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By Ebele Orakpo
OH my God! What is going on? What am I going to do? In these austere times?” lamented Mrs. Bello, a mother of three as she entered her kitchen and saw the very fresh carrots, cabbage and tomatoes she had bought the previous evening to prepare lunch for the family.
Her shout attracted her neighbours and family. “What happened?” one of them asked to which Mrs. Bello replied: “I don’t know what is happening anymore,” as she pointed to the rotten vegetables. “I bought these just yesterday and they looked fresh. But today, I am seeing something else. Na magic?”
“Hmm, this has happened to me thrice in recent times,” said Madam Helen. A few others shared similar experiences. “I am sure these are genetically modified vegetables,” said Mrs. Imoh matter-of-factly “or did you ever experience such in the past?” she asked. At this, most of the faces went blank. “What is genetically modified food?” all seemed to ask.
While mankind grapples with the continued assault and ravages of diseases such as cancer, tuberculosis, HIV/AIDS, Ebola, malaria and lately COVID-19, among others, the fear of the impact of genetically-modified organism, GMO, on human health and survival has been growing at an alarming rate.
The GMO debate has been on for a long time. While some people are all for it, some are against it, saying the disadvantages far outweigh the advantages. In-between these two lie the vast majority who are indifferent because they know nothing about the technology.
In the course of investigations, Vanguard sought the views of experts and relevant stakeholders on the pros and cons of genetically modified foods, especially against the backdrop of the increasing quick spoilage of foods.
Short shelf life of fruits and vegetables
Respondents believe the major culprits in food spoilage are chemicals used in modern agriculture and in food storage, global warming and handling of farm produce.
Professor Frank Ogbo of the Department of Applied Microbiology and Brewing, Nnamdi Azikiwe University, Awka, said the short shelf life has nothing to do with genetic modification, but a microbiological problem.
He said: “It has to do with activities of enzymes in the food and micro-organisms that are associated with the foods either from the soil or during processing. Generally, we have a higher ambient temperature and this encourages activities of enzymes and microbes. So it appears that spoilage is faster than it used to be.
“I don’t think it has anything to do with whether it is genetically modified or not. A lot of the spoilage has to do with handling. There are so many things we should be studying that we are not studying. There is a time when you harvest a certain species of tomato that is optimised. We don’t know these things; we are doing everything blindly and so we run into all sorts of problems.”
Professor Nkiru Meludu, Head, Department of Agricultural Economics and Extension, Nnamdi Azikiwe University, however, believes the short shelf life has more to do with genetic modification based on her experience.
“It wasn’t like this before because we were using natural seeds. Farmers usually kept some seeds from their harvest to use in the next farming season. But in a bid to make more profit, some companies went into what they originally called Genetically Modified Organisms, GMOs. Now they have gone into foods.
“I once went for training in Netherlands where they were discussing this issue so I asked them whether they use genetically-modified seeds in the Netherlands; they said no, they are banned. I asked if they use it in their animal production, they said no but they use it in some other places.
“So I asked them: ‘Why should you talk about it in a positive way when you are not using it?’ They said it is not totally bad but so many countries are not signing it, even in Africa. Genetically-modified foods or organisms will never be like the natural ones, never! When you produce organically, it lasts longer.”
Dr. Nyalas Bartholomew, Chairman, Forum of National Chairmen of Nigeria Union of Agriculture and Allied Employees, NUAAE, and State Chairman, NUAAE, Adamawa State, agrees with both Ogbo and Meludu.
He said: “The use of chemical fertiliser and chemicals in modern agronomy affects the tissues of these crops so that they can hardly withstand change in climatic conditions. Also, genetic modification in the name of improved seed variety is an issue.
“These crops mutate genetically into non-resistant pedigree and lack the innate ability to resist harsh and prevailing conditions.”
Professor Ifeoma Enweani, Nnamdi Azikiwe University Teaching Hospital, Nnewi, also believes that the application of chemical fertiliser aids spoilage.
“When buying vegetables like carrots, do not buy fat ones or those that look out of proportion as chemical fertiliser must have been applied. Buy relatively small-sized ones that may not be attractive. They are not likely to have fertiliser applied to them,” the Medical Microbiology advised.
The Holy Bible tells us that our food should be our medicine, but the reverse is the case today. Over the years, in the process of preserving food, man has employed harmful chemicals so instead of his food being his medicine, it has become his poison. In Nigeria, it has been observed that certain harmful practices take place on daily basis due to ignorance or greed.
Recently, a professor of Medical Microbiology at Olabisi Onabanjo University in Ogun State, Dr. Afolabi Oluwadun, sent a message on a WhatsApp group in which he alerted citizens on the dangers of some food preservation methods in Nigeria. One of the common ones is the use of calcium carbide to ripen plantains and bananas.
Dr. Oluwadun said: “Any time you buy ripe plantain in the market, chances are you are buying plantain ripened with calcium carbide so buy unripe plantains and bananas and keep them inside a black plastic for few days to ripen naturally.
“Many Nigerian farmers use a chemical called Sniper as an added ingredient for pest control. Sniper is an organophosphate that readily binds to the lungs and kidneys causing cancer.”
Another method is the use of aluminium phosphide, AlP, to control weevil in beans. He warned: “This is the most dangerous food pollution in Nigeria. Because weevils can destroy the entire year’s harvest of the farmer in a few days. They drop tablets of AIP inside each bag of beans.
“One tablet can drive weevils away from an entire silo of 50 tonnes of beans, but they use more than one in a bag. It liberates lethal phosphine gas when it comes in contact either with atmospheric moisture or with hydrochloric acid in the stomach.” He advised Nigerians to eat beans with weevils.
There is also the preservation of frozen chicken from China using embalming substances: “This is a cancer-causing substance that kills slowly. How else do you think chicken gets to Nigeria from China without a proper cooling system? Eat only local chicken, don’t buy frozen chicken. If you can’t see it running around, don’t buy it,” he cautioned.
He also noted that the farmers don’t want to kill people, but they are uneducated and don’t know the consequences of their actions. Unfortunately, they don’t even have the appropriate tools to deal with the challenges they face.
The World Health Organisation, WHO, defines genetically modified organisms (i.e. plants, animals or microorganisms) as organisms in which the genetic material, DNA, has been altered in a way that does not occur naturally.
So much misconception about GM foods: In a chat with Vanguard in Abuja, Professor Lucy Ogbadu, former Director-General, National Biotechnology Development Agency, NABDA, said the agency was established to promote biotechnology because the Nigerian government has weighed the options available and believes that biotechnology is good for the country.
She noted: “Nigeria established an institutional framework to ensure the promotion of biotechnology. The GMO issue falls squarely under biotechnology; the technique of genetic modification is a biotechnological technique. So the quarters from where all the concerns and negative publicity are coming is not really the appropriate quarters to talk on the issue because most of them are non-scientists.
“They are people from the humanities or lawyers or architects speaking on the technology. Do they have the competence to talk about this technology? There are issues we must look at to put things in perspective.
“First, we are scientists from all over the world. I mean scientists of worth, people that have reached the pinnacle of their profession; scientists that cannot be faulted: scientists in the category of Nobel laureates, scientists that are operating at the level of the UN.
“The UN is made up of representatives of various nations of the world and if you have bodies like WHO and Food and Agricultural Organisation, FAO, making statements on issues, I don’t think we should have any doubt about such issues.
“So all these bodies have made categorical statements on GMOs and we can summarise their statements thus: There is nothing wrong with the technology; it is quite safe for nations to adopt.”
(To be continued)