Tela Maize Controversy: A Threat to Nigeria’s Health, Environment, Sovereignty and Food Security?

In a bid to boost food production and improve pest resistance, Nigeria has embraced Tela maize, a genetically modified crop hailed by its proponents as a revolutionary solution to the country’s food security challenges. However, the adoption of this crop has sparked intense controversy, with many questioning its safety, environmental impact, and potential effects on the country’s sovereignty, food security and economy. Sunday Ehigiator reports

The Federal Government’s decision to introduce Tela maize to Nigerian farmers has sparked intense controversy, outweighing the touted benefits of enhanced yields and pest tolerance, as concerns about the genetically modified crop’s impact on human health, environmental sustainability, and the nation’s agricultural future continue to mount.

The Tela maize was released along with 22 other new varieties said to be aimed at achieving food sufficiency in Nigeria.

The crop varieties were released at the National Centre for Genetic Resources and Biotechnology (NACGRAB) in Ibadan, Oyo State, during the 33rd meeting of the National Committee on Naming, Registration and Release of Crop Varieties, Livestock Breeds/Fisheries

However, Tela maize has drawn fierce criticism for its potential to jeopardize public health, environmental stability, and the very foundation of Nigeria’s agricultural sector, with experts warning of a range of devastating consequences, including unpredictable health hazards, ecological contamination, the erosion of traditional farming methods, and the destabilization of delicate agricultural ecosystems, just as they expressed worry over the influence of foreign interests on Nigeria’s agricultural policy.

Many are asking whether the adoption of Tela maize is truly in the best interests of the Nigerian people, or if it serves the interests of powerful corporations and philanthropic organizations.

As the debate rages on, one thing is clear: the fate of Tela maize in Nigeria will have far-reaching implications for the country’s food security, environment, and economy. Will Nigeria’s embrace of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) prove to be a revolutionary step forward, or a dangerous gamble with the country’s future?

Dangers of GMOs

Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) pose a multitude of potential dangers to human health and the environment, including unknown long-term health effects, environmental impact, gene transfer, increased pesticide use, contamination of organic crops, ethical concerns, and lack of labelling, all of which necessitate extreme caution and further research to fully comprehend their risks and benefits, as some studies have raised alarming concerns about health risks.

These risks include organ damage, allergic reactions, and gene mutations, and while some GMOs may offer benefits, like increased crop yields and drought resistance, the uncertainty and unpredictability of their effects warrant a precautionary approach to their adoption and consumption

The absence of clear labelling and transparency in GMO products makes it challenging for consumers to make informed choices about what they eat, and the risk of genetic contamination of non-GMO crops and wild relatives raises significant concerns about the integrity of the food supply, potentially leading to irreversible harm to ecosystems, loss of biodiversity, and long-term consequences for human health and the environment, making it essential to address these concerns through rigorous testing, labelling, and regulation to ensure public trust and safety.

Health concerns

The potential health risks associated with Tela maize have sparked widespread concern among Nigerians, as the crop’s exposure to toxic pesticides has been linked to a myriad of serious health problems, including cancer, kidney damage, birth defects, neurological disorders, and immune system suppression.

This has prompted calls for caution and demands for safer alternatives, as a Nigerian maize farmer like Mrs Nkechi Okoro, emphasises the need to prioritize health and wellbeing while speaking with THISDAY.

According to her, “The harmful pesticides used on Tela maize have been classified as potential carcinogens, posing a risk of cancer development, and have also been linked to kidney damage and chronic kidney disease, birth defects and developmental issues, neurological problems including memory loss and cognitive impairment, and immune system suppression, making individuals more susceptible to illnesses.”

For concerned citizens like Mrs Nkechi Okoro, the potential health risks are a stark reminder of the need for caution. “I won’t risk Nigeria’s or my family’s health for anything,” she emphasizes. We need to be careful about what we eat and demand safer alternatives.”

Transparency concerns

The National Biosafety Management Agency (NBMA), the regulatory body responsible for overseeing Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) in Nigeria, has come under fire for its perceived failure to conduct comprehensive risk assessments before approving the release of Tela maize into the market.

This lack of transparency has raised concerns among stakeholders, who are demanding greater accountability and openness from the agency.

According to a Popular Environmental Activist, Dr Oladipo, Folorunsho, “The lack of transparency is alarming. We need to know what we’re dealing with. What are the potential risks associated with Tela maize?

“What measures have been put in place to mitigate them? The NBMA must be more forthcoming with information if they expect us to trust their decisions.”

Similarly, an X identified as Shegs, accused a NBMA of blocking him on the social media platform for asking questions related to the safety of the Tela maize for human consumption.

While tagging the NBMA X handle, and its Director, he wrote, “Dear @YemisiAsagbra, Greetings. I asked you and your agency questions about GMO and NBMA’s response was to block me.

