Are GM foods harmful or safe?

The aggressive campaign embarked on by the Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) campaigners shows no sign of abating as they recently engaged journalists to further help propagate the advocacy as well as clear the air about the misconception surrounding GM foods as concerns grow about it safety.

GMOs can be defined as organisms in which the genetic material (DNA) has been altered in a way that does not occur naturally. The technology is often called “modern biotechnology”, or “gene technology”, and sometimes also called “recombinant DNA technology” or “genetic engineering”. It allows selected individual genes to be transferred from one organism into another, also between non-related species. Such methods are however used to create GM plants, which are then used to grow GM food crops.

GM experts believed that GM foods are produced to increase food production in order to ensure food security, to improve nutrients, as well as to improve agricultural practices by minimising the use of chemicals like pesticides and herbicides. They further explained that GM food crops available on international market today have been designed using one of three basic traits which include; resistance to insect damage, resistance to viral infections and tolerance towards certain herbicide.

The experts also argued that genetic modification does not introduce unique risks, as the anti GM campaigners have made people to believe, but added that since the risks for these novel foods are the same as for conventional foods, the issue of interaction are the same for conventional foods, for instance; consuming oranges and meat together enhances absorption of iron.

Despite the fact that GM crops are currently undergoing field trials in Nigeria, the approval given to Monstanto, a leading company in genetic engineering globally by the National Biosafety Management Agency (NBMA), the agency charged with the responsibility of regulating issues of genetic modification in the country, to participate in the country’s agricultural scene has been strictly objected to by anti-GM campaigners who are calling for the complete halt of the move and withdrawal of the permit.

However, the agency explained that the intention and content of the permit was completely misunderstood by the campaigners for obvious reasons, but it is necessary to state that the release permit granted to the company means it can go to work while collaborating with research institutions in the country to research for the development of cotton seeds that can resist insects and confront the challenges that made the country’s local cotton unproductive but not to trade in GM seeds or products.

It added that ‎although, there have not been any scientific evidence or study to show that GMOs are harmful to either human or the environment but the fear of possible impacts have continued to be peddled by those against the the technology.

With the Ministry of Environment and agencies under it spearheading the advocacy campaign to make sure the adoption of the technology comes to fruition in the country, the federal government has continued to thread with caution as it has refused to make any distinctive policy statement concerning the full adoption of the technology.

‎Speaking recently at a workshop organised in Abuja by the Open Forum on Agricultural ‎and Biotechnology in Africa (OFAB) in collaboration with Journalists for Social Development Initiative (JSDI) and Programme for Biosafety System (PBS) for Journalists and Communicators on GMOs, the Director General, NBMA, Dr. Rufus Ebegba assured that no GMOs ‎that is not safe would  be allowed in the Nigerian market either for planting, consumption or for any purpose.

He stated: “the issue of the safety of GMOs have always been in question ‎by so many people particularly by activists; one thing is that it is clear globally that there is nothing in this world without one adverse impact depending on how you apply it. The issue of GMOs what I can assure is that with the establishment of NBMA and a law for it to implement, no GMOs that is not safe will be allowed in the Nigerian market either for planting, for consumption or for any purpose.”

“Nigeria as a country has laws and will also have a national biosafety law, any company either individual or group coming to do business in Nigeria must comply with the Nigerian law.  The standards in other countries may not necessarily apply in Nigeria, we will ensure that the Nigerian standards apply and we ensure that nobody brings anything that is not useful to Nigeria, or anything that will be harmful to the Nigerian environment.”

Also, the Coordinator JSDI, Mr. Michael Bissong underscore the need to educate journalists as carrier of information in order for them to feed the public with the right information about GMOs.

He opined that presently there was hunger and poverty which has now become a global problem, but said that the technology available in tackling the menace has come under serious attacks based on the misconception, thus the need to engage the media to spread the right information about GMOs.

‎The CEO of Connected Development (CODE), Mr. Hamzat Lawal lamented that over 53 million Nigerians go to bed with empty stomachs, describing the situation as worrisome because it has exacerbated corruption cases in the country, adding that the advent of technology and science could help in curbing this menace.

‎‎Nevertheless, anti GMOs campaigners insisted that if GMOs is geared towards tackling the problem of food scarcity and hunger in the country, various agricultural varieties developed by research institute in the country with high yields should rather be adopted to boost food production.

Even, with all the assurances given by GMOs campaigners, the Association of Medical Laboratory Science Council of Nigeria (AMLSCN) has cautioned the federal government against accepting the introduction of GM foods in the country as the consequences may affect the nation in the long run.

I‎n a communique ‎at the end of its annual scientific conference ‎held in Abuja and signed by AMLSCN Chairman, Ndubisi Ebitea, Secretary, Joseph David and PRO, Musa Wazani, the association said: “on GMO and its implications for public health, we call on the Nigeria Government to build capacity of medical laboratory scientists in the detection of GMO and the diagnosis of its impact.

“GMO has its merits, but caution needs to be applied in its acceptability in a society like Nigeria considering our weak institutions and inadequate diagnostic infrastructure for detection of GMO related products, controlling and detecting the consequences of GMO in our society.”

The AMLSCN maintained that “it is, arguably, believed that GMO could be a solution in resolving world crisis of acute famine especially amongst developing nations. However, the long term adverse effect without research is a source of major concern to the association, since there has been very little testing and research done on GM foods and drugs in Nigeria. This makes many people feel uneasy at the high use of the foods and drugs containing GMO.”

They contended that “some GM products are modified using bacteria and viruses, thus there is the fear that there could be an emergence of new diseases, we therefore call on the government and other stakeholders to look critically into this issue of GMO and make provisions for further research and studies for the benefit of mankind.