GMOs: The Myths, the Facts and the Politics

Genetically Modified Organisms have continued to generate controversy due to health safety concerns‎. However, the biosafety agencies meant to regulate GMOs appear to be marketing it, rather than being an unbiased umpire. Adedayo Akinwale writes
Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) are products of genetic engineering, also known as genetic modification (GM). Genetic engineering or modern technology is a technology that allows scientists to create plants, animals and micro-organisms by manipulating genes in a way that is not possible via traditional or natural processes. GM technology however is not simply an extension of conventional agriculture as is radically different from traditional plant and animal.
Genetic engineering involves the artificial manipulation of seeds at the cellular level, and allows DNA from one type of organism such as animal to be introduced into another unrelated organism such as plant. A fish and a tomato would not crossbreed in nature, but in the laboratory scientists can take the gene from a fish, insert it into a tomato, and essentially create an entirely new organism. The technology is not as exact as it may appear and results from genetic manipulation can at times vary vastly from intended outcomes. It should be noted that usually it is genes of commercial interest that are transferred.
Once these man-made organisms are released into the environment and the food chain, they reproduce, contaminate natural varieties and cannot be recalled. The technology is fairly young, the long term effects of GMOs on the environment are yet to be fully known.
GMOs in Nigeria, in whose interest 
While GMOs is no longer new in Nigeria, the proponents of the technology are still fighting hard for it to be accepted by the people. However, Civil Society groups in Nigeria have engaged in the evaluation of the performance and the impacts of GM crops that have been released. These efforts have been aimed at providing an accurate picture of the spread and impacts of these crops and organisms, and to help separate the hype from reality.
Since the introduction of GM crops in the country, the biotech industry has fought tooth and nail to ensure the spread of crops and the acceptance of the technology. This effort has not yielded the expected results because the crops have not provided the benefits touted by the biotech industry in countries where they have been released for commercialisation and because industry promoted hype has largely failed to convince both the farmers and the consumers.
‎Meanwhile, at no time has the Nigerian Government taken a policy decision to approve GMOs. Besides, given the fragile ecosystem and stressed environment of the country, Nigeria must take biosafety seriously and avoid the path of introducing crops that are dangerous to the health of the people and the environment.
Nineteen European countries that care about the health of their people have completely‎ banned GMOs. If the present administration is serious about diversification of the economy, then organic farming is the way.
The Institute of Agricultural Research, Ahmadu Bello University and the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA),‎ Ibadan, have been developing successful varieties of crops using conventional methods. These research centres should be supported.
The Myth about GMOs
The proponents of GMOs ‎ have always ridden on the wind that GM crops produce better yields as against organic farming; though this has largely proven to be untrue. Pro GMO campaigners also said for Nigeria to overcome famine or food insecurity, it must embrace biotechnology. They are also of the opinion that GM crops do not require the use of pesticides, but they refused to tell Nigerians that GM crops produce their own pest and the only effective pesticide to use is produced by the companies that developed GM crops.
Facts about GMOs
Recently, the Monsanto Tribunal in Hague has released its findings. They show starkly that Monsanto’s activities undermine basic human rights and that victims of multinational corporations need better protective regulations. The Tribunal also holds that international courts should recognise ecocide as a crime‎.‎
Many-a-times, GM crops have been withdrawn neither due to safety concerns as well as for contamination. Examples include Monsanto’s withdrawal of its genetically modified maize (LY038) in Europe due to safety concerns. Additionally, more than 1,000 farmers from Texas, Louisana, Mississippi, Arkansa and Missouri, in the USA, have sued Bayer AG based in Leverkusen, Germany,  for allegedly contaminating their farms with GM rice seeds.
A recent investigative report published on the 29th November 2016 by the New York Times titled, ‘Uncertain Harvest: Doubts About the Promised Bounty of Genetically Modified Crops’ concludes that, genetic modification in the United States and Canada has not accelerated increases in crop yields or led to an overall reduction in the use of chemical pesticides. ‎The analysis by The Times, using United Nations data shows that the United States and Canada have gained no discernible advantage in yields -food per acre-when measured against Western Europe, a region with comparably modernised agricultural producers like France and Germany.
In Africa, Burkina Faso, which took the lead on GMO production, decided last year to abandon its GMO cotton. The inferior lint quality of Monsanto products and the enslavement of buying expensive seeds and chemicals from Monsanto every year, for an income less than what generated before introducing the GMO cotton were cited as reasons for this.
Burkina Faso for a long time was renowned for its high quality cotton following a successful non-GMO breeding programme founded by French Government and spanning 70 years.
But after a well funded lobby similar to what is being witnessed in Nigeria today, the‎ government decided to abandon the home-grown approach and follow the GMO route of Monsanto. After six years of commercial production, the country discovered that the quality and world market price of its cotton had plummeted. Cotton is the country second biggest of revenue after gold. Now, the same GMO that has successfully failed in Burkina Faso is now being introduced in Nigeria.
Aside that, any land that GM crops are planted will be automatically polluted and no organic crop can be planted on the land again. Any organic plantation close to a GM farm can also be easily polluted and the land would be rendered useless.
