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Why GM, foreign foods are not good for us, by Iwu


Prof. Maurice Iwu

Prof. Maurice Iwu

Eat local, promote local, produce local

Maurice Iwu is professor of pharmacognosy from the University of Nigeria Nsukka (UNN) and Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Bioresources Development and Conservation Programme (BDCP), a non-profit and non-governmental organization (NGO). A subsidiary of BDCP, Intercedd Health Products (IHP), produces and markets drugs developed by the International Center for Ethnomedicine and Drug Development (InterCEDD), a Research and Development (R&D) centre based in Nsukka, Enugu State.

Iwu who was a former Chairman of the Independent Electoral Commission (INEC) during President Olusegun Obasanjo’s democratic era, in an exclusive interview with The Guardian ahead of his 66th Birthday, today, April 21, 2016, said that Nigeria has the potential to boost its economy with medicinal plants. The professor of pharmacy among other things gave reasons why Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) and foreign foods are poisonous to Nigerians and how BDCP is using HerbFest and other innovations to boost evidence-based herbal medicine and improve the country’s economy. CHUKWUMA MUANYA, Assistant Editor (Head Insight Team, Science and Technology) writes. Excerpts:

Everybody is talking about diversifying the economy and a school of thought believes that the way to go is to develop herbal medicine, that it will change Nigeria for the better because we have the potentials. What is your take on this?

I have said in different settings that medicinal plants generally not herbal medicine will give us a whole big boost. But one of the biggest contribution is the sophistication of biosciences as relates to phytomedicine, as relates to plant processing that the country has acquired from these schools of pharmacognosy. If it is used in agriculture, it will add more value to agriculture. You can see that agriculture without biosciences is farming, you are not adding any value, you don’t fetch anything, and you can’t even preserve it. But a lot of the technical know-how can easily be translated and transferred to agriculture and that will make a whole big difference. Right now, the herbal medicine industry is about $40 billion industry and the values keep rising- the nutraceuticals and phytomedicines alone not to talk of others.

That brings us to the issue of some imported foods laden with Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs). It is suspected that imported foods such as rice, wheat and soy are GMOs. What is your take on this?

When it comes to Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPR), when it comes to the World Trade Organisation (WTO), nobody can force you to take a commodity that is poisonous to you. The GMO foods maybe good for them but not us until you do a domesticated research here to convince us. All human beings are not the same, we have different genetic make up. We have more people suffering from sickle cell anaemia, which they don’t suffer from. We have more people suffering from some haematological diseases, which they don’t suffer. So you don’t just transfer such things like that because you have the resources to bully who does not agree. It is not right. GMOs, GM foods are not good for us. Foreign foods are not good for us for the simple reasons that we don’t know how they are cultivated, we don’t know how they were preserved, we don’t know what chemicals they have poured in them and you cannot even estimate what damage they are doing to us. So the only safe way to this is let them all go through National Agency for Food Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC) so that we can then have a situation whereby we don’t allow foreign food companies to poison us. With that of animals and fish products that is obvious that those products are unsafe. That of plants is also problematic because most of those plants are not good for us. Let us take for example common wheat, you and I know about celiac disease, we also know about gluten in them. But we don’t have gluten in our cassava, we don’t have gluten in sorghum and in our local cereals yet these people will tell us that wheat is good for us but they know it is not. But because we are poor, we don’t have a say, they force it through our throat. Nobody has thought about the level of celiac disease in this country because the people who import wheat and use it to make bread all sort of things will kill you.

A lot of recent researches are warning against the eating of rice and bread. Why is that and do you support these?

The rice as a plant is a sponge; it takes whatever they grow on. They are not talking of Ofada rice not local rice but the foreign imported rice and some of them are polished. That polishing, that cleaning is where the danger lies, that is why they are saying people should not eat them. The bread aspect is what is used in preparing it that is the wheat. For so many reasons such as it contains gluten and secondly the incidence of obesity that has taken over the West and they want to import it here and their high fructose corn syrup is making them have potbellies all over the place. But one of the biggest dangers for us is whereas those diseases their people suffer them at older age, by taking Western lifestyle, our most productive age group, the novo riches and the elites are the ones that are being affected by kidney failure, diabetes, prolonged high blood pressure and so on. So all those things are collectively called metabolic syndrome but where the metabolic syndrome is bad for us is that it happens at a younger age to us than the West.

So the solution is eating local?

Eat local, promote local and produce local.

