Agricultural Biotechnology: Nigeria and the GMOs Hysteria.
The global evolution in science has lead to the emergence and adoption of agricultural biotechnology in many parts of the world. Agricultural biotechnology is a technology that allows scientists to produce seeds and crops that can withstand biotic and abiotic environmental stresses such as pest and insect diseases, extreme temperatures, climate change effects and drought by modifying the genes of plants using Genetic Engineering. Plants that are produced using genetic engineering techniques are called genetically modified crops (GM crops) or genetically modified organisms (GMOs). The adoption and use of GM crops in developed countries such as USA, Brazil, China, India, Argentina, Canada and South Africa have resulted in a significant impact in the agricultural sector.
However, the introduction of agricultural biotechnology in Nigeria and the journey towards adopting GM crops on the Nigerian soil has been greeted with hysteria, and “Anti-GMO” controversies have ensued. This is not quite surprising. With the broken educational system in Nigeria, poor teaching and understanding of science and biology, Nigerians become easily gullible to “fictions” rather than factual information. Some of the major areas of controversy include; environmental impacts, food safety, market and economic issues.
Let me categorically state, that GM crops have not been commercialised in Nigeria and therefore are not found in the Nigerian grain market as against the widely spread rumours that GM crops have been released. However, the regulatory agency saddled with the responsibility of regulating the use of GMOs in Nigeria, known as National Biosafety Management Agency (NBMA) has announced that some GM crops are currently undergoing confined field trials in different parts of the country and will soon be commercialised after due approvals.
One the issue of environmental impacts, there’s a widely spread fiction by “anti-GMOs” lobbyists that the use of GM crops will create superweeds and destroy biodiversity. This is unscientific, GM crops are just another way of using herbicides and the use of herbicides for many years has not resulted in superweeds. Also, GM crops are much easier to breed into different crop varieties since they contain only one or a few new genes added, thus increasing biodiversity. It is also a false belief that “genes” can flow from GM crops and pollute other crops in the environment. Gene flow takes place between all crops whether GM or non-GM. Conventional hybrid crops can readily pollute local GM crops varieties.
The notion that GM foods are not safe and unhealthy without any scientific evidence has continued to spread like wildfire. Therefore it is noteworthy to mention, that in the history of humankind no food has ever been subjected to such rigorous tests and field trials as those derived from GM crops. Many people have died as a result of allergy and toxins from conventional crops. Nonetheless, in our fertile continent, South Africa is the largest producer of GM crops and is ranked 9th in the world. Staple foods such as maize are genetically modified and consumed for about 20years with no effects on human health. To buttress my points on the safety of GM foods to man and his environment, the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) stated in 2004 that “No deleterious effects from consumption of foods derived from GM crops discovered in anywhere in the world”. Equally, in 2010 the EU Commission Directorate for research stated: “No new risks to human health or the environment from any GM crops commercialised so far”.
Another major area of controversy on GMOs is market issues. It is widely believed that GM crops are just a ploy of the multinationals to make more money and become sole owners of seeds. Well, it is also a well-known fact that farmers are savvy people; no farmer will buy seeds if they do not give them profit, and nobody is forcing farmers to buy seed from companies. Again on the issue of seed ownership, Nigeria should encourage indigenous scientific enterprises and agencies to domesticate GM seed varieties. This will discourage importation and hence help boost our foreign reserves. In India for example, about 30 indigenous companies have the “Bt gene” in their crop varieties.
The world`s population is currently pegged at 7.6 billion people. By 2050, it is expected to reach 9 billion with unprecedented growth in Africa. How do we cope with the population explosion? Sadly, Africa`s agriculture is exposed to many risks such as pest and diseases, climate change and drought as many of the crops grown in Africa are rain dependent, this poses a great threat to food security in Africa with its burden in sub-Saharan Africa. Agricultural biotechnology among other solutions holds a pivotal role in salvaging Africa`s “food cargo” and breaking the walls of famine. With these two strategic institutions in Nigeria, National Biotechnology Development Agency (NABDA) and National Biosafety Management Agency (NBMA) the ground is set rolling for the adoption and use of GMOs in Nigeria.
I have an unwavering love for Nigeria and Africa. We are all aware that Nigeria has been trapped within the grips of poverty and gross underdevelopment. To emancipate our nation, we must ensure a rapid paradigm shift in our policies and economy by integrating science and technology. We must do our science. However, in doing so, we must uphold and practice the core values of science. Science for humanity; science with evidence.
Abdullahi Tsanni is a Biochemist, essayist and budding researcher with keen interest in Biotechnology in the context of Agricultural Research for Development (AR4D), Climate Change and Sustainable Development. He can be reached via @abdultsanni
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of SciComNigeria