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GMO: The good, bad and the not so ugly

With hundreds of debates surrounding GMO foods, oppositions from Anti GMO advocacy groups, labeling GMO food standard; I have always been inquisitive about this topic and concerned with the continuous intensity of the ongoing conflict.
GMO maize. PHOTO:

GMO maize. PHOTO:

With hundreds of debates surrounding GMO foods, oppositions from Anti GMO advocacy groups, labeling GMO food standard; I have always been inquisitive about this topic and concerned with the continuous intensity of the ongoing conflict. Like many I was uninformed and just joined the Anti GMO bandwagon without fully understanding it or being knowledgeable about it. As we all know knowledge is power, the more you seek, the more you learn and the more articles and books I read on Agriculture, Food Security, Scientific Research the more I feel puzzled about where I stand. There are grains of truth in both sides of the argument, this article is written with the intent to provide information on this highly debated topic

It can be frustrating to decipher through the mass information on the Internet and determine what sources are credible. What exactly does GMO mean?

“Genetically Modified Organism (GMO) is any organism whose genetic material has been altered using genetic engineering techniques (i.e., a genetically engineered organism) meaning a plant, animal, microorganism or other organism whose genetic makeup has been modified using recombinant DNA methods”. “This new science creates unstable combinations of plant, animal, bacterial and viral genes that do not occur in nature or through traditional crossbreeding methods”.

In terms of food or how it applies to farming, this is done for plants or crops to improve their durability, through situations such as drought tolerance, disease resistance, or to increase their nutritional value. These changes are also aimed at increasing crop yield and lowering costs. To better understand this, it basically means we are altering the gene of a plant to prevent it from disease and increasing its nutritional value by engineering a crop’s immunity by applying basic science. I don’t claim to be an expert in Gene Transfer I stand to be corrected, isn’t Vaccination similar? We vaccinate a child to prevent them from disease and build their immune system. “Vaccination is the administration of antigenic material (a vaccine) to stimulate an individual’s immune system to develop adaptive immunity to a pathogen”. Do people realize the ideology of GMO’s and Vaccines are more similar than we want to admit? How do you get to be anti GMO but pro Vaccines? It makes me wonder are we just uncomfortable with change? Or are we making decision based on emotion rather than scientific research and results?

• Everyone is aware of the world population increasing to 9 billion people by 2050; global food production will have to double to support the population increase and prevent starvation. Research as shown that GMO’s crops are easier to grow because they have stronger ability to resist pests, a common problem in farming. This attribute helps farmers with producing greater amounts of food.
GMO plays a role in providing farmers with potentially larger profits and it’s also economically efficient. Farmers will have a higher likelihood of increased income, which provides financial stability, re-investment into their business and an opportunity to educate their children.

Farmers have low production cost by having reduced use for pesticides and herbicides, using less chemical and fewer losses sustained from crop disease resistant.

GMO would eventually help the environment by combating deforestation. To sufficiently feed the growing population of the world, deforestation is needed. But with genetically modified crops, the use of this method will be minimized, meaning we can increase food production on our same land size.

Biotechnology has the potential to create more nutritious crops by having the ability to manipulate food and increase desired nutrients. An example is the introduction of Vit A (Golden Rice), which could possibly save the world from starvation and malnutrition. I know the Golden Rice is currently focusing on Asia but in “Nigeria VitA deficiency affects nearly one in three Children under the age of five, increasing their vulnerability to immune system weakness and blindness”…. Harvest Plus.

Better calorie consumption and dietary quality means farmers are healthy and can work harder as a result of increased income
It will decrease food prices, advanced crops and lower costs can lead to cheaper food. This will certainly help families who cannot afford to buy food, buy nutritious food and eventually prevent starvation

• GM crops may pose a threat to farmers who grow non-engineered crops. Inter-breeding from neighboring farms cannot be controlled. Example: Corn experts claimed Mexican corn (criollo) was bound to mix with improved varieties from the United States over the years. Experts claimed contamination in Mexican corn varieties was due to smuggling of GM seeds in the Mexican markets. If you are surviving on a harvest and you have a choice to plant between a corn seed that will give you 10tons per hectare or 20tons per hectare, you will take the 20tons seed presumably.

Farmers depend on seed companies every planting season. Which is unfair to billions of poor farmers who rely on saving next year’s seed from their harvest. It can create superweed; because engineered crops can act as mediators in transferring genes to wild plants, which can create more weeds.

Genetically modified foods may pose significant allergy risks to people. Gene flow or Gene swamping may result in the extinction of a rare or wild species. Vandana Shiva an anti globalization advocate from India rejected the Vit A (Golden Rice). She warns about the demise of bathua, a popular leavy vegetable rich in Vit A and grown in India was pushed to extinction by herbicides used on a new western varieties of wheat.

… the not so UGLY
African countries like Burkina Faso, Egypt, Sudan and South Africa are Pro GMO, experts believe other African countries are rejecting GMOs based on the European influence, could this be true?
“The delays (in Africa) can be partly attributed to technology intolerance, much of which has been headed down by European anti-biotechnology”- Calestous Juma “There are several different channels of external influence on Africa policy area in this regard and Europeans dominate most of these channels” – Robert Paarlberg.