Want to live a healthy, long life? Eat local... Local delicacies such as Egusi/vegetable soup with pounded unripe plantain/yam are recommended by medical experts                                  PHOTO:

Want to live a healthy, long life? Eat local… Local delicacies such as Egusi/vegetable soup with pounded unripe plantain/yam are recommended by medical experts PHOTO:

So what are you doing to really promote herbal medicine in the country?

Part of what we are doing is the Herb Fest, Herbal Festival. We have one coming up in Owerri, Imo State in October. As a knowledge-based organization, we are very happy and feeling good that we have this annual herbal festival where we are able to have the research scientist meet with manufacturers, meet with would be distributors and marketers in one floor for us to strategise on how to move this whole sector forward. Now we are collaborating with Federal Institute for Industrial Research Oshodi (FIIRO) Lagos, Nigerian Natural Medicine Development Agency (NNMDA) Victoria Island, Lagos, Nigerian Institute of Pharmaceutical Research (NIPRID) Abuja, Raw Materials Development Council, Nigerian Export Promotion Council and other parastatals of government and the private sector. The whole idea here is that we are talking with one voice, trying to address a national issue. It is something that we feel very happy about. Related to that is the fact that I published my two big books on this sector. One is the Handbook for African Medicinal Plants, which was first published 20 years ago, and the second edition just came out last year. This year, a new book has just come out and it is called Food as Medicine: Functional Foods of Africa. The whole idea is seeing the thing not from medicinal point of view but from functional food category. So this is why this sector is very dynamic.

Related to the issue we just talked about of foods, we have what is called African smart foods- foods that are totally African that will be able to help you in ageing, that will help you when you are nursing a baby, if you are diabetic, if you are hypertensive, what should you eat? Food packages that is totally African. You don’t even need to import from anybody else. If you are obese and you want to lose weight, there are African foods called the Smart Food Series.

The World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO) recently celebrated the BDCP with a publication on Traditional medicine as tonic for development. How is that?

The biggest contribution we have made as I said we are the only as I know full spectrum organization on medicinal plants. The fact that we can take a product from scratch and take it to the market place solves a major issue in African development of medicinal plants. We have the expertise in this country, we have the resources, we have the know-how that is needed but what is lacking as I always say is this inability to connect the dots. We are one organization that has been able to connect the essential dots and even able to get expertise outside our own capacity to help in developing Nigerian and African medicinal plants.

A recent study published by researchers from the University of Benin, Edo State, found that most herbal medicines in Lagos were contaminated and laden with heavy metals. It, however, noted that the contaminants are within safe limits set by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO). What do you have to say considering you are big player in the industry?

First of all, will commend the people who did the study, it is good to call attention to health concerns on anything that is taken internally, whether food or medicine or dietary supplement, they have to meet good standards. But there are three categories of herbal medicinal products, there are the raw plant materials that people take on their own, there are herbal products, and there are the actual extracted products that are sold generally all over the place by herbalist and people who are not trained.

But then there are phytomedicines which are medicines that are of herbal origin, but are qualified at same standard, so when you use the word herbal medicine it could be that these are things picked up from street vendors, that are not inspected by the NAFDACand have not gone through the processes. Another totally different sub group are the dietary supplement and the nutraceuticals, those ones also must be able to meet the standard of food supplement and either of these categories have to undergo rigorous methods of testing and validation.

So it is necessary to identify what type the study was based on.

But generally herbal medicines have the tendency for contamination, so what are the processes being put in place to check this?

As I said NAFDAC has their criteria for checking those that are supposed to be sold as packaged products, but extra peroneus preparations that people make are totally different ball game. These are things done by street vendors and so on.

We also have to look at it from a comparative point of view, there is no need making rules that you are more or less tying our hands in terms of competiveness. When you look at the herbal medicine regulation in Nigeria, it is far better than what obtains in America; it is far better than what obtains in some countries. Why do I say this, any product that is regulated by NAFDAC has to pass through certain standards.

Herbal medicines, dietary supplement from Asia are notorious for containing heavy metals, and they are the level that are not acceptable. But from the study you cited, they said they are still at acceptable level.

In terms of America for example, there are no actual regulation of dietary supplement. There was a study where 17 products were picked up and were suppose to contain our Ogbono, Africa bush mango, and when they were analysed, not one contained this in America, so the integrity of the product were in doubt.