The health and environmental effects of GMOs
The biosafety agencies ‎in Nigeria and the Nigerian Academy of Science (NAS) up till now have not been able to conduct an independent research to determine the safety of GM products. They only relied on the research conducted by an America Company, Monsanto- the company that has embarked on aggressive media campaign to ensure GM products are accepted by its country of interest.
A Nigerian geneticist from Oxford University, Ify Aniebo,‎ said it was so disappointing that Nigerian scientists, especially the NAS are taking a stand on a technology they haven’t even tested. She added that the dependency on the West for us to make national decisions is ridiculous especially on a controversial technology that has been banned in six of of the eight countries that make up G8. She said that there are many studies that have highlighted the health and environmental effects of GMOs.
She expressed concern why NAS ‎is a stakeholder in GMO. Are they not supposed to be an independent organisation responsible for helping the advancement of science and technology? Does their stakeholder position not introduce some bias favouring GMOs already?
“Till date, there have been no human trials on the short term‎ or long term effect of GMOs in humans. The only investigation that was carried out by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC)- WHO’s cancer agency – which concluded that glyphosate (a herbicide used alongside GMOs) was carcinogenic to humans.”
She said it was also worrying that these scientists and pro-GMO campaigners in Nigeria did not address the impact on the environment and human life that comes with higher use of herbicides and pesticides, neither ‎did they explain the technology failure to meet its promises of increased yield but instead delivered weed and pest resistance.
‎Lab results with GM potatoes
‎A world leading lectins and plant genetic modification expert from Scotland Rowett Research Institute, Arpad Pusztai, conducted the first ever independent experiment. Rats fed GM potatoes had smaller livers, hearts, testicles and brains, damaged immune system and showed structural changes in white blood cells making them vulnerable to infection and diseases compared to other rats fed non-GMO potatoes. It got worse, Thymus and spleen damage showed up; enlarged tissues, including the pancreas and intensities; and there were cases of liver atrophy as well as significant proliferation of stomach and intestines cells that could be a sign of greater future risk of cancer. Equally alarming, results showed up after 10 days of testing, and they persisted after 110 days, that’s human equivalent of 10 years.
Illness linked with GMO
The few scientific research done ‎on foods have showed stunted growth, impaired immune systems, breeding and potentially precancerous cell growth in the intestines, impaired blood cell development, misshaped cell structures in the liver,pancreas and testicles, infertility, altered gene expression and cell metabolism, liver and kidney lesions leading to failure of organs, partially atrophied livers, inflamed kidneys, less developed organs, reduced digestive enzymes, higher blood sugar, inflamed lung tissue, increased death rates and higher offspring mortality as well. All these studies were done in rats and mice.
GMO regulations in Nigeria
The National Biosafety Management Agency (NBMA) Act was passed in 2015. This Act empowers the agency to regulate GMOs and related products in the country. The Governing Board of the agency is composed largely of biotech promoters‎ and Monsanto advocates. Neither framers nor consumers are represented on the board.
‎It however came as no surprise when the agency granted permit to Monsanto on Sunday, May 2nd, 2016, when government offices do not open, and that it was also on a public holiday.
Against this background, an anti-GMO campaigner Barr. Orovwuje Mariann Bassey has expressed reservations that with the coming of this Act, the issue of who regulates this critical sector has become very worrisome because public officials and agencies that should be impartial umpires to secure the safety of the people and the environment by ensuring sufficient safeguards are the persons and entities promoting the opening of our environment to GMOs and related toxic chemicals with little regard to the precautionary principles.
One wonders why NBMA as renege its role as a regulator and has organised various workshop on the need why the country has to adopt the technology. While the agency has assured several times that unsafe GMO will not be allowed in the country; the capability of the agency to safeguarding the environment and health of Nigerians as far as GM is concerned is still in doubt.
Bassey noted that the NBMA Act has a lot of gaps and appears to have been drafted solely to set up the agency ‎as the name itself implies. She said enormous amounts of discretionary powers‎ have been vested in the agency with not enough mandatory duties in the operational provisions ‎to ensure that the agency perform a stewardship role to ensure that GMOs do not pose harm to human and animal health, society and environment.
Aside the NBMA, other government regulatory institutions include; the National Agricultural Seed Council (NASC), National Agency for Food, Drugs, Administration and Control (NAFDAC), Nigerian Customs Service (NCS), Federal Ministry of Justice, Standard Organisation of Nigeria (SON), National Agricultural Quarantine Service (NAQS) among others.
Nigeria health system currently lacks the capacity in terms of technology and infrastructure to deal with not just infectious diseases but cancers and other terminal diseases. If Nigeria wants to grow GMO, then scientists need to follow due process. World standard laboratory should be set up with scientists who have the skills to test GMOs.
The regulatory agencies should not force an unproven technology on Nigerians through aggressive media campaign induced by Monsanto. Nigerians should be allowed do make a decision based on informed and accurate information provided by the agency on GMOs.
Overcoming challenges of food insecurity in the country is by looking inward, investing more in agricultural research institutions and bodies at different locations in the country and in conducting research for increased in agricultural productivity and making sure the research results ‎are available to farmers and other across in agricultural development of the state.