Nigerian scientists, experts disagree on GM foods

5. Wheat farm in Wurno
Wheat farm in Wurno

By Ebere Agozie, News Agency of Nigeria

Climate change and rising temperatures are expected to continue over time. The extent of the change depends primarily on the amount of heat-trapping gases emitted and how the earth reacts to the situation, scientists say.

With a projected global population of more than nine billion by 2050, Nigeria currently with 200 million people is projected to be the world’s third most populous country in future.

And with increased population and adverse weather conditions, the world might be unable to feed itself.

Diseases are expected to rise and farmers suffer losses through bad weather. As such, appropriate technologies are required to adapt and mitigate the changes that might occur.

Under the circumstance and to ensure global food insecurity, scientists advocate biotechnology.

Biotechnology is a modern science tool used to improve agricultural productivity to eliminate hunger and ensure food security for the populace.

Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) is one of the components of biotechnology used to engineer the genes of plants and animals to make them behave in ways they are intended to be. It plays an essential role in ensuring that there is enough to eat.

In Nigeria, the idea has generated some controversy with the opponents highlighting dangers it might present.

The anti-GMO group says there are serious challenges in the areas of toxicology, allergy and immune dysfunction as well as genetic disorders and so urges caution.

Nnimmo Bassey, an environmentalist and Director of “Health of Mother Earth Foundation”, says, “Nigeria is not ready for GMOs, it does not need to be ready for GMOs because we do not need them.

“The fact is that the matter of food availability is not addressed by GMOs.

“It has been said that GMOs have higher yield simply because they are made in the laboratory. This is not borne out by facts.

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“It has been shown that genetically modified maize in the U.S. does not yield higher than its conventional counterpart in Europe, for instance.

“There are several factors that affect crop yield and food availability. GMOs are not the answer.

“The other argument is that GMOs reduce the quantity of chemicals used on farms. Most GMOs, like the maize varieties being brought into Nigeria, are engineered to receive doses of herbicide.

“They are especially designed to withstand certain chemicals while other crops or plants would die off.

“It’s simply that it makes production a bit faster and easier and sometimes they spray the farm towards the harvest period to cause the crops to dry faster, making it easier for harvesting with machines.’’

Mr Bassey also said GM products raise health and legal concerns as has occurred in the U.S, where the courts have awarded victims millions of dollars in compensation.

“These chemicals are all over Nigerian markets. Tell me, where will poor Nigerian farmers get justice when the calamities begin?’’ he asked.

Casmir Ifeanyi of the Department of Veterinary Microbiology, Faculty of Veterinary Microbiology at the University of Abuja warns on the adverse effects of GMOs on nature.

“When we talk about genetic engineering we must realise that tampering with nature has consequences because every GMO that you have is an unnatural organism that cannot be found in nature.

“The way forward is that we don’t need GMOs in Nigeria. What we need is a farming system where farmers are adequately supported and assured of good prices for their harvests.

“We need well- funded research institutes where students learn the best techniques of agro-ecology, local knowledge and local technologies.

“We need good rural infrastructure, storage and processing facilities.’’

But the proponents say GM products are like other conventional seeds and do not contain harmful or toxic components.

One of the environmental advantages of this technology is that fewer chemicals and pesticides will be used in the farm, leading to less pollution of the environment with fertilisers and chemicals, they say.

The technology has increased environmental protection through the reduced use of pesticides and toxic chemicals, they say.

They say GMOs improve nutrition through increased quality of yields, increased farm profitability and enhanced new product opportunity.

Yarama Ndipaya, the Director, Plant Resources, Agricultural Research Council of Nigeria, said the council had identified modern biotechnology as one scientific tool with the potential to improve crop and animal production.

He said, “GM crops have the potential to strengthen farming and food security by granting more certainty against the unpredictable factors of nature.

“These lead to higher yields, and hold great promise for the developing world and for global food security.”

