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Rising concerns over commercialisation of BT cowpea

By Joke Falaju and Cornelius Essen, Abuja
26 May 2022   |   4:03 am
As the National Varietal Release Committee of the Federal Government approved the first genetically engineered beans variety and farmers rev up its cultivation, there have been arguments and counter-arguments over its safety,

‘GM beans are safe, environment-friendly’

As the National Varietal Release Committee of the Federal Government approved the first genetically engineered beans variety and farmers rev up its cultivation, there have been arguments and counter-arguments over its safety, environmental impacts and benefits to farmers and the country.

While promoters of the GM crops have argued that scientific findings have proven that the crops are safe for consumption, some individuals and groups have continued to stress precautions, and warning that the negative effect might not be felt until after 10 years.

Some scientists have warned that the release of the beans variety will contaminate indigenous varieties, place them at risk and expose farmers and people to avoidable risks. 

From a recent study claims that the pollinator characteristics of the natural West African wild cowpea populations, BT-gene will move from the genetically modified lines to non-modified lines of both cultivated and wild relatives, resulting in other plants gaining the resistance trait that would cause an alteration in ecological balance and present adverse effects.

A critical review of the BT Cowpea entitled, ‘Risk Assessment of Genetically Engineered Bt Cowpea Approved for Cultivation in Nigeria,’ published on January 29, 2022, indicated that safety of BT Cowpea could not be guaranteed as no molecular risk assessment was done and no empirical test was conducted by the applicant to assess changes in the relevant microbial communities and not even a single study with the whole food was performed.

“The safety of the consumption of the BT Cowpea is not shown and health risk assessment is inconclusive,” it stated. In essence, Nigeria is the first country to have approved the commercial release of the GM beans.

The National Biosafety Management Agency (NBMA), in 2019, granted an approval to the Institute of Agricultural Research (IAR), Zaria, to breed the crop and distribute it to farmers and as it is, the variety has already been planted, harvested and already being consumed by Nigerians.

MEANWHILE, some scientists and crop breeders have said the controversy over consumption of GM crops is due to lack of knowledge of modern breeding and biotechnology, saying it is not new in agriculture.

They also stated that since the late 19th Century, knowledge of the principles of heredity gave farmers new tools for breeding crops and animals by selecting individual organisms with beneficial traits to develop hybrid products.

Justifying the move, a scientist said: “One in eight people among the world’s growing population do not have enough to eat. Genetically modified technology is safe and effective methods of food production that can help us feed the hungry in developing nations.

“Apart from high yield, the plants are grown using modern technology that will require fewer pesticides, less water and keep production costs down. The technology has helped to reduce the price of crops, such as corn, soybean by as much as 15-30 per cent.”

A molecular biologist, Dr Ifeanyi Casmir, explained that genetic engineering is a radical new technology used by scientists to manipulate the DNA of a living organism, adding that GMOs are created in the laboratory by taking genes from one species and forcing them into an entirely unrelated species to achieve a new trait or characteristic that does not happen in nature.

He said the foreign genes might come from bacteria, viruses, insects, animals or even humans, and the introduction of foreign genes into any organism can cause unintended side effects for non-target species and ecosystems. 

Casmir, a lecturer at University of Abuja, alleged that inadequate risk assessments were not carried out on the Bt Cowpea before they were approved and there is no guarantee of its safety to human or environmental health.

According to the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), Genetically Modified Round-Up Ready soybean planted between 1995 and 2005 did not increase yield by even one per cent. Instead of increase, soy yields fell from a peak of 42 bushels/acre in 1994 to 39.5 in 2009.

The Executive Director of Health of Mother Foundation (HOMEF), Nnimmo Bassey, said it is incomprehensible that the National Biosafety Management Agency (NBMA) would permit the commercial release and distribution of GM Cowpea in the Nigerian environment without taking into cognizance the fact that Nigerian is a centre of origin of the crop and that an introduction of the variety in Nigeria means pollution of the fields in neighbouring countries.

