By Agbonkhese Oboh
No fewer than 75 civil society organisations, CSOs, across the world have raised the alarm over moves to release genetically-modified mosquitoes in Nigeria, noting that the country was about to be used as a guinea pig for the project, which will endanger humans, biodiversity and to ecosystem balance.
The CSOs noted that the shortcoming of transgenic mosquitoes was evident from the experiments done in Brazil and in Burkina Faso.
According to them, “while we appreciate that malaria is a problem in Nigeria and many other nations and that urgent measures to address it are needed, we believe that transgenic mosquitoes are not the solution.”
Recall that on Friday, June 6, at a virtual meeting of the West African Integrated Vector Management Programme, Rufus Ebegba, Vice Chairman of the Programme and Director of Nigeria’s National Biosafety Management Agency, NBMA, said: “There is the need to accelerate the development of regulatory pathways for genetically-based vector control methods such as transgenic mosquitoes.”
Also on June 30, NBMA held a meeting to review the National Guidelines on the Regulation of Gene Editing, where the Director of the agency stated that “these guidelines are not to impede on the technology but to see how this technology is applied to enhance our economy and to assist the government.”
Case against genetically-engineered mosquitoes
However, in reaction, the CSOs, in a statement, warned against the introduction of the transgenic mosquitoes, as well as other risky and unproven technologies, into Nigeria.
The groups noted that there were no peer-reviewed assessments for these transgenic mosquitoes, no international protocols for evaluating their safety implications and the technology is dependent on and controlled by corporate bodies.
According to Nnimmo Bassey, Director of Health of Mother Earth Foundation, HOMEF, Nigeria, one of the signatories to the statement, Ebegba’s ‘regulatory pathways for genetically-engineered vector control of mosquitoes’ are actually rigged pathways to make the environment the testing ground for the risky and needless experimentation.
His words: “From our experience with genetically-modified food crops in Nigeria, having the provisions in place to regulate the release of such organisms is equivalent to express permits for their introduction as the agency responsible for this regulation acts more like a promoter of the technology than a regulator.
“Nigeria must show leadership in the protection of African biodiversity and not allow an agency of government to run amok with whatever technologies promoters suggest to it.”
Bassey added that tampering with genetic materials of living organisms is already creating problems in the world with the emergence and spread of zoonotic infections occasioned largely by loss of genetic diversity and habitat losses due to such manipulations.
For Mariann Bassey-Orovwuje, Coordinator of the Food Sovereignty Programmes of Friends of the Earth, Nigeria and Africa, precedents speak against the programme.
She noted that “the plan to reduce the number of disease-carrying mosquitoes is shown to have resulted (in addition to the fact that the population of mosquitoes bounced back after a few months) to the unexpected transfer of genes from the gene-edited mosquitoes to the native insects, which gave rise to tougher hybrid species.”
“Furthermore,” the statement noted, “in July 2019, the genetically-modified mosquitoes were released in Bana village in Burkina Faso as an initial test run before the open releases of gene drive mosquitoes, with the aim to reduce the population of Anopheles mosquitoes that causes malaria.
“The failure of this release include the incidental release of some biting female mosquitoes during the experiments, which put the community people at risk.
“The community people revealed that they were not properly informed about the project or its potential risks.
“This is not different from the experience we have had with genetically-modified cowpea and cotton, which have been approved for commercial release in Nigeria.”
It noted that the case was similar to Nigeria’s where the acclaimed risk assessment done on genetically-modified crops were not made available to the public or subjected to open and transparent consultation.
The statement added: “We have no confidence that the situation will be different with the transgenic mosquitoes or that requirements for liability and redress will be enforced.
“Nigeria has reviewed (in 2019) its biosafety law to include definitions on extreme technologies including gene drives, so as to pave way for their adoption.
“This review was speedily proposed and approved despite strenuous objections sent by groups, including HOMEF, whereas there have been calls over the years to review the law to close existing fundamental gaps, which make it impossible for it to serve the interests of the people.”
Other groups that signed the statement include GMO-Free Nigeria; Corporate Accountability and Public Participation Africa, CAPPA, Nigeria; Urban-Rural Environmental Defenders U-RED, Nigeria; Chido and ChattaConsults, Nigeria; Friends of the Earth, Africa; Food Sovereignty, Ghana; World Family, UK; The African Centre for Biodiversity, ACB, South Africa; EcoNexus and Washington Biotechnology Action Council, USA, among others.