He said one advantage of using genetic engineering to help crops adapt to sudden changes would be that new varieties could be created quickly.

“Genetic modification also allows plant breeders to make more precise changes and draw from a far greater variety of genes, gleaned from the plants’ wild relatives or from different types of organisms’’.

Rose Gidado said GM crop like its conventional counterpart does not have any toxic substance but behaves like the parent crop from where the gene was extracted.

She said: “GM crops are the same as their conventional counterparts. If I develop GM maize, the parent of that maize that I have taken should be the same as that GM derivative.

“The colour, taste and the chemical constituents in the grains like carbohydrate, protein and mineral content should be the same.

“The only thing different is that the new one has a new gene and that gene is for a particular purpose, maybe to control insects or be resistant to some diseases.”

“GM helps ameliorate the effects of agriculture on the environment.

“These include GM crops that are resistant to flood, drought, and cold, and which improve agricultural resistance to climate change. GM crops also allow for greater use of no-till cultivation, which helps with carbon sequestration, soil erosion prevention, and better soil fertility.

“While selective breeding has existed for thousands of years, modern biotechnology is more efficient and effective because seed developers are able to directly modify the genome of the crop.”

Celestine Aguoru, the President, National Biotechnology and Biosafety Consortium, reacted to the approval given by the Federal Government for the commercialisation of GM beans.

“The introduction will address the national cowpea demand deficit of about 500,000 tonnes and improve the national productivity average of 350kg/hectare.

“What are the duties of the over 15 agricultural research institutes, the Federal Government- owned and funded universities of agriculture, faculties of agriculture, sciences, vet medicine if they cannot proffer scientific solution to agricultural problems?

“Their duties are simply to work on the improvement of our crops, provide scientific solutions to challenges facing farmers and ensure that crops in which the country has comparative advantage in producing thrive.”

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

“The universities here have started living up to their expectations so the concerns expressed by critics should not be a bother.

“After years of research, the federal government has been able to present to Nigerians the first home-grown genetically modified food crops, which have passed all necessary scientific tests and posed no danger to human health or the environment.”

Alex Akpa, the Acting Director-General, National Biotechnology Development Agency, said that by the approval, Nigeria registered its name among the global scientific community as a country capable of finding solutions to its challenges.

“After 10 years of laboratory work and on-field trials, Nigerian scientists have developed the first genetically modified food crop, the PBR cowpea, and we are proud to be associated with this noble development,” Mr Akpa said.

“Today, Nigeria stands tall in the comity of nations for effectively managing and bringing to fruition this dream.’’

He said that genetic engineering research had focused on overcoming problems affecting productivity, such as diseases, weeds, and pests. When crops can avoid disease, weeds, and pests, crop yield is enhanced.

“Genetic modification is only one of the tools that farmers can use to boost productivity and it does not eliminate the need for other advances such as hybridisation, agricultural chemicals and farm machinery.

“Rather, genetic modification is a technologically advanced application of biotechnology that works in conjunction with other modern agricultural practices.

“While farmers have been selectively breeding plants for centuries, genetic engineering allows new traits to be developed much more quickly.

“Utilising traditional selective breeding can take multiple growing seasons to develop and test a new variety. Genetic engineering is more precise than conventional hybridisation and therefore is less likely to produce unexpected results,’’ Mr Akpa said.

Important as genetic engineering is, especially for third world countries, it still sounds strange to many Nigerians who simply do not understand the idea of GM foods.

There is obviously a great need to break it all down for the average Nigerian so that he understands and keys into the technology which is already catching on like wildfire, globally.

Scientists say GMOs are not new but have been in our food supply chain for nearly 20 years.

Farmers have been using hybridisation and mutation breeding of crops to improve their resistance to pests or environmental conditions for decades.

Scientists began to sufficiently understand the genetic makeup of certain plants to be able to modify genes that would strengthen the plants’ ability to resistance to pests or diseases and thus increase yields. (NANFeatures)

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