Truth Must Prevail On Genetic Modification: We cannot hope to use our traditional and unattractive farming practices to put food on the table of a rapidly growing population – Prof Ugwuanyi

Truth Must Prevail On Genetic Modification: We cannot hope to use our traditional and unattractive farming practices to put food on the table of a rapidly growing population - Prof Ugwuanyi
Truth Must Prevail On Genetic Modification: We cannot hope to use our traditional and unattractive farming practices to put food on the table of a rapidly growing population - Prof Ugwuanyi
Truth Must Prevail On Genetic Modification: We cannot hope to use our traditional and unattractive farming practices to put food on the table of a rapidly growing population – Prof Ugwuanyi

The attention of Concerned Nigerian Scientists (CNS) has been drawn to the outcome of a conference convened recently by The Africa Faith and Justice Network (AFJN) in collaboration with the Health of Mother Earth Foundation (HOMEF) that suggested that Nigeria was at a cross road in the struggle for sustainable agriculture, safe food, biosafety and biosecurity.

Their conclusion was based on the fact that the country was going into full deployment of biotechnology and its tools including genetic modification to enhance food production in line with the strategy of the present government to make agriculture the mainstay of the economy.

As a matter of fact, to achieve developmental strides in economic diversification, food security, improved health systems, cleaner energy, job creation, wealth generation and poverty reduction, Nigeria must determine to deploy every safe technology and invest purposefully in the training of manpower for the deployment of such technologies.

 

Background

We congratulate the Africa Faith and Justice Network (AFJN) in collaboration with the Health of Mother Earth Foundation (HOMEF) for a successful conference on Just Governance: the Nigerian Biosafety law, GMOs and the Implications for Nigeria and Africa. However, as Concerned Nigerian Scientists (CNS), it is very important to state that Nigeria is not at a cross road in the struggle for sustainable agriculture, safe food, biosafety and biosecurity.  As a matter of fact, to achieve developmental strides in economic diversification, food security, improved health systems, cleaner energy, job creation, wealth generation and poverty reduction, Nigeria must determine to deploy every safe technology and invest purposefully in the training of manpower for the deployment of such technologies.

While we appreciate the fact that local content is also key to national development, it may be TOTALLY wrong to say that Science and Technology embraced by Nigeria are now “quick fixes” that endanger the economy as well as local initiatives. We cannot hope to use our traditional and unattractive farming practices to put food on the table of a rapidly growing population. Neither can we expect any young Nigerian to embrace the tedium of traditional farming in this modern world. Our agriculture needs necessarily to keep pace with global developments if it is to attract young people and entrepreneurs.

Biotechnology has been with humankind since the beginning of our existence as we modify the environment around us for shelter, food and tools and have over time developed to suite the trends of times.  Biotechnology is indeed a classical example of a knowledge-value industry and therefore all reports for or against this technology should be purely based on knowledge information.

The use of modern biotechnology can be seen in the fields of Genetic engineering, Molecular markers; Molecular diagnostics and even plant Tissue culture. These have all in their own ways been demonstrated to improve the livelihood of mankind. Are we now saying that plants that are grown via tissue culture and not via seeds should be rejected because they do not follow the natural law of reproduction and growth? It will be right to inform us all that the modern practices of tissues culture has its foundation from the conventional grafting and budding techniques which are also as old as mankind. Are we also saying that medical breakthroughs in vaccine production via genetic engineering and molecular diagnostics should be thrown away simply because they arise from genetic modification procedures?

Because modern biotechnology is still considered as a new technology and the advancement in this areas have been so rapid, it has been the object of some doubts, fears, concerns as well as intense and divisive debate. These all bother on the potential risks to human health, the environment and society, and so are understandable.  However, we must note that even as the debates rage, mostly in technologically developing nations, agricultural products of modern biotechnology have been consumed without deleterious effects for twenty five years.

Perceptions of ethical biotechnology “moral” is not the same as “ethical”

We need to understand that perceptions of the impacts of any technology are more complex than simple perception of benefits or risk. In discussing modern biotechnology, as for any new or emerging technology, we must develop the capacity to balance benefits and risk of alternative technologies, while respecting human autonomy, justice and the environment.

