Although the Nigerian government in 2015 established the National Biosafety Management Agency (NBMA), under the Federal Ministry of Environment to ensure proper regulation of modern biotechnological activities and genetically modified organisms in order to protect the lives of consumers, Nigerians have unceasingly adopted a hostile stance toward the technology.
The World Health Organization defines genetically modified food as foods derived from “organisms whose genetic material (DNA) has been modified in a way that does not occur naturally, e.g. through the introduction of a gene from a different organism”. Genetic modification, also known as “genetic engineering” is the technologically advanced way of selecting desirable traits in organisms. In a lay man’s parlance however, Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO) are organisms that have been distorted in one way or the other.
As against provisions of foreign scientists that purported security hazards of Genetically Modified Foods are not scientifically proven, Nigerians are treading the footsteps of Western Europeans who are largely against the technology. This position also stemmed from the $46.5 million damages controversial Monsanto was ordered to pay by a St. Louis jury on May 26, 2016, for negligence in the production of polychlorinated biphenyls or PCBs.
Monsanto is one of the largest pharmaceutical and agricultural companies that produces a wide range of genetically modified foods and seeds, drugs and pesticides and herbicides. The company has branches in 100 different countries and is the main producer of genetically modified crops and seeds in the world.
This dissent on the part of Nigerians was exacerbated by the permits issued to Monsanto Agriculture Nigeria Limited for the commercial release and placing on market of genetically modified cottons, as well as the confined field trial of maize by the NBMA’s Director-General, Rufus Ebegba, on May 1, 2016. The NBMA was faulted for this approval despite the glaring dangers associated with the technology.
Several comments trailed the decision of the federal government. One of them is that there is no coherent or conclusive body of evidence to guarantee the safety and sanctity of GMO foods as fit for human consumption. Thus, the legislative approval given by the Nigerian authorities to what could be termed as “junk science” is a baffling reality.
Those in support of GMOs have touted some benefits to the process, some of which are that population growth will necessitate the need for more food production. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) estimates food production will need to double in some parts of the world by 2050 and this translates to need for more land for cultivation which will not be readily available. Hence, the introduction of GMO crops to make enough nutritious food available with limited land, water and other resources. GMO crops are also reportedly resistant to droughts, pests and crop diseases, while some are purported to be packed with extra vitamins, minerals and other health benefits.
However, according to a report published by the New York Times, on October 29th 2016, there are doubts about the promised bounty of genetically modified crops as genetic modification in the United States and Canada has not accelerated increases in crop yields or led to an overall reduction in the use of chemical pesticides. Basically, the comparison which was conducted between USA and Canada who embraced GMOs and Western Europe that largely rejected it as reported by the NYT has shown that the technology has fallen short of acclaimed promises and seems to be more of a theoretical deduction.
The analysis showed that the United States and Canada have gained no discernible advantage in yield when measured against Western Europe, a region with comparably modernized agricultural producers like France and Germany.
In a similar development, a recent National Academy of Sciences report found that “there was little evidence” that the introduction of genetically modified crops in the United States had led to yield gains beyond those seen in conventional crops. Also, the United States has fallen behind Europe’s biggest producer, France is reducing the overall use of pesticides.
On the dangers of GMOs, the chief technology officer at Monsanto, Robert T. Fraley had this to say: “The Times had cherry-picked its data to reflect poorly on the industry. Every farmer is a smart businessperson, and a farmer is not going to pay for a technology if they don’t think it provides a major benefit. Biotech tools have clearly driven yield increases enormously.” Regarding the use of herbicides, he said that overall herbicide use is determined by the best practices of farmers.
The safety of GMOs has continuously formed the basis of its rejection by civil society groups, farmers and other stakeholders in the Nigerian agriculture sector. According to a Food Sovereignty Campaigner, Mariann Orovwuje, health concerns, environmental concerns, socio-economic concerns, technical and administrative concerns, molecular concerns, safety assessments, environment risk assessment, secondary pests and insect resistance and many more concerns are the reasons for the rejection of GMOs.
Another controversy surrounding the innovation is the fact that multinational biotech companies will use it to control food supply globally and force local farmers out of the market. With companies like Syngenta, Monsanto and DuPont showing interest in investing in Nigeria, panic is the order of the day.
Although, the march against companies like Monsanto and the hostility towards GMOs in Europe has been prevalent over the years, Europeans still eat food imported from the United States and other countries.
With the world’s population expected to reach nearly 10 billion by 2050, Monsanto has long held out its products as a way to help meet the food demands of these added billions. In the words of Kurt Boudonck, who manages Bayer’s sprawling North Carolina greenhouses, “With the current production practices, we are not going to be able to feed that amount of people”.
According to the World Economic Forum, Africa remains a net importer of food, although it has 60% of the world’s uncultivated arable land. As its population has doubled overall and tripled in urban areas in the past 30 years, agricultural production and food security have struggled to keep pace. Africa is the only continent where the absolute number of undernourished people has increased over the past 30 years.
The notion that Africa can feed not just itself but the world is a bold assertion to make at a time when famine stalks part of the continent. With a population of 2 billion by 2050, agriculture will be central to feeding all of these people.
While caution is imperative, it is pertinent to note that being open-minded as regards GMOs and other similar technological innovations and findings as they evolve is a safe bet. For the actualization of the much talked about sustainable development goals, Africa has to sit pretty in ensuring food security for its populace in the coming years.
GMOs or not, the continent will inevitably have to find alternative means to food production and security in the nearest future and this cannot be done with conservative mechanisms, but through the adoption of technological solutions.