Genetically modified maize, others; how safe are these foods?

Probably very few Nigerians have ever heard of the word GMO. It is not unlikely that food would be the last thing on their minds. GMO stands for Genetically Modified Organism; it is any organism whose genetic material has been altered, using genetic engineering techniques as it applies to food generally.

Mutilated foods as some call it, though alien to Africans who love natural foods, have now been accepted globally.

With land being rapidly taken up by humans, factories and other activities, agriculture is taking a hit, in which domestic and global food production are being affected. Hence, farmers have widely adopted GMO technology to improve fo

Dr Ebegba
Dr Ebegba

od production by increasing yields and durability in crop farming and animal husbandry.

To underscore this practice, the Director of Biochemistry Centre, Federal University of Agriculture, Abeokuta (FUNAAB), Ogun State, Dr. Adewale Obadina, in a recent seminar, emphasised the importance of the new genetic engineering technique, as capable of guaranteeing food security for Africa in the 21st century.

According to him, “Food and Agricultural Organisation has predicted that by 2050, we would need to feed a world population of 9.1 billion people and this requires raising food production by approximately 70 per cent globally. To address the issue of food production, many farmers have resorted to GMOs in crop production.”

Between 1996 and 2013, the total surface area of land cultivated with GM crops increased from 4.2 million acres to 432 million acres. 10 per cent of the world’s croplands were planted with GM crops reportedly in 2010. In the United States, by 2014, 94 per cent of the planted area of soybeans, 96 per cent of cotton and 93 per cent of corn, were genetically modified varieties.

In recent years, GM crops expanded rapidly in developing countries. In 2013, about 18 million farmers grew 54 per cent of worldwide GM crops in developing countries.

The first transgenic (genetically modified) animal was produced by injecting DNA into mouse embryos, then implanting the embryos in female mice. Mice, in the early 1980s, are the first transgenic models of human disease, including the first carcinoma caused by a transgene, but the process of genetically engineering animals is a slow, tedious, and expensive process. Rabbits, sheep, and pigs, have also been genetically modified. Transgenic plants have, however, been engineered for scientific research to create new colours in plants, and to create different crops.

Genetically modified crops are plants used in agriculture, the DNA of which has been modified, using genetic engineering techniques. In most cases, the aim is to introduce a new trait to the plant which does not occur naturally in the species. Examples in food crops include resistance to certain pests, diseases, or environmental conditions, reduction of spoilage, or resistance to chemical treatments (e.g. resistance to a herbicide), or improving the nutrient profile of the crop. But there have been a lot of anti-GMO campaigns questioning the edibility of the products with some people arguing that it may have an adverse effect on the environment and humans in the future as this new technique comes with its controversies.

Recently, attention was drawn to the technology when the National Biosafety Management Agency (NBMA) issued a warning to superstores to withdraw any food that contains GMO in it. The NBMA, which is the regulatory agency for biotechnology in the country said that before any GMO product is circulated in the Nigerian market, it has to be certified as safe for human consumption and the environment by the agency.

The Director-General of NBMA, Dr. Rufus Ebegba, admitted that GMO in Nigeria is still new and people should not express fear over it. He added that the National Biosafety Management Agency will ensure that nothing will be allowed into the nation’s environment for consumption without being confirmed safe.

“There has been a lot of fear being created, but which need not be at all because before GMOs are allowed, risk assessment is carried out and so far, none have been found to have any hazardous materials in them.

“The World Health Organisation and Food and Agriculture Organisation have also not found anything substantially different from the GMOs and their conventional counterparts,” he said.

According to Mr Richard Ajayi, a Lagos-based agriculture consultant, GMO food consumables are easy to identify. “In Nigeria, these are easily recognised by their shiny appearances that laymen would mistake for rubber and home decoration items. Many of the apples, brocollis, avocado pears, corns and so on, as found in many mega stores scattered across the country, are genetically modified.”

Speaking further on the importance of GMOs, Dr Ebegba emphasised that “Generally, the term modified organisms applies to all genetically modified materials both living and non-living. Modern biotechnology is a scientific tool, it is a means whereby genes, that is material of inheritance of any particular character you want exhibited in another organism is being moved into another so that the organism will have the ability to behave in that manner.

