GMOs have been the subjects of very heated debates for decades, and now more than ever in Nigeria. GM technologies hold great benefits in order to boost food yield, quality, feed a growing population of any country and play a pivotal role in the fight against the spread of new infectious diseases. This subject is particularly important for Africa where the population is expected to climb from 1.2 billion to 2.4 billion by 2050. Without concrete solutions to answer this reality, Africa faces a future of increased malnutrition, be more at risk to disease propagation and reliance on food and medicine imports. This would result in strong economic pressure on many African countries due to higher food and medicine prices and increase dependence on international food and health aid to fill the gap between domestic production and demand. In this address, the author intends to examine the objections to adopting GM technologies by the most vocal organizations and provide real answers to their claims.
What are the objections to adopting GM technology?
The most vocal organizations against the adoption of GM technology are Non-Profit Organizations (NGOs) such as Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, Genewatch, ActionAid and GM Freeze and their affiliates and allies in Africa have urged countries not to commercialize GM crops. Opponents claim it would mortgage their agricultural sector to large multinational agri-businesses, harm biodiversity, undermine small farmers and expose their populations to the potential health hazards of consuming GM food, that can vary from organ damage to risk of cancer.
These claims were all proved wrong and, in fact, there is no scientific evidence suggesting GMOs to be more dangerous to human health or the environment than conventional or organic foods. This conclusion was confirmed in May 2016 by the US National Academy of science. The Academy of Sciences of Cameroon, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Mozambique, Nigeria, Senegal, South Africa, Sudan, Tanzania, Uganda and Zimbabwe, and the International Society of African Scientists (ISAS) also confirmed these findings.
Additionally, a paper published by Gent University in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science of the United States of America in May 2015 showed evidence that sweet potatoes are actually GMOs issue of plant-microbe interactions. The same technology used today in labs to create modern day GMOs. Sweet potatoes have been eaten for millennia and are not only considered safe for the environment and consumption but have also been shown to provide health benefits to consumers.
Furthermore, 129 Nobel Laureates have joined in a campaign to convince the Green Parties and the public that they should support the use of GMOs, especially for the sake of the developing world. This letter was published in the Journal of Innovation & Knowledge in the May-August 2018 issue.
The only scientific argument regarding GMOs in Europe is the so-called gene flow risk, where an unwanted gene is inadvertently transferred to other populations, i.e. GMO crops intended for industrial use finds it foreign gene into crops intended for humans. This concern however is safely dealt with the use of buffer zones. The recent success of the field trials in Nigeria of two GM soybean seeds is the proof of that.
Since GM technologies from a scientific point of view are safe and sound, one is entitled to ponder as to why they haven’t adopted them as of yet?
The main opposition comes from the European Union. EU environmental non-profits and EU politicians have all opposed the adoption of GM crops in Africa. EU has adopted a precautionary approach to GMOs, with the main blockers being France and Germany. The principal reason for this is of course monetary. Indeed, most of the African agricultural produce is destined for the EU. The EU is trying to protect its farmers against the more productive GMOs producers, the U.S.A. GMOs produced in Africa are not barred from EU imports by law, however, constraining labeling laws is a scare factor for buyers. Indeed, the EU food labeling system forces companies to indicate if the food or feed they produce contains GMOs. This labeling applies when GMOs account for at least 0.9 percent of the food or the feed. As such, much of Africa refuses to grow GMOs scared to lose the wealthy EU buyers.
The stance of the EU on African GMOs also led to the refusal by Africa of the American food aid because it contained GMOs. The reason behind this refusal was that the American food aid might inadvertently “contaminate” Africa’s crops, which would lead to the refusal of the EU to buy African agricultural produce. Recently, scholars in a study published in journal PLoS On in the July 2017 issue have concluded that these delays in introducing GMOs led to significant economic and human health costs, including malnutrition and stunting. They even determined for example that a one year delay in approval of the pod-borer resistant cowpea in Nigeria will cost the country about 33 million USD to 46 million USD and between 100 and 3,000 lives.
The incurred losses due to trade wars between the EU and the USA determined by the study are only the tip of the iceberg. The costs of banning GMOs also extend to the country’s economical growth, research and development sector and competitiveness of the country in a booming new industry. CropLife Canada estimates that the use of biotech crops and pesticides has enabled farmers to produce 47 percent more grain worth an added CA$ 9.8 billion on an annual basis. Those numbers are only for GMO crops intended for consumption and do no take into account the revenues generated by GMO industry and technologies. GMOs are also used to produce complex pharmaceuticals such as anti-HIV drugs made in GM tobacco in the EU, the same Europe that is banning GMOs. The revenues from this industry would not only benefit farmers by allowing them to diversify production for a very lucrative return but would also allow local industry to emerge. It would allow a country like Nigeria to be the leader in the field and considerably increase its competitiveness across the world.
Indeed, Biopharming, which has created a new generation of GM crops, has the prospect of becoming a cheaper and more efficient alternative to producing pharmaceutical products for human use. Biopharming is the cultivation of crops for a pharmaceutical purpose, giving them the ability to produce desired therapeutic proteins that are then extracted, purified, and used by the pharmaceutical industry to produce large-molecule, protein-based drugs. Corn, rice, tobacco, and alfalfa are among the top candidates for being widely used in biopharming. This new utilization of GMOs has opened the door to an entirely new type of industry with new revenues and technologies. Nigeria and Africa could benefit a lot from this technology.
In summary, GMOs have been proven safe and beneficial in more ways than one by the scientific community and by the people who have been using them for years and even millennia. Nigeria should be praised for taking the endeavor to lead Africa to innovative future in agriculture, biopharmaceuticals and science that will result in the ability to sustain the people in adequate and human conditions while improving its economy. Last year, big wins by the Nigerian government in getting the commercialization of Bt cotton approved and in beginning the process of deregulating Bt cowpea will without a doubt lead to great benefits for the Nigerian people. Those milestones also opened the door for significant progress to the Nigerian biotechnology sector. In other words, Nigeria has now a real opportunity to become a leader in the field and not only apply solutions to manage its growing population but also to develop its own ones uniquely designed to its beautiful environment and culture. Let us all hope that the opponents to GMOs wrongly guided by EU interests will see the light and help Nigeria grow into the leader it aspires to be.
By Dr. Yasser S. Hassan