Why we support field trials of genetically modified cassava in Nigeria – Scientist

Cassava used to illustrate the story.
Cassava used to illustrate the story.

A research scientist, Paul Onyenekwe, has described the approval granted to two international agencies by a Nigerian regulatory agency to test run some genetically modified cassava in Nigeria as a welcome development.

Mr. Onyenekwe, the President of Nigeria Biotechnology and Biosafety Consortium, NBBC, was reacting to criticisms levelled against the approved field trials by some civic groups.

The Groups, Health of Mother Health Foundation, HOMEF, and its partners said the decision by the Nigerian Biosafety Management Agency, NBMA, to grant permission for “Confined Field Trials, CFT, of genetically modified, GM, cassava (AMY3 RNAi Transgenic lines)” was condemnable.

On Friday, Adamu Shabo, an official of the Biosafety management in a phone conversation with PREMIUM TIMES confirmed the approval of the field trials.

Mr. Shabo, a senior scientific officer said the cassava to be tested is not yet meant for consumption.

“The confined field tests will commence accordingly with the details of the approval and is scheduled to take place at the International Institute of Tropical AgricultureIITA in Ibadan, Oyo state capital,” Mr. Shabo said.

T “The International Institute of Tropical Agriculture, IITA, in Ibadan, Oyo State, and Zurich, Switzerland-based ETHZ Laboratories are the agencies that got the approval on the September 22, 2017.”

HOMEF alleged that the application, submitted by both agencies to the NBMA, was a subtle way of flooding the country’s food system with genetic food crops, including beans, maize and cotton.

The Director of HOMEF, Nnimmo Bassey, said going the way of GMO by the IITA indicates a great danger since most farmers depend on it for quality and safe crops.

“If NBMA goes ahead to approve the application, we can say goodbye to food safety in Nigeria. We do not need GMO cassava. We don’t need GMOs here, and we call on the agency to do the needful,” Mr. Bassey said.

In his reaction, Mr. Onyenekwe, a professor said, the push to stop this kind of research, as HOMEF is suggesting, is to keep Nigerian farmers at a severe disadvantage and in poverty.

He described HOMEF’s criticisms as misguided, unjustified and unpatriotic.

“The group objected to a permit granted by the National Biosafety Management Agency (NBMA) to a highly reputable research organization, the International Institute for Tropical Agriculture (IITA). The permit allows highly trained scientists to follow rigorous regulatory procedures to conduct a small field test of a potential new cassava.

“In a press statement, Nnimmo Bassey, leader of HOMEF stated that the small field test was the first in the world and that it was a deliberate attempt by IITA to contaminate one of Nigeria’s most staple foods.

“Are HOMEF and co aware of what cassava farmers in the country are going through? A recent visit to the cassava growing belt of Oyo, Osun and Ogun revealed a great deal of suffering. Farmers are not getting value from their hard work. The uprooted cassava tuber loses starch value before reaching processing companies located at Sango Otta where the products are then grossly underpaid.

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“Researchers at IITA asked for permission of the NBMA – as required by law – to test a new variety of cassava that could potentially solve this issue for farmers. This small field test must follow strict guidelines to keep the new cassava within the confines of the scientists until other data can be collected to determine whether or not the new cassava is safe and effective.

“When scientists apply for a permit to test genetically modified crops, the NBMA is mandated by law to assess the application by constituting a committee of experts. These reputable Nigerian scientists evaluate the application based on science and internationally-backed protocol; and advise the Agency on an appropriate decision. The assessments take human health and safety, and environmental safety into consideration. The committee also considers socio-economic benefits that might accrue to the country from such product.”

On the 37-page petition HOMEF sent against the application, Mr. Onyenekwe said the key question is: Was their petition backed up with scientific evidence or data and proof?

“Science does not thrive on emotion or hear-say and the Director General, NBMA, Dr. Rufus Ebegba has continuously harped on the fact that 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.

“The statement issued by HOMEF deliberately uses fear and discredited publications.

“It is laudable that HOMEF and co have acknowledged the vital role of cassava in the nation’s food chain, but it is also worthy to note that they lack an understanding on what the modification proposed by the IITA research was all about.

“For the avoidance of doubt, the Permit granted to IITA was to enable them to conduct a small field experiment, under confinement, using genetic modification techniques with a long safety track record, with the purpose to reduce starch breakdown in the storage roots post-harvest.

“This small test will allow researchers to gather information on the safety and potential viability of the proposed solution. The potential new cassava would have to go through additional years of testing prior to release to farmers.”

In a swift response, Mr. Bassey, HOMEF director, insisted that the petitions, objections and criticisms were scientific proof.

“The petition was purely based on scientific review, they were written by experts not novices and reviewed by international scientists. It’s unfortunate that we have an agency that approves anything that is brought to them,” Mr. Bassey told this paper on Sunday.

He said his group is taking legal actions against the agency.

There has been a protracted debate over the application of genetically modified crops into the food system of the country. These debates has birthed two groups, Pro-GMO and Anti-GMO. The former is for while the latter is against the application.

The National Biosafety Management Agency had in 2016 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.

This move came despite concerted efforts of many Nigerians (comprising 100 groups of farmers, faith-based organisations, civil society groups, students and local farmers) to prevent the introduction of genetically modified (GM) cotton and maize into Nigeria’s foods and farming system.

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