The Health of Mother Earth Foundation (HOMEF), an ecological think tank and advocacy organisation, has called on smallholder farmers to boycott continuous propagation of Genetically Modified Organisms(GMOs) in order to preserve and protect the country’s biodiversity.
The organisation made the call in Abuja on Tuesday at a dialogue with medical practitioners on GMOs and the state of Biosafety in Nigeria.
The group stressed that the bedrock of biosafety is to take necessary precautions towards ensuring that indigenous crop species are not compromised, adding that the key to food safety and food sovereignty is food diversity preservation.
However, they decried that adoption of genetically engineered crops will only streamline the country’s food variety, with possible negative impact on human and environmental health.
The adoption of GMOs in Nigeria has always been a subject of debates.
While some experts believe that the Nigerian farmers are yet to fully understand the efficacy of planting GM seeds, others argue that planting of GM seeds will help to produce enough food for the growing global population.
Some analysts have posited that genetic engineering in agriculture ignored the fact of interdependence of species, which is greatly contributing to soil toxicity, destruction of several other crops, as well as beneficial soil microorganisms.
What are GM crops?
Genetically modified crops (commonly referred to as GM crops) are plants used in agriculture, whose DNA has been modified using genetic engineering methods.
In most cases, the aim is to introduce a new trait to the plant which does not occur naturally in the species. Food crops for example can be genetically engineered to be resistant to certain pests, diseases, environmental conditions, reduction of spoilage, chemical treatments (e.g. resistance to a herbicide), or just to improve the nutrient profile of the crop.
Genetic modification can also be applied to non-food crops for the production of pharmaceutical agents, biofuels, and other industrially useful goods, as well as for bioremediation.
In his remarks, Nnimmo Bassey, HOMEF’s country director, stated that smallholder farmers need to be fully integrated into the Nigerian farming system in order to achieve sustainable agriculture and food security.
He explained that this farming system (subsistence farming) helps to protect the three dimensions of sustainability which include the ecology, society and economy of people.
To achieve this, he said “there’s a need to preserve the diversity of crops and varieties that provide the nutrition that we need for good health. This requires the protection of farmer-saved seeds and protection of varieties that local farmers have selected and developed over the centuries.”
Mr Bassey lamented that there are over 3000 crops that can be cultivated in Africa, but that farmers have been pushed into cultivating just a few varieties which is at the detriment of the majority of people.
“Today we see increasing pressures for the adoption of genetically modified crops in Africa. These crops are mostly genetically engineered to withstand dangerous herbicides which kill other varieties except the engineered ones. The basic fact here is that the crops serve the interests of the chemical companies who concentrate their power of control over the sector and expose farmers and consumers to harm,” Mr Bassey said.
He stated that other crops are genetically engineered to act as pesticides and kill identified pests that would otherwise attack the crop or seeds.
Examples of such crops include Bt Cotton and Bt Cowpea or beans, he said, adding that the implication of eating a seed engineered to kill a pest is that you are eating a pesticide.
“What we need in Nigeria is to support our local farmers. The local farmers do not feed Nigerians alone, they’re the ones feeding the world,” he said.
The HOMEF official noted that responsible use of technology in agriculture requires that we keep careful watch on their effect on human and environmental health.
Also, he stated that there is a need to consider the fact that technologies that promote monoculture and erode our biodiversity are not sustainable and must be avoided in a world that is almost at the brink of ecological collapse.
While speaking on GMOs and their implications on human and environmental health, Ifeanyi Casmir, a molecular biologist at the university of Abuja, said genetically modified crops have been found to have implications on humans and environmental health.
He said they are body of evidences laying credence to the fact that some the genetic elements, such as Deoxyribonucleic Acid (DNA) fragments and Double- stranded Ribonucleic Acid(DsRNA) fragments that are used in GMOs modifications have been found in animal tissues, human blood, maternal blood, as well as in the blood of unborn children and that scientists do not have a comprehensive knowledge of the unintended outcomes that comes with this.
“It is not the intention of those who are modifying crops that when you eat them, the DNA should escape cooking, escape digestion in the intestine and end up in the blood,”he said.
Mr Casmir explained that some of these traces have been linked to be causing hormonal disturbances,immune response disturbances, some forms of abnormalities in kidney and liver, and that ultimately it has been fingered to cause cancer in humans.
“These are the worries we expressed as health professionals and health experts, and we are saying that these things are not healthier than what we have here in Nigeria,” he added.
He said the thought that GMOs can maximize yields of crops is half truth because a farmer is not concerned about the potential of a crop to yield, but that farmers are concerned about their actual yield, which is what they will take to the market.
African countries that have embraced GMOs
According to a report published by the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA) in December last year, the numbers of countries in Africa that have adopted GM crop production doubled between 2018 and 2019.
It says Nigeria is among six African countries leading in GM crop adoption.
The ISAAA report noted that Nigeria, Ethiopia, Malawi, South Africa, Sudan and Swaziland are now the African countries where the planting of Genetically Modified (GM) crops thrives.
According to the report, the aforementioned six countries grew three major biotech crops (maize, soybean and cotton) on approximately three million hectares by the end of 2019.
It says the seventh country, Kenya, granted approval for cultivation of Bt cotton and may soon join the league of adopter nations on the continent.
Rose Gidado, a deputy director at the National Biotechnology Development Agency (NABDA), who is also the country coordinator of the Open Forum on Agricultural Biotechnology (OFAB) in Africa, had confirmed this to be true.
She said two crops were approved for commercialisation in 2018 and 2019 (Bt cotton and Bt Cowpea). In 2019, Bt cotton was planted in 12 states as demonstration plots on farmers fields, and in 2020, more states joined.
“For Bt Cowpea, the year 2020 was a year of establishment of demonstration plots on farmers’ fields to enhance their adoption of the crop based on evidence,” she said.
Nigeria endorsed the National Biosafety Management Act of 2015 that permitted the free flow of GMOs, giving room for the trial, commercial release and trans-border movement of these breeds in Nigeria.
The Nigerian Biosafety Management Agency (NBMA), the agency saddled with the mandate to ensure proper regulation of modern biotechnology and its products so that it does not cause harm to human health and the environment, has been reported to have given Monsanto, a leading producers of genetically modified seeds, the permits to try and release GMO in Nigeria.
However, some concerned Nigerians have called for a review of the signed National Biosafety Act of 2015.
Ifeanyi Nwankwere, a legal practitioner and Biosafety food advocate, said he feels Nigeria can do without GMOs and that we have all that it takes to handle food issues in the country.
He said the National Biosafety act of 2015 is highly defective and that it gives the NBMA so much powers to do and undo.
“They’re so many flaws we the current law, and we are saying that the law needs to be amended,” he said. Adding that the consumption of organic foods is the sure path to thread by Nigerians.
Joyce Brown, a programme manager at HOMEF believes that adoption of Agroecological practices is a viable alternative for Agricultural productivity and resilience.
She said increasing awareness among farmers about adopting agroecology instead of GMOs will help to boost healthy food production, encourage dryland restoration and as well help to mitigate climate change effects.