This is the concluding part of this piece. In the second edition, the focus was on the advantages of genetic modification. In this final part, the risks and benefits of GMOs are examined.
By Ebele Orakpo
Likely potential harms
The NBMA boss, Ebegba, continued: “The likely potential harms that can be caused by GMOs include environmental, health and socio-economic concerns. The risk assessment being carried out is to ensure that GMOs do not have the ability to become super organisms that will begin to affect other organisms.
“We ensure it does not become so dominant that it becomes invasive and destroy other organisms. We also ensure that if it is genetically-modified to be resistant to a particular pest, that pest should be the only one it is resistant to; it must not affect other insects.
“Then we look at it from human angle; it must not cause health hazards. It must not develop any toxin that will affect human and animal health. Humans and animals must not become allergic to it or have any negative reactions in the body like itching, feeling strange, etc. So toxicity and allergenicity must be avoided. We also look at the socio-economic concerns.
“The purpose of genetic modification is for benefit; the benefit must not be less than the initial benefit of the organism already in existence. For instance, if it is a genetically-modified crop like maize or rice, you must ensure that the price is not exorbitant.
“You must also ensure that it can command economic value to the nation. It must not affect Nigeria’s trade partners by reducing patronage.
We also look at it from social concern; it must not be at variance with our cultural values. For instance, you can’t take a gene from what people don’t eat, and put in something that they eat.
“Example, where you have Moslems who don’t eat pork and you take a gene from a pig and put into a goat that everyone eats, people will say it is against their culture /religion. We make sure we have enough knowledge to be able to analyse every genetically-modified organism,” the NBMA boss said.
Political/trade undertones and propaganda
“There have been a lot of concerns about GMOs. There is a trade war going on. It has a lot of political and trade undertones. There are institutions and agencies that are promoting GMOs but our job at the NBMA is to regulate. We are supposed to be an unbiased umpire; so whether you are government, company or individual, we make sure that you follow our laws and if our laws are breached, we take whoever breaches our law to court as it concerns NBMA Act of 2015.
“There is a penalty of five years imprisonment or a fine of N2.5m or both depending on the discretion of the judge. People think we are promoting GMO technology because we are granting permit. If we are not sure of the safety, we will not grant permit because the interest of Nigeria, the environment and the health of the people are of paramount interest.
“We have a GMO detection laboratory where we can analyse any GMO to find out whether it contains materials we do not want and also to confirm whether an organism is genetically-modified or not. We have the capacity and well trained staff to ensure that this sector is properly regulated,” said Ebegba
“Who exactly is behind all this propaganda against GMO? Why is their propaganda against GMO in the area of food? Some people are trying to protect their businesses because their products have no relevance in the health sector so whether insulin is administered or not, it doesn’t affect their businesses so they are not bothered. The media should begin to probe and pry into what is really happening,” Ogbadu stated.
Ethical issues: “Yes, there are ethical issues but you have to weigh the options. Wisdom empowers you to do that. That is where the people who are trying to put checks and balances come in. Yes, it is good but let us not be too hasty. Yes, the whole concept is fine but we will talk about unintended consequences. You are doing something, everything looks good and it solves problems but then, 10, 20 years down the line, you see the other side of it.
“It was not intended so people are now saying it was because of this thing we did 50 years back that has resulted in this. For example, good healthcare system is helping us to live longer, we have more children but now, the challenge is population increase. Population increase comes with housing problem, space and crime. We want to live longer but now, the increase in population is competing for the small resources and all these other societal ills are coming up,” noted Egwari of Covenant University.
GMO is good but…: “Yes, GMO is good but GMO if not regulated, can be disastrous. You can’t say ‘oh it’s good so let’s embrace it wholeheartedly or ‘oh, it’s completely bad so let us not look in that direction.
“If you say no to GMOs and GM foods, if you are not engaged in the practice, are you sure of the source of the one you are eating? Are you sure of the processed food you buy from the supermarkets? You say they are labelled, what if they are not labelled? In many countries, anything enters. You can only regulate what you produce; a hungry man has no say,” said Egwari.
