.

These technologies are reportedly specifically targeted at developing countries but offer no positive benefits to farmers at all. GM technologies will cause African farmers to become wholly dependent on seed companies for their seed supply and for the costly chemicals that their seeds will not be able to grow without.

Nigeria , leading other African countries is in danger of becoming the dumping ground for the struggling GM industry and the laboratory for greedy scientists. The push to bring GM crops in African agriculture is not letting up even as the GM industry is faltering across the world. The supply of American GM agricultural products to Africa could foster dependence on foreign companies for GM seeds supply and will have a negative impact on our national agro – industrial complex. It would diminish our crop diversity and local agricultural products and ultimately affect the economic interest of African farmers who practice organic farming.

Africa exports a large number of organic agricultural goods to European nations , and prefer to avoid GMOs. In fact in 2015 a European commission rule was passed that gave European union countries the ability to opt out of growing GM crops even though many countries already had a de facto ban in place .

Nineteen countries chose not to grow GMOs with the major ones being Austria, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Poland and Scotland. This is why majority of African trading partners stick to traditional crop varieties . Hesitation to adopt GMOs in African states stems from concerns for food safety, ethics, environmental risks, loss of biodiversity and lack of regulations.

The United States trade partners who restrict GMO imports cost the U.S millions of dollars in lost revenue. A 2020 study that examined this issue found that the U.S. corn and soybean exports sectors lost over $14 million in exports revenue because they could not meet non- GMO demand.

To counter these losses, stakeholders with close ties to the GM industry are lobbying for the global adoption of GMOs through the dissemination of positive information about their benefits. But at state level in the US, there is grass roots push to limit the domestic expansion of GM crop cultivation.

Nigeria and some African countries seem to have been captured by these lobbyists. Already GMO maize, beans, cotton and soybean have been officially approved for commercialization by the Nigerian authorities with Nigeria listed among the African countries leading in biotech crop adoption in the continent.

The recent workshop on biotechnology and biosafety sensitization for medical practitioners is to induct our physicians into the lobby for the wide spread use of GM products in Nigeria on the grounds that they are safe to plant expecting abundant yield to feed our hungry population.

Even when hunger in Africa is not due to lack of enough food but the poor purchasing power of the population because of poverty rooted in trade liberalisation in the context of deep global inequality.

Abubakar writes from Ilorin, Kwara state