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Facts and fiction of GM foods in Nigeria

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Persisting concerns raised over the health implications of Genetically Modified (GM) or engineered foods to the consumers and the inadequate enlightenment of their advantages have undermined their acceptance, here in Nigeria. For instance, in recent time there have been allegations of the importation and flooding our markets with apples, bananas and sundry fruits that are products of genetic modification. So, what are they?

According to Wikipedia ‘Genetically modified foods, also known as genetically engineered foods, or bioengineered foods are foods produced from organisms that have had changes introduced into their DNA using the methods of genetic engineering’. GE foods have had their DNA changed using genes from other plants or animals. It could also be done using bacteria and other very small organisms.Scientists take the gene for a desired trait( colour, flavour, texture, early maturation, greater yield) in one plant or animal, and they insert that gene into a cell of another plant or animal. Genetic engineering therefore, allows scientists to move desired genes from one plant or animal into another. Another name for this is genetically modified organisms, or GMOs.

It is important to note that the process to create GE foods is different from that of selective breeding. This involves selecting plants or animals with desired traits and breeding them. With time, this results in offspring with those desired traits.One of the problems identified with selective breeding is that it can also result in traits that are not desired. This avoids introducing other genes with undesirable traits. GE also helps speed up the process of creating new foods with desired traits.

There are even some advantages traced to GMfood items. These include ones that are more nutritious, tastier, disease- and-drought-resistant plants that require fewer environmental resources (such as water and fertilizer). Others require less use of pesticides, increased supply of food with reduced cost and longer shelf life. There are those that have produced faster growing plants and animals with more desirable traits, such as potatoes that produce less of a cancer-causing substance when fried, and medicinal foods that could be used as vaccines or other medicines.

On the flip side, some people have expressed concerns about results of some scientific studies with GM foods which indicate that they may cause some common toxic effects such as hepatic, pancreatic, renal, or reproductive effects. They may alter the hematological, biochemical and immunologic parameters of the consumers.Some GM foods are also alleged to cause an allergic reaction or harmful genetic changes as well as produce some foods that are less nutritious.

Read also: Global food prices hit record high on Russia-Ukraine war – FAO

But according to the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) “these concerns have proven to be unfounded. None of the GE foods used today have caused any of these problems. The FDA assesses all GE foods to make sure they are safe before allowing them to be sold. In addition to the FDA, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) regulate bioengineered plants and animals. They assess the safety of GE foods to humans, animals, plants, and the environment.” It is heartening to know these but how does the issue play out when it comes to the Nigerian situation?

Here, we have in place, the National Biotechnology Development Agency (NABDA). It came into effect in recognition of the importance of biotechnology to national development, when the Federal Executive Council on 23rd of April 2001 approved the National Biotechnology Policy,. This led to the establishment of the NABDA in November 2001.

The Agency was established under the aegis of the Federal Ministry of Science and Technology to implement the policy that is aimed at promoting, coordinating, and setting research and development priority, specifically in biotechnology for Nigeria. Based on this premise, the programmes of the agency are structured in line with the international standard bearing in mind the development of local technological contents.

With the Vision aimed at promoting biotechnology activities that positively respond to national aspirations on food security, affordable healthcare delivery, job/wealth creation, and sustainable environment, it has as the acting Director General Prof. Alex Casmir Uwadiegwu Akpa.

So far, the biotechnology sector in Nigeria is said to have witnessed watershed events that shaped the sector in 2018. For instance, the Nigerian government through its apex regulatory body, the National Varietal Release Committee gave the go-ahead for the commercialization of a major cash crop, the pest resistant Bacillus thuringiences (Bt) Cotton. Also, the year recorded a historic victory for biotechnology application in the country with the winning of the case against the biotech anti-crusaders in the country.

Another remarkable achievement is the commercialization of the Bt cowpea with the presentation of the dossier by the African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF) and the Institute of Agricultural Research (IAR), Zaria to the nation’s biotech regulatory body, the National Biosafety Management Agency (NBMA).

According to Rose Gidado, the Nigeria Chapter Country Coordinator Open Forum on Agricultural Biotechnology (OFAB) in Africa, some appreciable progress has been recorded with regards to the status of Nigeria’s genetically modified organism (GMO) crops in the country.

She said cotton is currently being planted, beginning with demo trialsin selected states such as Gombe, Adamawa, FCT, Ogun, Jigawa and Kano. This is to enable farmers get used to the Bt and non-Bt which are being planted side by side for them to see the difference.

“After the demo trials then the 1000 farmers that will take part in the seed multiplication take off. So, at present, we’re doing demo trials. There will also be seed certification by the National Agric Seed Council (NASC). By 2020 we’ll be seeing Bt cotton in farmers’ field and anyone who is interested can buy the seeds and plant,” she said.

Other efforts in the pipeline include the field confinement trials on VIRCA Plus project, – resistant cassava nutritionally enhance with iron and zinc. The crops include the Nitrogen Use Efficient, Water Use Efficient and Salt Tolerant (NEWEST) Rice; the African Bio-fortified Sorghum (ABS); Bt Maize; Herbicide tolerant soybeans and GM cassava improved for shelve life elongation of root starch.

On the project by the National Root Crops Research Institute and Danforth Plant Science Centre based in Missouri, USA, she said the project is already ongoing in Uganda and Kenya, and Nigeria is the third country being considered for the project.

By and large, GM Foods are gradually becoming part and parcel of the Nigerian food security landscape. With the wave of globalisation sweeping across the continents, what we need is well coordinated activities for Nigerian-researched and approved foods that are safe, nutritious and affordable to the consumers.

In the light of this, sustained enlightenment of the farmers and the general public has become an imperative.