“I have sent emails to your office asking for the papers you reviewed that guaranteed Tela Maize’s safety, but no reply.

“I have spoken to your head of communications, and requested we have a live debate on GMO, where we can ascertain its safety with a panel of experts on live TV, no feedback.

“I invited you to our symposiums and engaged your staff, but you didn’t invite us to your Biotech Conferences. Why?

“Madam Yemisi, rubber stamping GMO maize under the instruction of foreign imperialists is an institutional method of enslaving Nigeria. History will remember you for being a conspirator in a heist to impoverish and destroy your people, as long as you keep playing deaf to the right reasoning on GMOs.

“I look forward to you being different from others puppeted by those NGOs and fancy organisations that are wolves in sheep’s clothing.”

Not rightly labelling GMO products before they made their way to Nigeria shelves forms part of transparency issues, and critics argue that the NBMA’s lack of transparency has made it difficult to hold them accountable for their actions.

Without access to detailed information about the risk assessments and approval processes, the public is left in the dark about the potential impacts of GMOs like Tela maize on human health and the environment.

This lack of transparency has eroded trust in the regulatory agency, with many calling for greater accountability and openness in the decision-making process.

Environmental Concerns

Experts believe that the large-scale cultivation of Tela maize poses significant environmental risks, threatening to contaminate soil and water resources and exacerbate Nigeria’s existing environmental challenges.

The intensive use of pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers in Tela maize farming could lead to soil pollution because chemical residues can accumulate in the soil, reducing fertility and affecting beneficial microorganisms.

It is believed that it can also lead to water pollution, as runoff from farms can contaminate nearby water sources, harming aquatic life and human consumption.

It can also lead to Loss of biodiversity, as monoculture farming practices can lead to the displacement of traditional crop varieties and threaten local ecosystems. It can also increase greenhouse gas emissions, as the production and transportation of Tela maize could contribute to climate change.

Dr. Folorunsho emphasises the urgency of addressing these concerns. According to him, “We can’t afford to compromise our environment. The long-term effects could be disastrous, leaving us with a legacy of pollution and degradation. We need sustainable agricultural practices that prioritise environmental stewardship and the well-being of future generations.”

The potential environmental impacts of Tela maize have sparked widespread concern among Nigerians, who are calling for more sustainable and eco-friendly approaches to agriculture.

Concerns on Food Security

While Tela maize may promise higher yields in the short term, its potential impact on long-term soil health and fertility is a pressing concern for farmers like Mr. John Okeke.

The unknown effects of Tela maize on soil quality and ecosystem balance could have far-reaching consequences for food security, undermining the very foundation of Nigeria’s agricultural sector.

According to him, “We can’t compromise our food security. We need sustainable solutions, not quick fixes. We must prioritize soil health, biodiversity, and ecosystem services to ensure a resilient food system that benefits future generations, not just a short-term gain.”

He said the focus on short-term gains could lead to “soil degradation, reduced crop diversity, increased reliance on external inputs, and decreased agricultural resilience.”

Mr Okeke’s concerns resonate with many farmers who recognise the importance of sustainable agricultural practices in maintaining food security and protecting the environment. As the debate surrounding Tela maize continues, it is clear that any solution must prioritize long-term sustainability over short-term gains.

Threat to Nigeria’s Sovereignty

Nigerians are concerned that the adoption of Tela maize could compromise the country’s ability to make decisions about its food system, potentially eroding its sovereignty.

They fear that the country may become reliant on foreign entities for its food supply, potentially leading to a loss of control over food production and distribution, dependence on international corporations for seeds and agricultural inputs, exploitation and manipulation by foreign interests, undermining of local agricultural traditions and knowledge, and threats to national food security and self-sufficiency, thereby compromising Nigeria’s ability to make decisions about its food system and eroding its sovereignty.

This concern is compounded by the lack of transparency and accountability in the approval process, which has fueled suspicions of external influence and ulterior motives.

In a separate post on X, Shegs wrote, “Since January, I have organised and spoken at 3 symposiums to raise awareness in Lagos and Abuja, organised street awareness, granted scores of interviews, spoken and on live TVs and radio, engaged directly those responsible for GMO in Nigeria, and I am only just getting warmed up because we cannot allow this evil thrive in this country.

“We must go beyond talking online to crush this evil called GMO in this country. This is not Politics, I repeat, it is not politics. This is about life and health.

“Scroll your phone book, look for all the politicians and government persons, call them and remind them that they will equally suffer cancer, accelerated diabetes, collapsed economy, food scarcity and monopoly if they don’t join us and kick Bill Gates and his satanic Tela Maize out of Nigeria.

“Our farmers will lose their farms. We will lose our sovereignty. We will lose our health and freedom.”

