Published on September 25, 2022 | Blessing Afolabi | Punch Newspaper
Over the years, genetically modified foods have raised concerns despite being a potent solution to the impending food crisis. Cultural beliefs and potential health risks have impeded the global acceptance of this novel technology. Perhaps, it’s a trend with novel technology as there were usually kickbacks on novel technology drawn from potential risks.
The World Health Organisation notes that genetically modified foods are derived from organisms whose genetic material has been modified in a way that does not occur naturally, for example, through the introduction of a gene from a different organism.
WHO noted that most existing genetically modified crops have been developed to improve yield through the introduction of resistance to plant diseases or increased tolerance to herbicides, allowing reductions in food prices through improved yields and reliability.
In addition, the WHO stated that all genetically modified foods currently available on the international market have passed safety assessments and no effects on human health have been shown as a result of consuming genetically modified foods.
A 2022 publication by the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations stated that genetically modified crops were a new addition to crop varieties developed through traditional methods such as breeding, selection, and mutation. Given their novelty, there are safety concerns among the public, scientists, and regulators even though the benefits outweighed the risks.
The report stated that the potential risks included pests becoming resistant, crops gaining weediness, and genetically modified foods posing safety issues to both humans and animals, however, they were studied extensively.
It indicated that science-based risk assessment and management safeguarding safety of humans, animals, and the environment were carried out on approved genetically modified crops, stating that they were safe with continuous monitoring being undertaken.
The FAO noted that today, more than 17 million farmers planted genetically modified crops in 29 countries, Nigeria inclusive, and reaping higher yields with reduced use of pesticides and better management of weeds among other benefits.
As noted on its site, the Director-General, National Biosafety Management Agency, Dr Rufus Ebegba, disclosed that the Federal Government capitalised on safe science and technology to boost the economy through food production, adding that the agency serves as an umpire in ensuring that activities resulting from modern biotechnology and the emerging biotechnologies do not pose threat to human health and biodiversity.
Also, the agency’s Deputy Director and country coordinator, Open Forum for Agricultural Biotechnology, Dr. Rose Gidado, noted that Nigeria and the world at large faced an unprecedented situation.
She said, “It is crystal clear that the world today is confronted with food inadequacy but ingenious ideas like modern and emerging biotechnology in agriculture would improve food production.”
Experts asserted that socio-economic concerns impeded accessibility of food, urging acceptance of genetically modified technology for sustainable food development.
In his view on the issue, a professor of Biochemistry at the Federal University of Technology, Minna, Niger State, and an expert in biotechnology, Evans Egwim, stated that there were no established risks concerning genetically modified foods as per nutritional and health values. He noted that genetically modified foods were like normal foods, adding that the only difference was a modification in the gene.
He said, “People are afraid that they are eating genes from a different organism but they eat genes every day because every food we eat contains genes in them. From my perspective, there is no singular risk with genetically modified foods. The only risk I see is the risk of ignorance which generates fear that produces the result one is afraid of. If there would be risks like mutation, they are natural. Whether one eats or not, those mutations will occur. Eating genetically modified foods doesn’t increase the risk of mutation or change it in any way. It is in the best benefit for Africa to embrace the technology to solve the issue of hunger.”
He added that in genetic modification, there were foods, genetically edited, such that no new gene was incorporated in the food. The lecturer further said that some of the genes to be modified were removed while in another type new genes were introduced to improve the yield.
Egwim said, “Genetically modified foods increase affordability and accessibility of food, making it cheaper, better, and lasts longer with more yield unlike the backdrop of natural foods that perish on time. Through this technology, you can have one tomato that can be eaten for two weeks. I have been opportune to see a tomato that cannot be carried with one hand.”
The biotechnology expert opined that the socio-economic concerns of genetically modified food technology slowed down the global acceptability and accessibility of genetically modified foods, adding that there was proper and thorough checking by the biosafety agency prior to distribution into the food market.
He urged the acceptability of genetically modified foods and empowerment of researchers for indigenous modified foods rather than dependence on foreign modified foods. He noted that if empowered research was well controlled, awareness could be created from the local successes of research.
He said, “The labs in Nigeria cannot function properly because there is no constant electricity. Biotechnology needs constant electricity because most of the assays need to be completely frozen.
“Our policy, empowerment, and campaign must be worked on with indigenous products. Unfortunately, we are losing most of our biodiversity to the West. We are given scholarships and asked to come with some of our products for research. We go there, display our research, and return with a certificate in exchange for our biodiversity. They modify these things, sell them back to us and we pay for them.