It’s important to note that developing countries face a separate kind of risk from industrialized countries. In retrospect, these are countries that have government assisted programs and unemployment benefits. However, everyone is entitled to an opinion but please lets not get consumed with GMO debates, which might eventually deprive the hungry people food or the farmers working hard to increase their income. The debate over GMOs has been a distraction that sidetracks progress on the development of a common agenda to solving the global food security problem. In the words of Florence Wambugu, CEO, Africa Harvest

“You people in the developed world are certainly free to debate the merits of genetically modified foods, but can we please eat first?”
Have you ever heard that an African country produced more tonnage per hectare on any crop in comparison to any other developed country? It’s usually the other way round. Africa’s crop production per unit per land is the lowest in the world. An acre in Asia or Europe with added chemicals usually produces about six times the cereal grain harvested in an acre in Africa. Pest and Disease is usually a major challenge and it account for 30% of African yield losses.

In India, after the introduction of GMO’s Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) cotton it showed that Bt cotton increased yields, profits and the living standards of small holding farmers. Bt cotton added US$9.4billion worth of value to Indian farmers, cut insecticide use by half, helped to double the yield and turned the country from a cotton importer into a major exporter.

With our current economy it’s no news we need to diversify our economy. Nigerian cotton farmers’ contribution to our GDP continues to drop from 25% in 1980 to 5% as of recent. In a survey conducted by the Central Bank of Nigeria, Federal Ministry of Agriculture & Rural Development, Federal Ministry of trade & Investment and the National Bureau of Statistics showed that only 18 states produced cotton on a total of 399.87 hectares of land in Nigeria.

The constant challenge with our cotton farmers are the quality of seeds Meanwhile other African countries have being growing Bt cotton. Burkina Faso have being growing cotton for almost eight years. Its estimated Bt cotton adds US$70million per year to their economy. If Bt cotton is introduced to Nigeria, imagine what this crop can add to our economy. I will be optimistic and compare what we can generate with Indian’s $9.4 billion. We haven’t even talked about the potential of other crops like Cassava, Oil Palm, Tomato etc.

It would be unwise to ban GMO from foods or to fail to keep their use under scrutiny.
It’s no doubt Nigeria needs to improve its food regulations methods and policies. We need to tighten up and have some sort of fundamental regulation, product registration, effective evaluation to enable us explore these new biotechnologies. We need to be pro science and encourage the next generation to be scientists not politicians so we don’t have to rely on other countries doing our research and dictating our practices. Having worked in the agro sector for a couple of years, it amazing how many great, smart Scientist, Agronomist and Professors I have come across but we do not support them to explore their full potential.

I don’t necessarily agree with the regulatory policy of making Biotech industries conduct and use their own research as the only regulatory standard. This is a no brainer due to conflict of interest. The argument is the increasing control large corporations have over biotech and agriculture and the effect of poor farmers. Example: Percy Schmeister vs Monsanto. In 1998 this was a sensational case, one still widely cited by the anti-GM proponents. Schmeister claimed his farm was contaminated and claimed the company’s seeds trespassed his farm. Although the conventional seeds he bought from his store might have being contaminated.. However we have to remember that Organic farmers have a target market as well. What happens when GM crops contaminate their crops? How do we avoid this?

Within the scientific community, the debate over the safety of GM foods is over. The overwhelming conclusion in the words of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, is “Consuming foods containing ingredients derived from GM crops is no riskier than consuming the same foods containing ingredients from crop plants modified by conventional plant improvement techniques.”
Lets be clear, The U.S. National Academy of Sciences “no adverse health effects attributed to genetic engineering have been documented in the human population,” and a report issued by the European Commission made the same claim. The World Health Organization has concluded that GM foods “are not likely, nor have been shown, to present risks for human health.”

I was excited when I found out the Nigerian Ministry of Environment, Agriculture and Technology had an experts meeting in Abuja recently discussing the debate over GMO. The Director-General, National Biotechnology Development Agency, Prof Lucy Ogbadu encouraged farmers to take advantage of the modified technologies to increase yields. I hope Nigerians will embrace and be open to the idea of GMO’s to help our Agriculture sectors but most importantly increase food production to prevent starvation. Do you support one side of the debate? Do you see benefits? Do you have concerns? Or are you on the fence? Please feel free to email me lets discuss.

Pringle, Peter. Food, Inc.: Mendel to Monsanto—the Promises and Perils of the Biotech Harvest. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2003.
Thurow, Roger. The Last Hunger Season: A Year in an African Farm Community on the Brink of Change. New York: PublicAffairs, 2012.
Juma, Calestous. The New Harvest: Agricultural Innovation in Africa. New York: Oxford University Press, January 2011.
Juma, Calestous. “A Plea for Agricultural Innovation.” Speech, McGill University, Montreal, Canada, June 3, 2013.
Babatunde Jimoh. Boosting Cotton Production: Why Nigeria needs biosafety law. Vanguard, February 22, 2015.

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