We owe our people, as members of the scientific community, informed and balanced viewpoint based on empirical evidence and scientific facts. The vocal press should also as mature stakeholders aim to put “evidence-based” information at the disposal of readership rather than anti-science social campaigns based on hype. Ethical Biotechnology cannot be decided just by public opinion and as a matter of fact cannot be one-sided.

What is termed morally offensive by a majority of people is judged to be immoral and is likely to be outlawed and in most cases what is seen as immoral is often termed unethical. The irony of this is that many unethical practices are often tolerated by a society but does that justify them to be in immoral?

Biotechnology Ethics in Nigeria “Non Negotiable”

As Scientists we strongly believe that ethically justifiable conclusions must depend on two kinds of judgments: factual (based on scientific evidence and theories), and ethical (based on the best available moral philosophy theories).

Decisions on what is right to do will be made after balancing the benefits of a technology like genetic engineering with its potential harms where found. It is not right to conclude that Nigeria is on the verge of corporate takeovers when all parties involved have not been able to sit down and balance the ethics of biotechnology research and applications in Nigeria. Similarly, the fact that a technology is being promoted by a global company does not imply corporate takeover of any nations that adopt such technologies.

We must address ethical issues relating to modern biotechnology by methodically asking series of questions. Sound ethical judgments should be made when scientific facts with thorough understanding of its principles are made. Thus, in any given case, we must be able to ask: (a) if the scientific information about harm being presented is reliable; is it fact, hearsay, or opinion? (b) What information do we not have that we should have before making the decision? In the case of modern biotechnology products, there is as yet no evidence to suggest they are unsafe.

Nations that seek to adopt new technologies seek balanced approach by scientists and governments in giving equal importance to independent risk assessment studies besides product development. We are of the opinion that modern biotechnology if applied responsibly has vast potential to benefit mankind and the environment.

 

Truth Must Prevail On Genetic Modification (2)

 

What is termed morally offensive by a majority of people is judged to be immoral and is likely to be outlawed and in most cases what is seen as immoral is often termed unethical. The irony of this is that many unethical practices are often tolerated by a society but does that justify them to be in immoral?

Biotechnology ethics in Nigeria ‘non negotiable’

As scientists, we strongly believe that ethically justifiable conclusions must depend on two kinds of judgments: factual (based on scientific evidence and theories), and ethical (based on the best available moral philosophy theories).

Decisions on what is right to do will be made after balancing the benefits of a technology like genetic engineering with its potential harms where found. It is not right to conclude that Nigeria is on the verge of corporate takeovers when all parties involved have not been able to sit down and balance the ethics of biotechnology research and applications in Nigeria. Similarly, the fact that a technology is being promoted by a global company does not imply corporate takeover of any nations that adopt such technologies.

We must address ethical issues relating to modern biotechnology by methodically asking series of questions. Sound ethical judgments should be made when scientific facts with thorough understanding of its principles are made. Thus, in any given case, we must be able to ask: (a) if the scientific information about harm being presented is reliable; is it fact, hearsay, or opinion? (b) What information do we not have that we should have before making the decision? In the case of modern biotechnology products, there is as yet no evidence to suggest they are unsafe.

Nations that seek to adopt new technologies seek balanced approach by scientists and governments in giving equal importance to independent risk assessment studies besides product development. We are of the opinion that modern biotechnology if applied responsibly has vast potential to benefit mankind and the environment. It will not ethically correct to make sweeping generalizations about modern biotechnology as any other innovations; each application must be fully analyzed on a case-by case basis.

Through complete and transparent assessments (scientifically and ethically) of modern biotechnology applications, the controversies can be less contentious and more constructive, and the full benefits of modern biotechnology may be maximized. This is our stand as concerned Nigerian Scientists.

Our right to get correct information about emerging technologies

While we appreciate the organizers of the conference for bringing speakers from all over Nigeria to speak on the issues we should not hesitate to pin point the fact that it’s the right of the citizenry to get the right information.

