The right to food in a changing world through modern biotechnology and the role of biosafety

The right to food in a changing world through modern biotechnology and the role of biosafety

By Edel-Quinn Agbaegbu

Biotechnology refers to any technique that uses living organisms ranging from virus, bacteria, plants and animals or parts of the organisms to derive other products for the benefit of mankind. It is not a new technique. Traditional biotechnology such as the use of yeast to make bread or wine has been applied for thousands of years. Since the late 19th century, knowledge of the principle of hereditary gave farmers new tools for breeding crops and animals. They selected individual organisms with beneficial characteristics and developed hybrids.

Modern biotechnology is the fusion of cells beyond the taxonomic family that overcomes natural physiological, reproductive or recombination barriers that are not techniques used in traditional breeding and selection. It entails the movement of desired genes from unrelated species in the chromosome of another organism to exhibit the characteristics of the donor.  It is a tool in addressing challenges that have been difficult to resolve using conventional approach particularly in the improvement of agriculture, medicine, industrial growth and enhancing environmental sustainability. For instance, a year after the genetically modified Friendly Aedes mosquitoes were launched in Piracicaba, Brazil, the Epidemiologic Surveillance service released new data which showed a 91% reduction in dengue fever cases in the CECAP/EI Dorado District. The latest data roundup also reports zero cases of Zika and chikungunya in CECAP/Eldorado.

Aside this, did you know that Insulin is GMO?

The genetically modified (GM) crops so far produced and globally commercialized are for herbicide tolerance, insect resistance, disease resistance, drought resistance and bio fortification.

Although modern agricultural science was the key to reducing rural poverty and preventing starvation in Asia, similar advances is being kept out of Africa. The cultural turn against agricultural science among affluent societies is now being exported to Africa whereas it has been noted that sustaining African economic prosperity will require significant efforts to modernize the continent’s economy through the application of science and technology in agriculture. Thomas Jefferson (American Founding Father) in Memorandum of Services to My Country after 2 September 1800 remarked that “the greatest service which can be rendered to any country is to add a useful plant to its culture; especially a bread grain”.


There has been a lot of campaign by anti-GMO activists against modern biotechnology and genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in Nigeria creating fears in the minds of Nigerians. This campaign is not farfetched from trade war amongst Agrochemical Industry and Biotechnology Industry apart from political undertone. It should be realized that outright opposition to new farm science on the part of some pressure groups is contributing directly to the continued growth of poverty and hunger. Incidentally, the international authorities like the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO), World Health Organization (WHO) and the codex commission have not found any harm with the use of GMOs.

The right to food in a changing world through modern biotechnology and the role of biosafety
The right to food in a changing world through modern biotechnology and the role of biosafety

Meanwhile, it has been projected that the world’s population will rise to 9 billion by 2050. Today, one in eight people among the world’s growing population mainly in Africa do not have enough to eat, especially women. To satisfy demand, the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO) has predicted that food production will need to increase by 70%. Besides, land and water resources are increasingly being degraded and depleted, which has serious implications for developing countries and in particular African continent.

These are myriads of critical global changes which also affects Nigeria. They are huge challenges, but one possible solution is for farmers to combine their expert local knowledge with recent advances in bioscience.


Addressing these challenges requires adoption of safe technologies that would foster green economy; address the factors that mitigate the impacts of climate change, ensure food safety and economic growth which are of national priority to enhance the wellbeing of citizens.


There is no doubt that advancement in any technology also goes with some potential adverse impacts and modern biotechnology is not an exception in this regard. This is the basis for Biosafety, as a means for addressing potential adverse impacts of modern technology and GMOs on the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity, taking into account risks to human health.


Nigeria signed and ratified the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety (CPB), in 2000 and 2003 respectively. The objective of the protocol is to contribute to ensuring an adequate level of protection of human health and biodiversity from potential risks of modern biotechnological practices. Parties to the Protocol are required to domesticate the Protocol through administrative and legal frame work. In this regard, Nigeria came up with the National Biosafety Management Agency Act 2015 which heralds the National Biosafety Management Agency (NBMA). The insinuation by anti-GMOs campaigners that the Act was rushed is far from the truth. The process began in 2002 and those making insinuations were involved in the review process of September 2006 at Sheda Service and Technology Complex (SHESTCO). It was duly passed initially in 2011 and again in 2015 before it was assented to on April 18, 2015.


The African Union (AU) Ministerial Conference on Science and Technology adopted Biosafety and Biotechnology for the economic development in Africa. To assist member countries to develop biosafety capacity, the AU-NEPAD Agency established the African Biosafety Network of Experts (ABNE). The ABNE since 2010 has supported Nigeria in various capacity building programs. ECOWAS on its part is currently developing common biosafety regulations for the sub-region and Nigeria has made some inputs into it.

The right to food in a changing world through modern biotechnology and the role of biosafety
The right to food in a changing world through modern biotechnology and the role of biosafety

Nigeria also has a National Biotechnology Policy to promote biotechnology in the country. The National Biotechnology Agency (NABDA) which is under the Federal Ministry of Science and Technology was established in 2001 to implement the Policy. There are also Research Institutions, Agricultural Research Council of Nigeria, Universities and the private sector involved in biotechnological activities.