FG’s Assurance

The National Biosafety Management Agency (NBMA) on Monday, June 24, 2024, assured Nigerians of their safety when consuming TELA maize.

In a statement signed by NBMA’s spokeswoman Gloria Ogbaki, the agency said it has been alerted to Nigerians’ concerns about the approval and launch of TELA maize in the country.

“NBMA wishes to state that the safety and health of Nigerians are of topmost importance, we will not compromise on this. We take into serious cognisance the concerns of Nigerians because maize is a staple crop which is of great importance to the country.

“NBMA is committed to ensuring transparency, safety and unbiased decision-making concerning genetically modified organisms,” she said.

Ms Ogbaki said that the agency conducted a proper risk assessment and analysis of TELA maize to ensure it was safe for human consumption.

She said that experts and scientists from academia and other relevant agencies thoroughly conducted the risk assessment for TELA maize.

The NBMA spokeswoman said that experts from the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control, Standards Organisation of Nigeria, and Nigerian Agricultural Quarantine Service participated in the certification process.

She further listed the Federal Competition and Consumer Protection Commission, National Agricultural Seed Council and some university research centres as part of the process.

“They worked with our internal review process and confirmed that TELA maize meets safety standards. We urge Nigerians to remain calm and trust in the rigorous evaluation process. TELA maize has been approved based on scientific evidence. Its benefits to farmers are significant,” she said.

CSO Expresses Disapproval

A Civil Society Organisation (CSO), Health of Mother Earth Foundation (HOMEF) while commending the intention of the Federal Government to address food insufficiency in Nigeria, expressed disappointment over the release of the genetically modified varieties.

HOMEF noted that there is no evidence of a risk assessment conducted before the release of the TELA Maize on either the website of the National Biosafety Management Agency (the agency saddled with the responsibility of regulating the uses of GMOs) or the Biosafety Clearing House of the United Nations Convention on Biodiversity where parties are expected to upload updates on their decisions/use of GMOs/LMOs. 

According to the Executive Director of HOMEF, Nnimmo Bassey, “it is unacceptable that in the name of food sufficiency, the country is exposing its citizens to products of risky technologies without adequate, independent and/or long-term assessment on their impacts on human and environmental health. 

“There are many challenges associated with genetic modification crops that we cannot deny. So far, GMOs have been linked to cancers, diseases, allergies, and all sorts of health challenges due to environmental implications because of their dependency on toxic pesticides and the destruction of biodiversity and nutritional diversity.

“We are also concerned that there is no way to label or inform our farmers that they are planting GMO maize. To deny Nigerians the right of choice is highly objectionable and wicked.

“It is expedient that the government conduct independent long-term feeding tests and environmental/biodiversity assessments before any GM crop is approved for use and not merely testing to confirm productivity or performance.”

Bassey charged the Nigerian government to understand the difficulties of recalling genetically modified living organisms and to quickly withdraw the TELA Maize.

Also speaking HOMEF’s Director of Programmes and Project Lead for Hunger Politics, Joyce Brown stated “We don’t need GMOs to feed our population. Our farmers have selected and preserved seeds, crops, and animal varieties over the centuries.

“They have kept a stock of varieties that both provide food and meet our medicinal and other needs. They kept the norms that preserved biodiversity. Introducing the open cultivation and commercial release of the TELA maize is an outright danger to the lives and livelihood of our farmers.

“What is of utmost importance is enhancing the health of our soils, which ensures their resilience to environmental stressors; building biodiversity instead of encouraging monocultures which help pests to thrive; and supporting farmers with needed access to credits, land, infrastructure, and access to markets.”

Call to Action

As the debate surrounding Tela maize continues to intensify, Nigerians are urging a more cautious and considered approach to the adoption of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs).

The concerns surrounding the potential health, environmental, and food security implications of GMOs are real, and the country must prioritise the well-being of its citizens.

The uncertainty surrounding Tela maize’s fate in Nigeria is a clear indication that a more thorough and rigorous evaluation of GMOs is necessary. The country cannot afford to rush into adopting a technology that could have far-reaching and devastating consequences.

Therefore, stakeholders have admonished the Nigerian government to, conduct thorough and independent scientific research on the safety and efficacy of GMOs, and engage in transparent and inclusive public consultations to ensure that the concerns and opinions of all stakeholders are heard, while also prioritising the development and support of sustainable and eco-friendly agricultural practices that prioritise human health and environmental sustainability.

They are also asking the government to ensure that any adoption of GMOs is done with the utmost caution and precaution, with clear regulations and safeguards in place to prevent unintended consequences, as the future of Nigeria’s health, environment, and food security depends on it.

As Okeke said, “We owe it to ourselves, our children, and future generations to get this right. Let us work together to create a safer, more sustainable and healthier future for all Nigerians.”

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