•“Govt ensuring that the technology is not abused”
GMOs have actually been around for quite some time, but not without the many misgivings and much debates going on about the biological concept. In Nigeria… …however, GMOs are still a very alien topic of discourse, but in recent times the debate has picked up due to the very many safety concerns being expressed by the public especially as the authorities grant experimental permits for its application. In this cover story, PharmaTimes Editor, MORGAN NWANGUMA delves into the issues fuelling the raging controversies concerning GMO foods and all. What are the perceived advantages either to the producer or consumer of these foods? Or, are the perceived health hazards real? Is commercial gain being traded over the health and safety of the undiscerning public?
What are GMOs, and are GMO foods safe?
According to a WHO response to this frequently asked questions, Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) can be defined as organisms (i.e. plants, animals or microorganisms) in which the genetic material (DNA) has been altered in a way that does not occur naturally by mating and/ or natural recombination. The technology is often called “modern biotechnology” or “gene technology”, sometimes also “recombinant DNA technology” or “genetic engineering”. It allows selected individual genes to be transferred from one organism into another, also between nonrelated species. Foods produced from or using GM organisms are often referred to as GM foods.
However, news has it that as far back as 2006 the Nigerian government had already begun to permit the bioscience community’s involvement in the use of GMO. Nevertheless, the authorities say we have not even started consuming GMOs officially in the country and so there should not be any cause for alarm yet. But so far, it is on record that GMO cotton has been developed, while approval has been granted for GM cowpea and rice, which have been under experiment for some time. When these are ready they will be out for commercialisation, according to Mr. Rufus Ebegba, Director General of the National Biosafety Management Agency (NBMA).
But ever before the coming of the regulatory agency, Nigeria in addition to the numerous agricultural research institutes as well as universities – working on various fronts, had also established institutions that produce modern biotechnology products, such as the National Biotechnology Development Agency (NABDA) which was set up to make certain that biotechnology becomes a focal point in driving the economy.
As the issue of ‘genetically engineered’ foods and farm products hots up, two opposing groups have emerged on the scene on whether or not GMOs should be applied in the bio-economy of the country. They are the pro-GMO and the anti-GMO campaigners. Meanwhile the group opposed to the application of GMOs have over the period come down heavily on NBMA, accusing the agency of not listening to the opinions of Nigerians before going ahead to grant approvals to GMO products.
It is a fact that in 2016, the agency granted two permits namely for GM cotton, and the confined field trial of maize to Monsanto Agriculture Nigeria Limited. It is understood that this authorisation was granted to the company even as numerous dissenting voices (comprising about a hundred groups of – faith-based organisations, civil society groups, farmers and students) kicked against its introduction.
But some experts and proponents of this concept of “modern biotechnology” or genetic engineering claim that farmers will be better sure of viable seeds, while the consumer and food industry generally will also stand to gain immensely. And so they give reasons such as: farmers’ income will be enhanced; there will be more viable raw materials for industries. They advance also that the consumer of these foods stands to benefit a lot, such as in terms of lower price of products, greater benefit (in terms of durability or nutritional value) or both. Initially GM seed developers wanted their products to be accepted by producers and have concentrated on innovations that bring direct benefit to farmers (and the food industry as a whole).
Need for certification and approval
But as it is, are there recognised procedures necessary for getting approval for confined field trials, shipment or commercialisation of GM products? According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), “the GM products that are currently on the international market have all passed safety assessments conducted by national authorities. These different assessments in general follow the same basic principles, including an assessment of environmental and human health risk.
The food safety assessment is usually based on Codex documents.” Generally, the safety assessment of GM foods pays particular attention to the followings: (a) direct health effects (toxicity), (b) potential to provoke allergic reaction (allergenicity); (c) specific components thought to have nutritional or toxic properties; (d) the stability of the inserted gene; (e) nutritional effects associated with genetic modification; and (f) any unintended effects which could result from the gene insertion.
According to industry watchers, the National Biosafety Management Agency (NBMA) is an agency of government working – not necessarily to stop GMOs, but rather to ensure that GMOs are safe to humans and the environment.
The agency says that in Nigeria, anybody who desires to carry out confined field trials fills out a form with the agency, having all the required information before it embarks on processing the application. The law stipulates that within 270 days maximum the application must be acknowledged. Within this period the seeds brought in by the company will be certified. The application for confined field trials are usually published to the public – in three national dailies for their inputs in terms of critical reviews – opinions, observations as well as their objections.
Mr. Ebegba says, “While we are receiving comments from them, we will constitute a National Bio-safety committee of experts and a technical sub-committee. The two committees will work differently to come up with their own position on the application while we at the agency will do a critical research on the seed and the firm seeking approval. After the 21 days given to the public to respond, we will now look at all the responses that came in; we synthesize them, then the committees will now look at all the things we have gathered. They will communicate their findings back to us for us to take the final decision. If the application scaled through, we will put it on our website and even on the UN website that we granted such approval. While we do this, we also get information from the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), and the World Health Organisation (WHO).”
The Right to Know
The big question now remains: how is the Agency of government managing the certification and approval of genetically modified foods in Nigeria? Truth is, today the GMO industry rakes in profits for big corporations. Key observers also say while this is going on the farmers are not regarded in the scheme of things; the environment comes under serious abuse, just as conflicting research efforts which pertain to the health of consumers is hugely ignored.
As the controversy rages on, more and more people are demanding to know what foods contain GMOs, and it seems there are no laws in place that compels the food industry to feed the end user with the needed information. The consumers’ right to know requires that no matter where you fall on the GMO debate, you ought to know the nature or source of what you consume especially as regards the food system of today. Illiteracy is high in the society, there are no strong regulations or laws regarding food labelling, etc. Food industry/ health watchers say these anomalies do not help matters in the entire equation.
Certain organisations, both foreign and local are involved in the importation of products of biotechnology into the country. For instance, some of the dealers of GMOs bring in things into the country without the knowledge of the NBMA, it has been observed. This then makes it very compelling for the agency to collaborate with sister agencies like Customs, SON, NAFDAC, Seed Council etc, to adequately ensure food safety and security of the health of Nigerians.
It should therefore not be lost on the the National Biosafety Management Agency, that its coming to being is critical to making certain that the various institutes and research departments carry out their range of activities without coming out with products that will impact negatively either on the health of the citizenry or that of the environment. This the agency can further achieve by also regularly engaging relevant stakeholders in making inputs in its policy making, as well as decisions.