With these frameworks in place, Nigeria has strategically placed itself in the forefront of Science and Technology to re-double its efforts in the acquisition of the capacity for the judicious utilization of all the tools of modern biotechnology to confront the challenges of the changing world.

Some biosafety decisions so far taken before the advent of NBMA and currently include: the accreditation of institutions such as the Institute for Agricultural Research, (IAR) Zaria and four others for modern biotechnology activities.


Also is the approval of Confined Field Trials for:


i Bio-fortified cassava enriched with pro-vitamin A and Iron, concluded at National Root Crop    Research Institute, Umudike.


ii African Biofortified Sorghum: bioavailability of iron, zinc, protein and pro-Vitamin A is on-going at IAR.


iii GM rice modified for Nitrogen use efficiency, water use efficiency and salt tolerance is on- going at National Cereals Research Institute Badeggi.


iv Maize resistant to insect and herbicide tolerance.


No wonder why the Honorable Minister of Agriculture, Audu Ogbe in his Agriculture Promotion Policy 2016-2020 outlined strategic approach to address the gaps in our todays agriculture: The inability to meet domestic food requirements and to export at quality levels required for market success. The Ministry of Agriculture thus is proposing that agricultural research in the country should receive massive support for increased productivity.


On the application for GM Maize NK603 and MON 89034 X NK603, the procedure for processing of application was followed according to the National Biosafety Management Act, before its approval for confined field trial and not for commercial release. Although there were objections expressed by some respondents against the applications, they were scrutinized and the basis for the objection to the application was found not adequate to warrant refusal of permits to the applicant.


One objection stated that “Adoption of any Monsanto-promoted crop (or even weed killers) will not serve the best interests of Nigerians in the long run”.


It was reviewed that herbicide containing glyphosate has been in use over the years for conventional crops not necessarily for GMOs alone.


The controversy around GM Cotton MON 15985 lacks scientific backing. Mon 15985 is a known product and has been reviewed and considered safe by many regulatory agencies in the world. It has been commercially cultivated since 2003 in the US, Austria and South Africa and has regulatory approvals for import into the EU, New Zealand,  Japan, China, Columbia, Mexico, Canada, Singapore, Philippines and Taiwan.


The recent fiasco on the turn of events over Burkina Faso’s Bt. cotton fibre length and lint quality–and the decision by cotton companies to slow adoption while the issue is being resolved, is being interpreted differently in the region.

Cotton is the second-biggest source of revenue for the impoverished West African country after gold. In an effort to increase yields, the Inter-professional Cotton Association of Burkina (AICB) began introducing Monsanto’s Bollgard II trait into Burkinabe cotton varieties beginning in 2009 as protection against caterpillars. Burkina Faso’s success story has been celebrated as an example of how GM crops can help poor farmers. Many farmers have enthusiastically adopted the technology, and for good reason. Studies show that Bt cotton has increased yields and profits. The average Bt cotton farming family gained 50% more profit than from conventional cotton. This is despite the very high cost of Bt cotton seed. Bt cotton growers also use significantly less pesticide. The total number of sprayings has gone down from six to two, reducing exposure of damaging chemicals and saving valuable labour time.


However, the AICB, which groups together Burkina’s three cotton companies and the national cotton farmers union (UNPCB), believes the trait has increased levels of short fibers in its cotton, reducing its market value. But evidence from peer reviewed publications shows that Bt cotton has not failed in Burkina Faso or anywhere else (Traore, O. et al., 2008. Economics of marketing: Testing the efficacy and economic potential of Bollguard 11 under Burkina Faso cropping condition. The Journal of Cotton Science 12:87-98 (2008) and ISAAA, 2014. Burkina Faso Biotech Country Facts & Trends.


Monsanto said the Bollgard II varieties had consistently delivered increased yield potential since they were launched. The company acknowledged that recent changes concerning fiber length had been observed, but added that fiber quality is influenced by both environmental conditions and genetic background. “This variation exists between all cotton varieties (conventional or biotech) and is independent of the Bollgard II trait,” spokesman William Brennan said in a reply to Reuters.


As Burkina Faso is exploring how best to engage with the technology, Nigeria in collaboration with Monsanto Nigeria Limited are being careful to eliminate similar challenges of Burkina Faso to ensure quality and safety to Nigerians and the environment before the commercial release.


In her press release of 20th June, 2016, the Honorable Minister of Environment, Amina Mohammed has called on Nigerians not to panic over the issues of GMOs. She said presently no genetically modified organisms are officially grown in Nigeria. The Minister stated that ‘’All the GMOs in Nigeria officially approved are under experimental fields, citing the insect resistant cotton for commercial release will still be subjected to further processes for the next two years”.

She enjoined the citizenry to cooperate with the federal Government in its quest to diversify the Nigeria economy for the present and future generations adding “Nigerians should be rest assured of protection of their health and environment by the National Biosafety Management Agency”. As Mark Cantly said in 2006, “The new ingredient in Biotech crops is not black magic or radioactivity; it is knowledge”.



Edel-Quinn Agbaegbu is the Executive Director of Every Woman Hope Centre, publishers of Life Care Journal (

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