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HOMEF, others oppose GMO product approval, urge due diligence

By Clarkson Voke Eberu
26 September 2022   |   4:00 am
Civil society organisations (CSOs), including Home of Mother Earth Foundation (HOMEF), have decried the permit by Federal Government to Trigall Genetics S.A. for importation of genetically modified (GM) wheat (HB4 Wheat) into the country.

Civil society organisations (CSOs), including Home of Mother Earth Foundation (HOMEF), have decried the permit by Federal Government to Trigall Genetics S.A. for importation of genetically modified (GM) wheat (HB4 Wheat) into the country.

Executive Director, HOMEF, Nnimmo Bassey and representatives of the Corporate Accountability and Public Participation Africa (CAPPA) and Environmental Rights Action, Friends of the Earth Nigeria (ERA/FoEN), demanded that the licence be reviewed and the National Biosafety Management Agency (NBMA) ceases to act as a gateway for needless and risky genetically modified organism (GMO) products in Nigeria.

Speaking at a media briefing, in Lagos, at the weekend, they said: “In Argentina where the HB4 Wheat is produced, as well as in nearby Brazil, farmers, socio-environmental organisations and scientists are fighting hard to stop it. United States of America (USA), Uruguay, Paraguay, Indonesia and South Africa have received applications for this HB4 Wheat with some as far back as 2015.”
Bemused about the rush and describing the development as unacceptable, the CSOs clarified that the U.S. FDA had conducted field trials on the wheat as way back as 2011, with Paraguay since 2015 yet to grant approval.

They claimed: “It is said that applications were still under evaluation and the NBMA received an application in June 2022, a month after, an approval was granted.

“An independent scientific assessment of the application for the commercial release of the HB4 Wheat reveals issues of concern regarding the analysis of endogenous gene interruptions by genetic modification, putative production of unexpected outputs, potential risk for consumption and stability of genetic modification of transgenic wheat.

“One issue of concern is that the endogenous transcription factor-HAHB4 protein that will be consumed as food/feed could not be extracted and evaluated, reason being that it is unfeasible to isolate the HAHB4 protein in the genetic plant in enough quantity and purity to be used for quantification, biochemical studies and characterisation studies. Safety of this construct is not certain.”

The CSOs went on: “The applicant conceded in the dossier that the use of new generation sequencing techniques revealed the presence of unintended elements that were assumed to be eliminated during the selection process due to lack of glucuronidase activity. The implications of the unintended elements in wheat in humans, animals and environment are undisclosed and unknown.”

Speaking further, they noted that the nutritional analysis of the wheat showed statistically significant differences in some proteins (amino acids – serine and threonine), vitamins (Folic acid), mineral (Zinc), fatty acids (stearic, oleic and arachidic) and forage nutrients (carbohydrate, moisture and calcium) compared to the parental control line Cadenza and commercial varieties.

The application dossier reportedly failed to show that the new trait and its related features in the wheat were distinctively evaluated for human, animal health and environment safety, adding that regrettably, the Nigeria Biosafety Committee ignored the gaps in data and knowledge in their recommendations for approval of the importation of the product for food, feed and processing in world’s most populous black nation.

Bassey said: “Although it is claimed that the application is for commercialisation and not for cultivation of the wheat, there is no guarantee that the GM event will not get into the hands of local farmers and contaminate indigenous varieties. The applicant states that ‘in the unlikely case of accidental release, risks to humans, animals and the environment are similar to the ones produced by conventional wheat’. This does not make sense as they also say that the traits found in the GM wheat event are not available in non-GM form of the crop. The implications of the genetic modification on human health, as well as on the environment, are not considered.”

Also, Coordinator of Food Sovereignty Programme at ERA/FoEN, Mariann Bassey-Orovwuje, noted: “As at the time of writing this, no risk assessment document is available on the website of NBMA. There is no telling if indeed risk assessment was conducted.

“NBMA Director General was recently quoted thus: ‘Before the official release of GMOs, it would take up to 13 years of rigorous process to do a risk assessment on the issues of culture, environment and human health, among others.’ Why then are approvals granted within merely a month as in the case of the HB4 Wheat? Should not we act in good faith and in the best interest of our people?” she queried.

A molecular biologist, Ifeanyi Casmir said: “The HB4 Wheat was engineered to tolerate glufosinate ammonium, which is more toxic than glyphosate. There are thousands of cases in the USA over cancers resulting from the use of glyphosate.

“Residues of glufosinate in the wheat event pose direct threat to human and animal health. In the likely event that farmers plant the wheat, soil and water will be contaminated from intensive use of the glufosinate chemical. Although the wheat is self-fertile, it can cross-pollinate at a rate of up to 14 per cent, meaning that the HB4 genes will spread to other wheat varieties.”

On her part, Programmes Manager of HOMEF, Joyce Brown, asked: “Why do we need to import the GM variety of wheat modified for drought resistance and herbicide tolerance if it is only for use as food and feed and not for cultivation? Except the whole thing is an ambush against Nigerians?

“In Buenos Aires (Argentina’s capital city) in July 2022, a judge issued a precautionary measure that prohibits the release and use of #HB4wheat. We should uphold this measure in Nigeria and stop flooding the country with various genetically modified food products, which have grave implications not only for the present, but also future generations.”

Also, Executive Director CAPPA, Akinbode Oluwafemi stressed that the government of Nigeria should commit to long-term evaluation of the safety of the GM technology, as well as other emerging technologies.

“The government should ensure adequate support for our farmers and support agro-ecology, which assures of optimum productivity of health and safe food, while replenishing ecosystems,” he appealed.