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Genetically modified organisms and public health concerns

By Edu Abade
01 May 2017   |   4:15 am
Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and their growing popularity was the concern of Health of Mother Earth Foundation (HOMEF) which organised a training session for journalists in Benin City...

Rev. Nnimmo Bassey

Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and their growing popularity was the concern of Health of Mother Earth Foundation (HOMEF) which organised a training session for journalists in Benin City, Edo State recently. The training focused on the dangers of GMOs induced food and crops, Biosafety and agricultural modern biotechnology in particular.

A GMO is the result of a laboratory process where genes from the DNA of one species are extracted and artificially forced into the genes of an unrelated plant or animal. The foreign genes may come from bacteria, viruses, insects, animals or even humans.

Director of HOMEF, Nnimmo Bassey said researches over the years have shown that GMOs do not necessarily yield higher produce than normal crops.

“They are dangerous and their genes are dominant. They can travel thousands of kilometres and can alter a whole ecosystem in a couple of years,” he said.

The training also focused on sharing of information on GMOs and biosafety with particular focus on sifting the myths from the facts as well as taking a critical look at the National Biosafety Management Agency Act of 2015.

Journalists were urged to help increase awareness and ensure that the political forces and commercial interests behind any risky approaches to food production (like Monsanto is currently doing) in Nigeria and in Africa operate with a high sense of responsibility.

Gbadebo Rhodes-Vivour, who spoke on the basics of GMOs, explained that crops are genetically modified to make them herbicide resistant or to act as pesticides. Both Bassey and Rhodes-Vivour stressed that claims that GMOs offer higher yields, more profits to farmers or are more nutritious were mere propaganda.

Another facilitator at the training, Marian Orovwuje, who spoke on Nigerian Biosafety Act, said the Nigerian government was always in a hurry to sign bilateral protocols and business proposals whose contents, long and medium-term implications they hardly understood.

She regretted that GMOs were being promoted in Nigeria because the immediate past administration of former President Goodluck Jonathan, obviously acting in collaboration with Monsanto, hurriedly signed the National Biosafety Management Act on April 18, 2015.

The Act established the National Biosafety Management Agency (NBMA) that has the “responsibility for providing regulatory framework, institutional and administrative mechanism for safety measures in the application of modern biotechnology in Nigeria with a view to preventing any adverse effects on human health, animals, plants and environment.”

She reiterated that the Biosafety Act in itself was defective as it does not take into cognizance the concerns of local farmers, the health implications for the people and other critical stakeholders.

She said the problematic areas of the Act to include that it did not make public participation obligatory when applications to introduce GMOs are being considered. It did not specify clearly how large-scale field trials would be contained and regulated to avoid contamination of surroundings or farms.

Also, farmer organisations were not represented on the Governing Board. The Board has GMO promoters like Monsanto and vested interests. The Act did not state the criteria for risk assessment and did not stipulate that such assessments must be carried out in Nigeria and not off-shore. This is important because the impact of the GMOs on non-target organisms has to be measured with non-target organisms that exist in Nigeria and are ecologically important, among other defects.

In all, it was agreed that institutions that were created to protect our environment and biosafety are actually hand-in-gloves with corporations that are trying to flood our country with exotic and dangerous products and merchandise.

For instance, HOMEF raised objections to the NBMA bill but the Jonathan’s government, in collaboration with Monsanto, signed the bill into law on a Sunday whereas the following day was also a public holiday.

“Signing such a critical law on a non-working smacks of insincerity on the part of the government of the day and makes it illegal if we were in a country where things are properly done. Our governments have been largely complacent about the covert activities of the biotechnology industry to undermine food security and sovereignty in Nigeria,” Orovwuje added.

Bassey however, lamented that: “It was wrong for us to have established a biotechnology promotion agency when there was no regulatory body in place. The forces behind proliferation of GMOs in Nigeria are those of control and technology fostering dependency on the multinational corporations.”

Sharing his thoughts on the matter, one of the journalists said: “Genetic engineering of food is a seed for the re-colonisation of African countries and other developing nations. What the promoters of GMOs are trying to do is to force a food programme that will not only destroy our natural habitat but could cause severe harm to our health down our throat.”

Sadly, Animal Studies of The American Academy of Environmental Medicine (AAEM) was cited showing organ damage, gastrointestinal and immune system disorders, accelerated aging and infertility. Studies also show how genetically modified (GM) food can leave material behind inside humans, possibly causing long-term health challenges.

Genes inserted into GM soy, for example, can transfer into the DNA of bacteria living inside us, and toxic insecticide produced by GM corn have been found in the blood of pregnant women and their unborn fetuses.

GMOs cross pollinate and pollen grains have been known to travel several kilometers thereby contaminating non-GMO varieties. It is impossible to fully clean up our gene pool once contaminated.

They also reduce bio-diversity, pollute water resources, and are ultimately antithetical to sustainable agriculture. Self-propagating GMO pollution will outlast the effects of global warming and nuclear waste. The potential health impact is very huge, and has inter-generational implications.

Most GMO crops are engineered to be “herbicide tolerant.” Monsanto, for example, sells Roundup Ready crops, designed to survive applications of their Roundup herbicide. With the rise of “super-weeds,” that are resistant to the herbicide, farmers are sometimes forced to use even more toxic herbicides every year.

Not only does this create environmental harm, GM foods contain higher residues of toxic herbicides. Roundup, for example, is suspected to be linked to sterility, hormone disruption, birth defects, and cancer.

By mixing genes from totally unrelated species, genetic engineering unleashes a host of unpredictable side effects. Moreover, irrespective of the type of genes that are inserted, the very process of creating a GM plant can result in massive collateral damage that produces new toxins, allergens, carcinogens, and nutritional deficiencies.

In spite of the daunting challenges and the health risks associated with GMOs, members of the public lack adequate information and awareness on food security issues thus shutting out critical stakeholders, deepening public ignorance and inhibiting contributions to solutions.

Sustainable food security is only way possible under the umbrella of food sovereignty – ensuring that right of the people to produce food that is healthy, culturally appropriate and produced using ecological sound methods.

Rhodes-Vivour argued that, “The movement to protect our food system is one that requires collective efforts. We must all take up responsibility to ensure we keep our environment free of contamination and protect our biodiversity.

“There is need for us to strengthen subsistence agriculture by providing adequate storage facilities, good access roads to markets, providing subsidies on farming implements, better access to farmlands and education of the public on the advantages of local food production.”

Akinbode Oluwafemi of the Environmental Rights Action/Friends of the Earth Nigeria (ERA/FoEN), who spoke on the role of the media in promoting biosafety, noted that the media plays an important role in publicising basic information and findings from domestic and foreign research in order to raise public awareness and promote public participation in biosafety issues.

He pointed out that the members of the public require such information to understand GMOs, assert their right to safe and healthy foods and to be able to make informed choices with regard to what they eat.

Participants agreed to sensitise and educate members of their families on the dangers of GMO crops and foods because they are toxic, risky and cancerous.

The fight may not be easy but as Bassey cautioned, “we all must all be part of the fight to end corporate takeover and control of our lives by governments and multinational companies before what we eat consumes us.”