For everything in life, there are advantages and disadvantages so despite the advantages of GMOs being touted by proponents, some experts still believe there are some disadvantages.
Said Meludu: “The problem for the farmer is that each time he needs the seed, he goes back to the source. I went to Benin Republic and bought some nice-looking pawpaw, the tree was very short with about 20 heavy fruits on it.
“I planted the seeds, and managed to get very little but not the same size again and by the third year, if you plant again, you will get nothing. So they require you to come back to them and pay again for the seeds. Ordinarily, when you buy something and plant, you harvest and keep the seeds for the next planting season but that is not the case here.”
Agreeing with Meludu, Professor Frank Ogbo said despite improving the shelf-life of the produce, farmers have to go back to source to buy seeds all the time because they cannot replant the seeds.
“The natural seeds which we can replant have been done away with naturally because of very poor yield. For instance, the white maize is almost extinct; what we have now is what farmers call Abiola, the improved variety and when you replant it, it doesn’t do well.
“Because it is business, they don’t want the germ to be good enough to go into a new plant. Nigeria has not approved the use of any GMO foods but our problem is that we are beggars. We beg for grains and tubers from all over the place so we don’t know what we are getting, we can’t vouch that we are not eating genetically-modified foods already.”
Advice: Egwari is of the view that we must embrace change. “We must see how we can key into it and be active players in any evolving concept so that we don’t sit and argue without doing anything and one day, we discover that we are already consumed by it.
“All in all, it is good but it has its own shortcomings and the consequences may not be immediate but again, they are part of the evolution of man; whether it is going to bring about a superhuman or a weak human, I can’t say but the only thing I can get out of it is that in many of these technologies coming up, we use germ plasm and the way nature came to be was through the seed.
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“The life of the flesh is in the blood and the life of the fruit is in the seed so it is seeds that give birth but now, you are taking any component of the fruit to produce new life.
Withstanding the environment
“They produce new life but they don’t last. You can use it to produce a super big life but again, after some generations, they revert; they become more susceptible. It’s just like someone training to develop muscles; he gets to a stage where he can no longer train to keep that muscle because of age or whatever, and he begins to shrink.
“You look at the man and he’s looking so small and weak because now, he had built to an extent that in coming back, the system is no longer capable of withstanding the environment that he had tried to live in.
“People will continue to talk about GMOs but it’s not just good to talk about it, let us do something about it. Nigeria must take a stand. If you want to do GMO, do GMO; invest because the truth is that the time is coming when everyone will be consuming GM foods and medicines, so if you are not a player, you will be caught in the web,” said Egwari, adding: “Biotechnology is simply saying modify your environment for a better life; use technology to give us a better standard of living.”
Come to think of it, life on earth is survival of the fittest. Living things are constantly modifying to survive in the changing environment. For instance, the tiny troublesome rat known as Belgium rat (expatriates in their own right, if you ask me) have so adapted to life in the average Nigerian home where they are constantly hounded and killed. Their lightning speed makes it very difficult to catch and kill them.
Not only that, their sharp sense of smell and their intelligence! Yes, anyone that has had the misfortune of being visited by such rats can testify to this: Usually, traps are set for them with fish or barbecued meat. The first day, the trap may catch two or three of them and by the next day, it may catch one or none because the others have seen what befell their brothers who went to eat and never returned.
Later, the use of gum became vogue. It would work in the first few days and the rats will learn fast how to circumvent it. Like Eneke the bird said in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, he learnt to fly without perching when men learnt to shoot without missing. Or is it the malaria parasite which has sworn that no weapon fashioned against it shall prosper? It has so modified itself genetically that it has become resistant to many anti-malarials.
Now we are hearing about the UK and South Africa Covid-19 mutant strains which may not be susceptible to available vaccines. All these in their bid to survive.
So it’s like saying ‘modify or die.’