Consequently, we are worried about the integrity of a conference at which official and sponsored speakers make statements such as “Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Sponsors Boko Haram or comments seeking to disparage the National programme on Immunization which has been scientifically proven to reduce the incidence of polio in Nigeria as a disguise to give Nigerian children oral wild virus to kill them and reduce the population of Nigeria. We also worry about the knowledge of a scientist who informed his audience that genetic engineering consists of indiscriminate and blind shooting of genes into plants and involves taking genes from a fish and inserting same indiscriminately into tomatoes.

We can only imagine what the future of Nigeria will be with this kind of teaching.  We do not believe that a meeting addressed by such pseudo-scientists qualifies to address the Government and people of Nigeria on a scientific subject no matter the urgency. We are worried that such “academics” are retained by a university in Nigeria and are allowed to teach Nigerian students.

We are equally alarmed at the surreptitious attempt to mix applied science with religion; the attempt to intimidate and sow fear in people by hiding under the veil of religion as demonstrated at this meeting in question, and the refusal to provide balanced information to a carefully chosen, mostly scientifically under-informed population.

The decision to adopt any technology, biotechnology or otherwise, will be taken by the Nigerian people and government after careful and scientific cost benefit analysis of such technologies and not by a religious group. The government and people of Nigeria spend national resources on Nigerian scientists and trust them to provide informed opinion on scientific matters. We do not believe that Nigerian scientists have disappointed in this regard.

We also have course to wonder why the real issue of “Glyphosate” the so called “cancer promoter” is not properly told to Nigerians. There should be a big difference between something “Probably doing something” and a categorical statement as “it does something”

In any case it will be double standard to quote the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA)’s study on potential risk associated with specific antibiotic resistance but fail to also quote and state clearly their conclusion about glyphosate that there are very limited evidence for an association between glyphosate based formulations and non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL), overall inconclusive for a causal or clear associative relationship between glyphosate and cancer in human studies.

In any case, pray, when did glyphosate become biotechnology? Even as we have not adopted GM, is glyphosate (roundup) not the commonest herbicide in Nigeria?

We would like to state clearly what the EFSA report says “No consistent positive association was observed and the most “POWERFUL” study showed no effect”. It should also be noted the reason why the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) placed glyphosate on a category 2 scale: “The IARC working group has concluded that there is “LIMITED EVIDENCE” of carcinogenicity in humans which when interpreted means “A positive association has been observed between exposure to the agent and cancer for which a causal interpretation is considered to be credible, BUT CHANCE, BIAS OR CONFOUNDING could be ruled out with reasonable confidence. Even the most recent pronouncements of the American societies for Science, Engineering should make all of us go back to the drawing board and rethink about what information we give out

The biosafety management agency and the biosafety law

While it will not be out of place to constructively criticize the agency and the law backing the agency, it will be nice to know and recall that the biosafety law has had a long history of debates and inputs. It is also important to state categorically that it is now a Nigerian law and belongs solely to the government and its agency representing it.

As such it can only be amended following due processes. We urge that the queries be channelled to the agency for review and at the right time send her bill for amendment at the National Assembly.

We also would want to state that the agency does not review Biotechnology applications but this is done by the relevant stakeholders including civil societies.

Conclusion: A Need for balanced reporting

We urge all concerned not to take ethics of reporting for granted. Most people receive information via the mass media, especially the newspaper and television. The media have a large responsibility to communicate science issues well, and scientists should also inform people about science based on peer- reviewed and confirmed facts.

The media have the huge responsibility to present balanced information, on the benefits and risks of alternative technologies and to do this independently of commercial interests.

Let us not forget that public opinion can be influenced by groups who have a special interest or groups, whose members spend time to publicize their opinions, and who can get media coverage of their views that is neither science nor necessarily public opinion or interest.

 

  — Prof. Ugwuanyi is of the University of Nigeria, Nsukka and chairman, Concern Nigerian Scientists

 

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