Also, there is a case in the New York attorney general’s office have to sanction some companies for making a claim, a particular plant we call devil’s claw. They claimed that it contained devil’s claw, but what it contained was a species closely related to devil’s claw. So that is adulteration, and that is also not good.

So what am saying is that NAFDAC would not allow such things, they would not allow spurious claims, they would not allow levels of micro organisms contamination in a product to be able to let it go. So NAFDAC is doing a good job in regulating our manufactured herbal medicines. So not all herbs are the same, it depends on where you buying and what type you buying. So it is still safer to buy Nigerian made ones than those foreign ones.

IHP is rolling out new products and is a member of BDCP, so the entire BDCP is actually a science-base organization. What happened is that over 20 years of research, we have been able to document those that worked and those that don’t work. So IHP is only a marketing arm of the work done by the International Center for Ethno medicine and Drug Development at Nsuka or the Bioresources Institute in Imo state, and those are the product that IHP markets, but marketing them with a solid science base and what it means is that we have to obey NAFDAC 100 per cent, because if they query us, we would stop it. Everything we do have to pass through their supervision.

Right now for example, we have built a state of the art manufacturing facility at Umuna in Imo state. It is state of the art; we are going to be the first Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP) compliant facility for herbal medicine in the country if not in sub-Saharan African.

But having said that, before it start manufacturing, we would still subject it to NAFDAC certification, so that if they found anything wrong in any of the processes, we would be able to correct that.

We have installed state of the art equipment both in the analyses, the manufacture and the quality control of the material we are rolling, so we are into three categories of natural product medicines. We are very much involved in phytomedicines, those that have to be classified as medicines. We are very much involved in dietary supplements that are mainly teas used for one disease type or the other. We are also involved in nutraceuticals, which would then supplement absence of certain essential nutrients in the body. So each one of those that we make are targeted at a particular physiological condition, not disease, but physiological condition.

What are the products?

We have products that are used for people who are diabetic, and these are teas they will take over a period of time. We also have a product we call Immunovit; this is a general immune modulating drug that helps the body strengthen the immune system. It is based on the combination of mushrooms and some fruits. So far, people who take them, when you see them you know they are on Immunovit. We then have a product we call Erovit, it is targeted to those ageing, so that they age gracefully without the complications of ageing. Then we also have products based on very common plants used for cooking and Ocimum (scent leaf), but the Ocimum we use is Ocimum santum, not the local one, Ocimum gratissimum. You use the Ocimum santum combined with other products that is used mainly for stress, executive stress and it has been found to be really good.
The research group has a lot of products in their pipeline, but because we do not have to commercially congest these things, it is coming gradually. Even our virgin coconut oil, the VCO, the coconut oils are not the same. We don’t use heat at all, they will allow natural enzymatic process that will extract and separate the oil from the water in the milk and it has been found to have lots of therapeutic properties.

Thursday, April 21 is your Birthday. As you celebrate your 66th Birthday what is your message to Nigerians?

I feel grateful to God that I have been given the opportunity to fulfill my dream. I have always wanted to be a scientist; I have been a scientist and even took a detour into public service and came back. My message is that whatever you are doing, you do it to the best of your ability. The best of your ability may not please others. … As a teacher I have trained a lot of students, lots of graduates have done research under me, and nothings pleases me when I see their names popping up in one work or the other. Based on that it is really worth fulfillment.

But my biggest pride to date is the fact that BDCP is still the leading research group in natural products if not only in Nigeria, in the whole of Africa and also measures very well in the rest of the world. We have a couple of patents, we have products in the market, we are one of the few organization you can call full spectrum, natural production organization. We do research, we do conservation, we farm, we extract, we publish papers, and we also manufacture and sell the products. So we are having fun doing what we are doing. And the fact that we have been in this business for over 20 years means that at least we are doing something good and we have not gone under.

So for this period, I feel very satisfied that we are really putting a lot of value into Nigeria. I was gratified to note that the WIPO, the World International Property Organisation is following our work and congratulated us for being able to put intellectual property into traditional medicine, instead of thinking about who knows what and wants what, anybody that see bitter cola knows it comes from West Africa, it doesn’t matter if it is professor who that brought it to prominence. Anybody that sees bitter leaf know that is from here, because even in East Africa they know it is ours and we have been able to bring it into the market place. It is a thing of joy and I feel really fulfilled that I have been able to excel in my area of calling by God’s grace and that is the message.

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  • shehu Akowe

    Don’t force GM foods on us #Monsanto!