“For example, there is this genetically modified maize that is pest resistant. This gene was taken from a particular bacterium that has been in the soil for over three years among plants, even when you eat raw garden eggs, you are eating the bacteria. It has been confirmed not to have adverse effect either on human or the environment. It has always been there for so many years. So, scientists were able to discover that it has a particular material called gene that can kill insect. That gene was moved from that bacteria and was incorporated into some maize that now have the ability to resist insects so that is called BT maize and that maize becomes genetically modified.”

Also, the West African Head of the African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF), Dr Issoufou Adourhamane, speaking with Sunday Tribune on the fear over GMOs said there was no need for unnecessary caution as GMO crops are like other crops in the country.

“There is nothing magical about GMOs, it is just like any other crop; it is just a new way of breeding crops. GMOs are like, for example, I want to plant cowpea, but it does not have resistance to a particular pest, but yam has resistance to that pest. I can take the resistance gene from yam and put it into cowpea and it works. So it doesn’t create problems,” he said corroborating Dr Ebegba’s view.

At a popular retail outlet in Ring Road, Ibadan, Sunday Tribune noticed that only very few customers patronised the veget

Dr Adourhamane
Dr Adourhamane

ables and fruits department for the one hour our reporter stayed there. A customer who came around when an attendant was talking to Sunday Tribune joined in the conversation.

According to him:”My wife has warned me that I should stop buying modified vegetables after she was told by a doctor that what is being used to preserve them (fruits and vegetables) has proven to be dangerous to insects and even animals. She said insects cannot eat into them like they do natural products, so what is likely to happen to human beings if, in future, we are wrong about the benefits.”

The lady attendant said though she was not aware of the recent government warning about GMO, she assured the worried customer that “we are not doing anything illegal.” As several customers continued to pick GMO products from the shelves, not minding whether they were about to expire or not, the attendants at the mega shop said the products that had the ‘green-white-green mark were produced in Nigeria, while those without the identification tag were brought in from South Africa, Kenya and Botswana.

Laying to rest the health issues raised about GMOs, Dr Adourhamane of the AATF said before GMO crops are released, they undergo at least five to ten tests to ensure they are safe for human consumption adding that to feed the growing world population GMOs must be applied to modern agriculture.

“We do it for every variety even if it is not GMO because some crops contain a lot of toxins like tomato, potatoes, cassava. Natural crops may be more toxic than GMOs. But 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 said.

In order to help Nigerians identify what they are buying at the stores, Dr Ebegba of the NBMA was of the opinion that there should be identification tags on the products on the shelves. “Stores that sell the GMO products should always indicate it on the products, so that Nigerians will know what they are buying. “The public should not misunderstand the statement from the agency. What the agency said was that those Genetically Modified Organisms that were not approved by the agency would not be allowed in the Nigerian market or the environment.

”The idea of people saying that NBMA is shutting down any superstore, (and again they started mentioning the names of superstores), but we didn’t mention the name of any superstore. Nobody is shutting down any superstore, all we are saying is let them comply and if they don’t comply, there are provisions on the act which we said we will apply,” he said.

He added that NBMA’s investigation of some mega shops over the importation of GMOs into the country was to further confirm that the GMOs in the stores are not the bad ones because “from where they are coming from, they may have been safe for those countries, but we have to do what we need to do to ensure that Nigerians are safe.”

He also said that during the meeting with operators of superstores in the country, the agency asked them to withdraw the products until a proper test was carried out by the agency to ensure that they are safe for human consumption.“The meeting we had with superstores was just to tell them that there have been a lot of public concern that there are some GMOs in superstores and we have carried out a survey and we have evidence to show that there are suspects (sic) in those stores. Why we call them suspects is that we are still going to confirm.

Another issue raised by critics of GMOs is that the seeds of GMO crops cannot be replanted or that some in fact are seedless, adding that during the farming season, the farmer will need to buy new GMO seeds to plant, which may cause Nigeria to depend on other countries for seeds.

However, Mr Ajayi, the agric consultant, debunked the statement, assuring that biochemistry could help solve food problems more than it has been imagined. “Biotechnology is useful to man particularly in the areas of genetics and forensic analysis to determine the cause of death of plants and animals. If well applied, we won’t be at the mercy of any farmer for seedlings.”