According to him, GMOs have failed in Africa and in particular, GM cotton failed with small-scale farmers in South Africa’s Makhathini Flats. The crop also failed and was banned in Burkina Faso. He said it was shocking that the same variety that failed in Burkina Faso was approved for cultivation in Nigeria, adding that it was also incomprehensible that NBMA would permit the commercial release and distribution of GM Cowpea.

He stated: “We are calling for the prohibition of GM seeds in Nigeria,” urging the government to place a 20-year moratorium on further release of GMOs.

“We need to stop the spread of these seeds because Africa must not be turned into a dumping ground for risky technologies and NBMA should be moved from being a permit agency to ensuring they play their role as a regulator.”

He, however, commended the Senate for commencing the review of Biosafety Act, especially for planning to close gaps that have made the existing regime ineffective, saying Nigeria needs a biosafety act that protects Nigerians, not an act that gives permits.

Again, the Coordinator of Food Sovereignty Programme at Friends of the Earth Nigeria/Africa, Mariann Bassey- Orovwuje, said giving GMOs to farmers without their consent is illegal

He claimed that the GM cowpea and other GM crops were false solutions to challenges facing smallholder farmers, and would eventually leave them more impoverished.

She added: “The introduction of genetically engineered cowpea is a great cause for concern for farmers, consumers and civil society organisations across the continent.

She said although the technology is said to be provided royalty-free, the long-term implications on the environment, farmers’ varieties and production practices would trap farmers into unsustainable and unaffordable farming practices. 

On his part, Prof. Abdullahi Mustapha, of National Biotechnology Development Agency, said the agricultural sector was undergoing a rapid transformation with scientists and researchers working to improve various crops for adaptability, climate resilience and food security.

Mustapha argued that progress had been made on three crops, such as cotton, cowpea and maize, and the next phase of commercialisation is crucial to the success already recorded by making the crops available for farmers. He said: “The government has fully recognised agricultural biotechnology as one of the pillars that will make meaningful contributions to the quest for a food-secure Nigeria, hence, the establishment of research institutions and agencies.

“Many regulatory agencies and organisations that studied and researched the safety of GM crops ascertained that the products are safe. They are U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the American Medical Association and the World Health Organisation.

“Others include Health Canada and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the National Academy of Sciences, and National Biosafety Management Agency (Nigeria) has confirmed that GM food ingredients are good and have no negative health effects.”

“Similarly,” he said, “by 2025, they want to create a significant pool of farmers who are adept in seed production protocols and at delivering the end product with 99 per cent purity.  A quality analysis laboratory was established.”

He also said across the locations, “there was an incremental yield advantage of two tonnes or more over traditional cotton seeds. About 20,000 farmers have been exposed to the performance of Mahyco Cotton Bollgard II, cotton hybrids in various phases of interaction with the cultivators.”

On her part, the Country Coordinator of Open Forum on Agricultural Biotechnology, Dr. Rose Gidado, explained that the forum had demonstrated the technology to the farmers in their own fields in Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania.

Gidado also disclosed that Nigeria is a signatory to the Cartagena Protocols on Biosafety that identify GMOs or Living Modified Organisms (LMOs) as a group of items produced by modern biotechnology.

“In recognition of its role, the Federal Government provides a regulatory regime and guidance for the sustainable development of modern science and technology. To this end, the application and safe use of GMOs and its products without prejudice were put in place to check the risk to public and environmental health, national sovereignty, human dignity and fundamental human rights,” she said.

The Director-General of NBMA, Dr. Rufus Ebegba, observed that crops developed through biotechnology, including GM products, have repeatedly been proven to be safe and successfully used to improve agricultural productivity around the world.

Ebegba explained that those campaigning against the new scientific innovation in agriculture are not sincere, maintaining that the beans are genetically-modified with a non-harmful substance sourced from the soil that resists insect attacks and infestation of the staple food.
“This engineering process that has been developed ensures that insect’s attack on beans over the years has now been conquered. This breakthrough is achieved by scientists, who discovered a particular gene and material in the body of beans, known as Bacillus thuringiensis,” he added.

Ebegba said based on these findings, the Federal Government approved the food to boost bean production and eliminate the use of harmful chemicals by some farmers to protect their crops.

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