The federal government has granted environmental approval for evaluation and open cultivation of TELA maize a new maize variety developed by researchers at the Institute for Agricultural Research (IAR), Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, that can resist fall armyworm, stem borers, and tolerate moderate drought.
This was contained in a certificate issued to IAR by the National Biosafety Management Agency (NBMA), the federal government agency mandated to regulate genetically modified products in the country.
LEADERSHIP reports that there has been a lot of controversy around genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in the country, largely due to public misconception about agricultural biotechnology, with not a few Nigerians expressing reservations about their longtime safety.
Scientists have, however, insisted that the crops have more yields, require less spraying, enhance nutrient composition and resist pests and disease.
The certificate dated October 8, 2021, with permit code no. NBMA/CM/003, was issued to IAR for General\Commercial Release of TELA Maize Genetically Modified for Drought Tolerance, Resistance to Stem Borer and Fall Armyworm. It comes into effect from October 8, 2021, to October 5, 2024.
It was learnt that the research name, TELA, is a Latin name that stands for protection.
Nigeria approved its first biotechnology crop in 2018. Before now, only two crops, Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt.) cotton and cowpea were approved for commercial use.
According to African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF), TELA maize is just like the normal maize being cultivated in the country, except that this one has the potential to resist worms and other pests that affect maize and that have caused reduction in maise production in the country.
“The maize has the potential to produce 10 tonnes per hectare as against the current three to four tonnes that the country is currently having. It guarantees pumper harvest, food security and nutrition security in the country,” the organisation explained.
AATF TELA maize project manager, Dr Sylvester Oikeh, said, “This is the beginning of a new era for maize farmers in Nigeria who have suffered greatly from the twin problems of drought and devastating insect pests occasioned by climate change. The resources and time spent in protecting maize against insect pests will be used for other operations. The maize produced will provide healthier grains for farmers and consumers alike.”
TELA maize principal investigator, Prof. Rabiu Adamu, said with the deregulation, the Institute is now permitted to conduct multilocation trials to evaluate the yield and adaptability of the TELA hybrids across the different agro ecologies in the country.
“The highest yielding hybrids exhibiting tolerance to drought and resistant to stem borer and fall armyworm will be released to farmers for cultivation. We hope to register some of the outstanding hybrids for commercialisation through Nigerian seed companies for farmers to grow in the 2023 rainy season,” he said.
“The deregulation will fast-track our work to achieve the mission of the project to avail farmers with transgenic maize to solve the challenges of drought, stem borer and fall armyworm.”
The executive director of IAR, Prof. Ishiyaku Mohammed, said it is really inspiring for IAR to secure NBMA approval for the commercial release of the drought tolerant and insect resistant maize (TELA maize).
“This goes to further highlight IAR’s capacity and commitment to providing effective solutions to agricultural problems facing our farmers and optimising food security for Nigerians. The approval will open the way to combating the devastating effects of both drought and insect pests through the deployment of this new variety of maize into our farming system.
“The next step is to further evaluate the performance of this new variety by farmers on their fields in all the major maize growing belts in Nigeria. Thereafter we shall seek another approval by the national variety release committee before making the seeds commercially available for farmers to plant in the 2023 cropping season,” he said.
‘GMOs Are Health Risk’
A farmer who is into organic farming, (who spoke in anonymity), told LEADERSHIP that globally, there have been controversies around Genetic Modified Foods as studies have shown that countries that promote genetic modified foods have high prevalence rate of cancer.
Bringing such foods to Nigeria, a country that don’t have a good health system, would only lead to more harm than good, he said.
The reason behind government’s decision to bring in genetic modified foods (maize) into the country is due to pressure from the companies that produce them, he said, adding that, “This genetic modified foods we are talking about are being manufactured by big companies abroad, so they are finding a way to sell their products to third world countries like Nigeria.
“This is a big concern for me because remember that nutrition is the backbone of health, we now find ourselves where our government is now bringing in genetic modified foods into the country. I can assure you that in the next five years, we will start noticing an increase at which people are coming down with cancer and other deadly diseases.”
When asked how genetic modified foods can lead to cancer, he said, “that is why I told you that there is controversy around it. However, I task researchers to look into it. With research, we will be able to find out that some of the foods we consume are the main causes of the health problems we suffer from.”
In the same vein, the National President of Nigeria Cassava Growers Association (NCGA), Pastor Segun Adewumi, while speaking with LEADERSHIP, tasked the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC) to look into the genetic modified foods and issue a statement to allay the fears of Nigerians.
FG Misled To Believe GMOs Are 100% Safe – Uneze
Meanwhile, a public affairs analyst, and the Nigerian coordinator, African Student Parliament (ASUP), James Uneze, said he believes that the federal government was misled to believe that genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are 100 percent safe for human consumption.
Speaking exclusively with LEADERSHIP yesterday in Abuja, he noted that his specific concern is the possibility for GMOs to negatively affect human health.
He said while it might sound new that the government yesterday approved the growing of genetically modified maize, Nigerians were already consuming GMOs from processed food.
“Studies show that a specific percentage of processed foods purchased today contain some genetically engineered (GE) food products. My warning to Nigerians is that they should watch what they eat. This is because there are lots of strange ailments in the country now,” he said.
‘TELA Maize Is Safe’
While some continue to raise concerns about the safety of genetically modified food, the three main aspects that spark debate are the potentials of GM to provoke allergic reaction, gene transfer and outcrossing.
Addressing these issues in an inquiry by LEADERSHIP, Alex Abutu, communication officer, West and Central Africa, African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF), an organisation that coordinate the TELA Maize Project in Nigeria, said the maize had undergone risk analysis and was proven to be safe for consumption and ecosystem.
He said the maize was developed by IAR Zaria to fight against pests, adapt to moderate drought and solve the devastating effects of poor yields encountered by farmers in Nigeria.
He noted that when cultivated, the Tela maize variety has potential to return ten tonnes per hectare of land at harvest.
“The maize is not just produced and released but genetically modified, meaning that there are levels of checks carried out by National Biodiversity Management Agency, (NBMA) and it was found to be safe. It does not affect human beings; it does not affect the environment, and NBMA regulated the Tela maize and approved it based on WHO guidelines for safety protocols,” he said.