Biotechnology: Demystifying Glyphosate, Monsanto, other issues
As the debate on the safety of genetically engineered crops and products is taking another dimension in Nigeria today, the Anti-GMO are raising more issues which is targeted at achieving their of ‘poisoning’ the mind of innocent Nigerians against GM products.
In the other hand, another group is striving hard to ensure that Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) are commercialized and widely adopted in Nigeria.
Recently, the National Biosafety Management Agency (NBMA) gave permit for the environmental release of BT Cotton and Pod Borer Resistant (PBR) Cowpea. This permit was greeted by a lot criticism from the Anti-GMO.
Though there has been no verifiable adverse effect of crops and products which contain Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs), but this technology has suffered serious criticisms in the recent past.
A debate which was held recently in one popular radio stations in Nigeria, between the Antis and pro of GMOs witnessed a wide broadcast and many Nigerians which made Nigerians become more aware of GMOs.
While there have been series of arguments by Antis and pro of GMO, this work is aimed towards addressing some of the issues raised by the regarding the GM technology.
There was an issue raised that crops which are genetically modified cannot decompose easily which may cause environmental hazard. The reason they gave was that since the crop can resist pest attack, it means it won’t decompose.
From what was gathered, Crops may be genetically modified to resist a particular insect or pest, that does not mean that other pests cannot feed on it and make it decompose.
To address the doubts and to enlighten Nigerians on GMOs, experts gave their views on the economic importance GM crops.
According to the Country Coordinator of Open Forum on Agriculture Biotechnology, Dr Rose Gidado “It is not every insect or pest that the crop has been developed to resist, it’s just those particular insects that cause havoc to farmers, because they (pests) compete with us for food, so that’s why they eat up our crops.
“It does not mean that because a crop is resistant to a particular insect, so that crop cannot decompose, there is not scientific proof, there is no evidence. If it can’t be decomposed, then it won’t be digested in the stomach, but people have been eating it for many years”.
Another claim raised was that all the genetically modified crops in Nigeria are developed by Monsanto which is an American company, but findings carried out by Nigerian Tribune countered this claim.
Dr Gidado said “PBR Cowpea has no link with Monsanto, it is been developed by African Agriculture Technology Foundation (AATF) and the Institute for Agricultural Research (IAR), Zaria, Biofortified Sorghum has no link with Monsanto, it is being developed by African Harvest in collaboration with IAR Zaria, Nitrogen Efficient Water Efficient Salt Tolerant (NEWEST) Rice has no link with Monsanto. It is only the cotton and maize that have link with Monsanto, and the maize is not yet planted”.
While noting that Monsanto is no longer in existence, she said Bayer which is and European company has bought Monsanto.
On the issue of using Glyphosate to control weed, the Antis had always linked Glyphosate with GM crops. They claim that glyphosate is very dangerous, this is very correct but it’s a herbicide which is used for both organic farming and genetically modified crop.
Weeds are a constant problem in farmers’ fields. Weeds not only compete with crops for water, nutrients, sunlight, and space but also harbor insects and diseases; clog irrigation and drainage systems; undermine crop quality; and deposit weed seeds into crop harvests. If left uncontrolled, weeds can reduce crop yields significantly.
Farmers can fight weeds with tillage, hand weeding, herbicides, or typically a combination of all techniques. Unfortunately, tillage leaves valuable topsoil exposed to wind and water erosion, a serious long-term consequence for the environment. For this reason, more and more farmers prefer reduced or no-till methods of farming.
Glyphosate is a chemical used by farmers to control weeds in the farm. Farmers have been using glyphosate before the genetic engineering of crops started. Glyphosate has been used over the years to stop weeds from taking all the nutrients in the farm.
Glyphosate herbicide kills plants by blocking the EPSPS enzyme, an enzyme involved in the biosynthesis of aromatic amino acids, vitamins and many secondary plant metabolites.
There are several ways by which crops can be modified to be glyphosate-tolerant. One strategy is to incorporate a soil bacterium gene that produces a glyphosate tolerant form of EPSPS. Another way is to incorporate a different soil bacterium gene that produces a glyphosate degrading enzyme.
So, from the above explanations, it is obvious that glyphosate is a chemical used in controlling weed in the farm. Generally, using chemicals on the farm is not healthy for the environment and the farmer, it is advisable that precautional measures are taken while applying them.
The National Biosafety Management Agency (NBMA) has been called out several times when the issue of GMOs are discussed in the public, their competence in detecting and regulating GMOs were questioned.
The National Biosafety Management Agency is saddled with the responsibility of regulating the application of biotechnology in the environment. The Agency is also in charge of issuing permit to the introduction of crops that have been genetically engineered.
When Nigerian Tribune visited the Director General of NBMA, Dr Rufus Ebegba, he said that the Agency has the best genetically modified organisms detection laboratory in Africa.
According to him “If anybody is saying that the NBMA does not have the capacity to regulate the application of biotechnology in both Human Resources and equipment, such people are speaking from the point of bias mind because this Agency has been in existence for less than 4 years and we have tried as much as possible to to involve so many stakeholders to know our level of competence and involvement in our National Biosafety system.
“The NBMA has one of the best genetically modified organisms detection laboratory in Africa, but they don’t want to know what we do. They go about creating fears in the mind of the public, inciting the members of the public against the Agency.
“We will not be deterred by such blackmail and attempt cow us from not taking decisions, the Agency was not created to stop GMOs but to ensure that they are safe”.
Dr Ebegba said the Agency has issued a lot of permits which it made a public notice for the members if the public to look at the application and make inputs or objections which must have a verifiable evidence.
“Our permits are public, even before the permit is granted, we make public notice for the members of the public to look at the application, and if they have any objection, they should say so, the objection does not mean we must obey or listen to whatever you say, if it does not have any verifiable evidence, we throw such things away.
“There are different types of permit, we have permit for confined field trial, we have permit for food feed and processing (grains), we have commercial and environmental release permit.
“The Agency grant these permits after we have confirmed the product to be safe, what if we have granted over 100 permits, an agency that have been in existence for almost 4 years, is that enough job for the Agency?
“GMOs are not just things you go to your backyard and come out with it in 2 or 3 days, it takes 7 to 15 years to come out with a very sound, stable genetically modified product. We review all these applications, and that is our role, to ensure that these products are properly regulated and we are doing that”.
The issues around GMOs should been approached based on sentiments or emotionally, it is science based and criticisms should be science based with verifiable evidence.
The debate in Nigeria is majorly done based on here-say, unverifiable claims, emotions and most times, religion is attached to it just to get sympathy from the general public.
At a time when the Nigerian population is growing drastically, and food insufficiency is staring at our faces, it is pertinent that trusted technologies like biotechnology is deployed to ensure food security.
It is worthy of note that some developed economies have adopted this GM technology to advance food productivity, fight pest and insect and put money in the pockets of farmers.
The already released Bt cotton will in no distant time revive the already dead textile industries, which at the time it was booming, was the highest employer of labour in Nigeria.
There is need for stakeholders in the agricultural sector and the government to support the Nigerian scientists to produce alternative seeds which will stand a test of time and resist some known pest which has been destroying crops and also improve crop yield per hectare.