“In Nigeria currently, there are genetically modified foods in the market. Thirty to 40 per cent of maize and 99 per cent of soya beans in the market are genetically modified. So we are only cheating ourselves if we do not take it up on time. Genetically modified foods will improve food supply and boost the economy so let’s embrace it.”
On his part, a professor of genetics and plant breeding at the Federal University Dutse, Jigawa State, Usman Izge, noted that despite the ethical concerns about genetically modified foods, such foods were necessary for sustaining the world population in the long run since it had been speculated that by 2050, the world population would be over nine billion.
He stated that over the years, the practice for food production had been conventional breeding which was slow and it took time for the production of a particular variety. He noted however that with the genetically modified process it would take a shorter period of time to produce food, where a gene from a bacterium, for example, could be incorporated into a crop to proffer resistance to pests and increase yield advantage. He added that with genetically modified foods, a fivefold yield was achievable and would match with the demand by the increasing world population.
Izge said that despite the advantages there were some disadvantages, although the former outweighed the latter. The concerns, he said, were with companies producing feeds and insecticide chemicals losing their market. He further said that if a crop was genetically modified to be resistant to certain insects or microorganisms, the implication would be a reduction in farmers’ purchase of insecticides or herbicides, thereby forcing the companies to be out of the market.
He said, “Some of the companies sponsor people to destroy genetically modified crops and create fear in people about genetically modified foods altering one’s genetic makeup. There is no established research that genetically modified foods are dangerous to humans.
“If we do not embrace genetically modified foods openly, it will come in through another means since one cannot stop people from eating. In the long run, genetically modified foods will be the crux of agriculture as a sustainable means for the growing world population.”
On the economic effects, he said that genetically modified foods were of great economic advantage since producing more food resulted in more money in circulation, adding that another advantage was the low cost of production.
Izge said, “There will be less labour cost, low purchase of insecticides which will invariably increase the country’s Gross Domestic Product. In Nigeria, genetically modified organisms are accepted and the National Biotechnology Development Agency controls and supervises the introduction of genetically modified organisms into the country. In 2008, I was one of those that participated in the round table meeting preceding how genetically modified organisms can be introduced into Nigeria. Currently, we have BT cotton, pod borer resistant cowpea in Nigeria and the yield outweighs other varieties.”
On adequate monitoring, the genetics expert disclosed that agencies such as NABDA and the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control were responsible for proper assessment of genetically modified foods distribution to the market because without proper assessment some diseases could be introduced in the process. He added that genetically modified organisms were not limited to crops alone but also introduced into animals and other living organisms.
He said, “Meat, fish, and other foods genetically modified and grown in the lab are healthy. Everything we eat has its advantages and disadvantages. When the handset was introduced some people kicked against it because of its drawbacks but we are currently enjoying the benefits. The advantages of genetically modified foods outweigh the disadvantages. If there is no way to supply food for the growing population then we are calling for war. The issues we have in our country presently are as a result of a lack of access to resources. We have to accept genetically modified foods because it’s one of the sustainable means of food production for the growing population.”
Besides, a professor of biotechnology, Olu Malomo, described the genetically modified technique used in crop management as one introduced to ensure farmers and merchants were able to improve crop/food quality in a more efficient way.
He stated that some people believed that the technology would help the agricultural industry decrease the number of wasted crops and foods. He further said that while there were many benefits of genetically modified foods, the potential drawbacks were also present.
Malomo said, “Some of the advantages of genetically modified foods include insect resistance, stronger crops, larger production, environmental protection, extensive protection for crops, more nutritious foods, decreased use of pesticides, more income, less deforestation, new products, and decrease in global warming and food prices.
“The disadvantages which include allergic reactions, not 100 per cent environmentally friendly, lower level of biodiversity, decreased antibiotic efficacy, unusual taste, not totally safe to eat, cross-pollination, gene spilling, gene transfer, conflicts, exploitations, widening gap of corporate sizes, new diseases, and food supply at risk, are also of great concern.”
He asserted that genetically modified foods could potentially solve hunger and malnutrition problems in the world, as well as help, protect and preserve the environment by increasing yields and reducing reliance on chemical pesticides and herbicides.
He also noted that it was important to proceed with caution to avoid unfavorable consequences for the surroundings and health because genetic engineering technology was powerful.