By Collins Nnabuife – Abuja, Nigeria
July 03, 2017
Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) is a science of moving a material of inheritance from another or related organism into another so that the organism will behave in that manner of that particular inheritance of that organism.
GMOs is one of the components of biotechnology which is a science tool used to improve crop yield, reduce infestation from insect and pest, almost eliminate the effects of climate change and drought on plants.
This new technology has been greeted with many criticisms which to an extent had slackened its adoption in some parts of Africa including Nigeria.
Nigeria among other countries have a biotechnology regulatory agency with the responsibility of ensuring that any component of biotechnology must be certified safe for human and environment before it is released.
In Nigeria, the National Biosafety Management Agency (NBMA), has been working to ensure that Genetically Modified Organism are declared safe before being released to the market and environment.
Currently, some GM crops are undergoing Confined Field Trial in various locations in Nigeria. However, maize, cotton, rice, cassava, cowpea, sorghum (ABS) have been said to be the first GM crops to be introduced in Nigeria for commercialisation soon.
But the argument is whether the particular crop will still be healthy for consumption if the gene is modified or if the environment could be affected as a result of genetic modification of seeds.
Some groups also identified as anti-GMO have come with several arguments questioning the activities of the regulatory body and the safety of the GM crops.
A molecular geneticist from Oxford University Dr. Ify Aniebo pointed out that the process of inserting genes into the DNA of food plant is random therefore scientists have no idea where the genes go. It disrupts the functioning of other genes, creating proteins that have never been in the food supply that could create toxins and allergens in food.
According to her, there are no safety assessment standards for GMOs, as regulatory systems for GM foods worldwide vary from voluntary industry self- regulation in the US to weak in Europe, which are inadequate to protect consumer’s health.
But other scientists maintained that the process of extracting and inserting genes in crops have been proven safe over the years, they said some countries have been consuming GMOs over a decade and no case of side effect have been recorded.
A scientist, Dr Rose Gidado said GM crops like its conventional seed counterpart does not have any toxic substance in it, instead, it behaves exactly like the parent crop from where the gene was extracted.
“GM crops are same as their conventional counterpart, if I develop a GM maize, the parent of that maize that I have taken, should be the same as that GM derivative — colour, taste and the chemical constituents in the grains like carbohydrate, protein, the mineral content should all be the same. Before the final product goes out to farmers or to the market, tests would have been carried out to ascertain that everything is 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,”she noted.
The West African Head of the African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF), Dr Issoufou Adourhamane, speaking further on the health issues raised from some quarters, said before GM crops are released, it undergoes at least five to ten tests to ensure it is safe for human consumption.
“We do it for every variety even if it is not GMO because some crops contain a lot of toxins like tomatoes, potatoes, and cassava. Natural crops may be more toxic than GMO.
“People should not be afraid. More than one billion people eat GMOs around the world daily and they have never fallen sick.
“We have been altering genes since we started planting crops. The process of agriculture is to alter genes except we want agriculture research to stop, then we can stop altering genes, but if it must continue, we will continue altering genes,” he added.
“Before you release any genetically modified crops to the populace or farmers, you have to really ensure that the food is safe and wholesome. Safe to humans, safe to animals safe to the environment and it is the processes that we are undergoing, we have not completed it yet. BT cowpea is almost ready, I think by 2018, we should have it. BT cotton has undergone 14 confined trials and they have almost ended it, the next thing they are going to do is go into varietal release, and they will now do seed multiplication . I think that BT cowpea will be the first crop that they will commercialise in Nigeria,”Dr Gidado added.
Biotechnology regulation in Nigeria
It is worthy of note that the Biosafety law was signed in Nigeria in 2015 which gave rise to the establishment of regulatory agency, National Biosafety Management Agency (NBMA) in the same year.
Since its establishment, NBMA has carried out 3 approvals and accredited research institutes and universities for GM research.
The practice of modern biotechnology ordinarily is not intended to pose any harm or danger to the public or the environment and to ensure that this potent tool is not misused.
The Director General of the NBMA, Dr Rufus Ebegba said “the issue of the National Biosafety Management Act is the first measure the federal government has put in place, with a law in place, and we also have an agency to implement the law, to make sure that the practice of modern biotechnology is done in compliance with some laid down rules and regulations, and in that light, the agency is well established in a way that nothing unsafe as regards to Genetically Modified Organisms will be allowed into this country.
“We have been able to develop competence to ensure we are able to ascertain what is good and what is not good for this country, and when we are looking at the issue of Genetically Modified Organisms, we are looking at it from the issue of safety to human health and to the environment and the issue of socio-economic concern”.
“When there is genetically Modified Organisms, we do what is called substantial equivalence, by balancing the nutrient composition of each of these products, either it is Genetically Modified or not, and we also look at it beyond that, we observe to make sure that there is no toxins that can cause any impact on human health or allergic to humans.
“So it is a broad review when you are looking at the issue of Genetically Modified Organisms, it is not something you just produce and you bring it into the market and Nigerians will just start buying them, and apart from that, this products will be labeled for consumers interest. Nigerians don’t need to be afraid, they don’t need to bother, it is a scientific evolution which is going on globally, and Nigeria as a country is adequately prepared for this evolution.
On the level of compliance with Biosafety Act by some superstores, the DG of NBMA said: “So far there is a very good compliance ongoing, it is a new technology and even most of those superstores do not know they are selling Genetically Modified products, and even as much as we said they should remove these things from their shops, it doesn’t mean that these foods are not safe, they have been certified and are from wherever they are coming from but we as a country have our laws. They must comply with our laws, and for those who have failed to comply, when we detect them, the law will take its full cause, it is a five year imprisonment term and a fine of some certain amount of money and we will not allow Nigerians to serve as a dumping ground, we will continue to monitor for compliance.
Speaking on when the GM products will be released to the Nigerian market, Dr Ebegba said: “some of them have actually applied for formalization of their products, and still we have to test these foods to make sure that they don’t contain materials that will be harmful to Nigerians.
“The issue of Genetically Modified Organisms is not what you just release without doing the necessary verifications, Nigeria as a country has been involved in international biosafety, and at the national level here, we have the research institutes, and even in the country itself, there has been some resistance from individuals and groups, so everybody needs to be properly enlightened, properly educated and also be assured of the safety of these products.
“Not just bringing a product that will not be patronized by the people. The essence of the product is for them to be acceptable, if Nigerians do not accept them, that means it is a wasted investment, there is need for the proponents of the technology to enlighten the Nigerians, there is need for the NBMA to assure Nigerians of the safety of the products before they embrace it.
“All indications shows that Nigeria is adequately prepared for this technology but it is a gradual process, most of the things we are trying to do is that we are trying to make sure that these products do not necessarily come from abroad alone, but let Nigeria be able to produce the one we need in this country and not necessarily imported ones so that we can also generate foreign earning from this sector.”