Controversy is trailing the recently approved genetically-modified maize (Tela varieties) in Nigeria as some farmers and rights groups are calling for the reversal of the approval to cultivate and trade GM maize in the country.
Experts who fear that the country’s sudden embrace of GM maize, purported to be pest-resistant with high yield, said it would undermine farmers’ livelihoods, destroy the environment and lead to mass sterilisation of Nigerians.
Philip Njemanze, chairman of Global Prolife Alliance, in a letter to the National Assembly last week, called for the total ban of genetically-modified foods in the country, describing it as a national threat.
The letter claimed that certain GM foods like maize allegedly contain an Epicyte gene linked to sterilisation, noting that allowing such foods will amount to mass sterilisation of Nigerians.
He noted that a genetic use restriction technology makes plants produce sterile seeds in the second generation, known as suicide seeds.
“Biotechnology companies intend to permanently control Nigeria’s food security by ensuring farmers must purchase seeds each planting season,” the letter stated, adding that it would result in the perpetual capture of Nigeria’s financial, health and human resources by foreign biotech investors.
“To address these security concerns, the government should consider implementing a complete ban on all GMO seeds and crops in Nigeria.”
With about 148.7 million people in Nigeria facing food shortages after its worsening decade-long insecurity issues that have crippled production activities, the federal government in January approved 23 new maize varieties for commercial planting, including four genetically-modified Tela maize varieties, making it the second country in Africa to approve commercialisation of genetically engineered maize.
Nigeria has been struggling to feed its 200 million people and a huge demand-supply gap in maize production – a key staple in the Nigerian diet after rice, with imports plugging the deficit.
Yield per hectare has remained low and production has failed to match population growth over the years despite being the second-largest grower of the crop in Africa and 13th globally.
In 2022, Nigeria churned out 12.9 million metric tonnes of maize, according to the most recent data from the Food and Agriculture Organization. Its agricultural ministry in 2016 put the country’s demand for the grain at 15 million, a figure that has increased now owing to the rising demand for the cereal.
Going by the figure, Nigeria has a supply-demand gap of about 2.1 million tonnes per annum. Agro-allied manufacturers using maize and its by-products as key inputs are increasingly sourcing locally as foreign exchange hiccups continue to deal blows on their capacity to import the grain.
Jude Obi, president of the Association of Organic Agriculture Practitioners of Nigeria, said the country’s approval of GM maize will not help address the most pressing issues leading to low production of the crop.
Obi said one of the major dangers of genetically-engineered maize is that it distorts the ecosystem, noting that it poses a huge danger to the environment.
“The danger of GMO is that it creates an imbalance in the ecosystem and it will push our farmers into seed slavery,” he said.
“Also, it is another form of colonisation for the country,” he said, adding that Nigeria will continue to rely on imports for seeds and with the current FX scarcity, prices of food will make rapid climbs, a threat to the federal government’s food stabilisation plan.
“If the seeds we use for our planting are imported, food prices will continue to surge and it will add to the current FX pressure.”
Sylvia Uzochukwu, a professor and president of the Biotechnology Society of Nigeria, insisted that GM crops are not a national security threat or form of biotech terrorism.
According to her, the modified maize have been rigorously tested and regulated before commercial release to ensure the safety for human health and the environment, even as they have been happily consumed in Europe, America, South Africa, China and other parts of Asia for more than 25 years, without adverse effects.
She argued that transgenic cowpea (beans), which has got approval from the government, and TELA maize were developed by Nigerian scientists to benefit the nation’s smallholder farmers.
The transgenic cowpea is resistant to destructive pod borers, which typically destroy 80 percent of cowpea crops, she said, adding that it helps farmers boost their yields in several folds.
But Nigeria’s Institute for Agricultural Research carried out national performance trials of the four varieties of GM maize across 10 states with varied agroecological conditions recently and the trials reportedly showed average yields achieving three tonnes per hectare.
This shows that using GM maize seeds does not significantly improve farmers’ yield per hectare from its current 2.2MT.