By Edel-Quinn Agbaegbu
Conversation has been going on now for many years on the import of the GMOs on human health and its diversity. It has been received with scepticism and suspicion in different parts of the world,especially in Africa. A greater understanding of the science in the modification of biotech crops may be one avenue to alleviate the fears surrounding the technology.
Previous Genetically Engineered (GE) events have achieved tremendous successes in the past 20 years, and within the period, there has been no verifiable evidence of the potential for adverse health effects. With this reality of science and the anxiety of sentiments, communication is key to allow more robust evaluation of the performance of biotechnology and in addressing obstacles to biotechnology access.
In Nigeria, there is need for strategic communication for increasing access to biotechnology as a means of ensuring food security, sustainable agriculture and combating climate change. Scott Hamilton Kennedy was right when he stated that ‘’One of the joys of science is that it’s not political, it’s not blue state or red state, it’s not rich or poor. It’s the best system we have for being able to make decisions’’. The greatest global challenge today, especially in Africa is how to make our food more sustainable in the next 50 years.
Recently, the Nigeria Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, Chief Audu Ogbe, called on Nigerian scientists to advise the Federal Government on the acceptability or otherwise of the GMOs. Ogbeh made the call during a working visit to the Agricultural and Veterinary Complex of the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, in Kaduna state. The minister said that opinion from indigenous scientists on the matter, would help form government decisions on the acceptability or otherwise of the organisms. This is a right step in the right direction. It creates room for a science-based decision-making in government policies and enhances the opportunity to harness the underlying potentials of biotechnology as a tool in addressing food and feed security in Nigeria.
Nigeria Scientists can harvest alongside their efforts the global evidence of the rich potentials of the technology in placing the country on course and prove to entire population that biotechnology can make a significant contribution towards the government’s effort in meeting its strategic plan in food security. A recent report from ISSAA revealed that the Society of Toxicology (SOT), a professional membership association of more than 8,200 scientists worldwide, has approved and released a new Issue Statement on food and feed safety related to genetically engineered (GE) crops. The Issue Statement has key observations on safety, substantial equivalence, and labelling. The Society affirms the safety of GE crops amidst ongoing public debate about potential adverse impacts of GE crops on human or animal health. They confirmed that each new event has been evaluated by regulatory authorities and all necessary regulatory approvals were secured before their commercial release.
Another ISAA report revealed that an international team of researchers successfully developed a new type of wheat that contains ten times the amount of the fiber than normal wheat, which helps improve gut health and also fights bowel cancer and Type 2 diabetes. The research team is composed of experts from Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), Limagrain Céréales Ingrédients, and the Grains Research and Development Corporation. The researchers identified two particular enzymes, that when reduced in wheat, increased the amylose content.
Among the major genetically engineered crops commercially grown in 26 countries, maize has the highest number of approved events (single and stacked traits) and is the second largest crop, after soybean, in terms of global adoption. Despite this, the risks and benefits of GE maize are still being debated and concerns about safety remain. A meta-analysis of 21 years of field data by researchers on the agro-environmental impact of GE maize shows the benefits of GE maize in terms of increases in grain yield and quality, and in decreases of the target insect Diabrotica spp. The analysis shows that GE maize has less mycotoxins and did not affect many beneficial insects. There is modest or no effect on the abundance of non-target insects, suggesting no substantial effect on insect community diversity.
There is strong evidence that GE maize cultivation reduces mycotoxin content in maize grain, which leads to increases in income and quality of produce, and to reductions in human exposure to mycotoxins, thus reducing health risks. Farmers in Kenya are already urging the government to fast track the adoption of genetically modified crops that will see the commercial release of Bt maize. One of the farmers, Nduku, ardently acknowledged; “I will not hesitate to accept genetically modified maize if it resists pests and drought”.
A Nigerian scientist, Prof. Ibrahim Abubakar, Director of the Institute for Agricultural Research (IAR), said the institute had released 17 varieties of improved cowpea, 13 varieties of cotton, 26 varieties of groundnut, and 54 varieties of maize among others. The National Biosafety Management Agency (NBMA), a Nigeria Agency, saddled with the responsibility of implementing biosafety regulations has said that the country is ripe for commercialization of GM products. This may imply that Nigeria will soon start the commercialization of staple crops that have been tested through confined field trials such as the Maruca-resistant cowpea currently being tested by farmers on the fields, and Bt cotton, which is on general release.
The public needs to give science a chance to thrive and a healthy environment for the scientists to operate to unlock some of the barriers blocking important technologies and the adaptation of modern biotechnology. Neil Degrasse-Tyson was quoted as saying that “If we are not using science to make political decisions, that’s the beginning of the end of an informed democracy, and we do not want to see that.”
Edel-Quinn Agbaegbu is the Executive Director of Every Woman Centre (EWHC) and the Secretary, National Biotechnology and Biosafety Consortium (NBBC)