As concerns about the introduction and use of genetically modified organisms/food products are increasing, more steps are being taken in terms of policy reviews and propaganda to encourage their use. The plethora of concerns, grouped as health, environmental, economic and political concerns hold intergenerational implications if not carefully and urgently addressed.
Health of Mother Earth Foundation (HOMEF) organized a dialogue with medical practitioners on June 29, 2021 to deepen the understanding of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), examine their implications on biosafety in Nigeria and make recommendations on way forward for promoting biosafety and justice in our food system while preserving the health of the people and the environment.
The dialogue which held in the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja had in attendance, medical doctors, laboratory scientists, researchers, nutritionists, CSOs and the media. At the opening of the event HOMEF Director, Nnimmo Bassey stated that the quality of the food we eat affects the quality of our health and we cannot have quality food if we do not cultivate good products- such that are not dependent on toxic inputs. He stressed that the bedrock of biosafety is precaution – which requires that caution should be applied when the safety of a product is uncertain. Mr. Bassey added that the key to food safety, food security and food sovereignty is diversity – this he said will ensure that we have a mix of foods that are nutritious and which support our health.
Speaking on the topic: GMOs and their implications on human and environmental health, Dr. Ifeanyi Casmir, a molecular biologist and public heath consultant described GMOs as a tale of controversies, adding that a person is basically what s/he eats. The talk about pesticides and GMOs cannot be separated because these pesticides are, in his words, the perfume that GMOs wear. Dr. Casmir hinged his presentation on a quote by Rachael Carson, who’s considered to be the mother of environmental toxicology; ‘What Science believed and Technology made possible must first be judged for its safety and benefit to the whole stream of life’
It was explained that scientists who transfer genes from one organism to the other are oblivious of the totality of the impacts of the introduction of such genes in the receiving organism. ‘The introduction of a gene into different cells can result in different outcomes, and the overall pattern of gene expression can be altered by the introduction of a single gene…’
Although modern biotechnology including genetic engineering (GE) has made profound contribution to the health sector, towing the path of GE in agriculture is not in our benefit. This is because it will aid the erosion of our local varieties. Crops engineered to be herbicide tolerant have overtime increased the use of toxic herbicides on farmlands which destroy beneficial organisms (including microorganisms) in these farmlands, besides the herbs they were targeted at.
There are conflicting data around researches on GMOs but there is a growing body of evidence connecting GMOs with health issues (such as cancers, liver and kidney disorders, birth defects, immune system malfunction) and environmental degradation.
GMOs are promoted based on these; no overt consequences, no known effect on human health, they are not likely to produce any effect and they are not more risky than other crops. To refute these statements, Dr. Casmir quoted a scientist, Tsatsakis who said that the consensus over the GM safety is a falsely perpetuated construct, adding that there is more than a causal association between GM foods and health issues.
Studies have shown that DNA molecules injected in food affect the animals that eat them. Many GM crops are engineered to express novel miRNA sequences, either to impose control on host plant genes or to act as insecticides. Dr. Ifeanyi Casmir backed up his presentation with a number scientific evidence from other researchers whose work have been published in reputable journals. He concluded by saying that ‘The multi-functionality of agriculture requires policy approaches that also address poverty and livelihoods – This reaffirms the conclusion by the International Assessment of Agricultural Science & Technology for Development (IAASTD) that an integrated agroecological approach is the most promising for climate change mitigation and improving sustainability’.
Further, there was discussion on the cultural, socio-economic and political perspectives on GMOs which was led by Nnimmo Bassey. This session started with the question: who is nourishing the world? It was emphasized that it is the small scale farmers that are indeed nourishing the world and not the industrial farmers or corporations.
One of the myths about GMOs is that they are substantially equivalent to other crops and they can co-exist with non-genetically modified crops. To refute this, the question was asked: why then do GM seeds have patents? Also, the claim of their independent co-existence is simply not true as crops interdepend on each other for survival. There have been cases of horizontal gene transfer from GM crops to native varieties in farmlands where the owners of these farmlands were taken to court by Monsanto for infringing on his patent rights over the GM construct.
Socio-economic implications of GMOs were listed to include: the replacement of natural products by synthetic products, loss of markets, biodiversity erosion by monoculture or plantation agriculture, farmers losing their livelihood and instead being turned to sharecroppers…With GMOs, farmers’ lose their right to preserve and reuse seeds and as well we lose the right to choose what we eat. Labelling of GMOs can’t and won’t work in our socio-cultural context. Food is generally sold in cups and measures and in other forms where labelling is not possible. To secure our socio-economic rights, we have to protect our indigenous varieties, support our famers and free ourselves from seed colonialism. The varieties of crops we once knew are now narrowed; some have been lost over time and the few remaining are being targeted by genetic modifications.
The conversation also touched on issues with the Act and regulation of biosafety as well as the associated challenges. It was highlighted that the challenge with the state of biosafety in our nation isn’t for lack of laws but a lack of implementation/enforcement. Nigeria is signatory to a number of international laws which aims to promote biodiversity for example The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), Cartagena Protocol to the Convention on Biodiversity, African Charter on Peoples and Human Rights etc. Barr. Ifeanyi Nwankwere who anchored this session stated that the National Biosafety Management Agency (NBMA) Act of 2015 embodies the principle of precautionary measure but this has been woefully ignored by the National Biosafety Management Agency. The Act was amended in 2019 to including emerging aspects of modern biotechnology including gene editing and synthetic biotechnology which poses greater risks to biodiversity and further affects the rights of farmers.
Speaking on the challenges with biosafety regulation it was stated that the NBMA Act has gaps which prevents it from protecting the interest of our people. These flaws include wide discretionary powers given to the agency; defective provisions on public participation, access to information, and liability and redress. Also there is a stark conflict of interest – with a major promoter of GMOs, National Biotechnology Development Agency (NABDA) on the board of the regulatory agency. This gives room for regulatory capture and positions the agency to serve the commercial interest of the promoters of GMOs.
In the concluding session, HOMEF’s project lead on Hunger Politics, Joyce Brown led discussion on Agroecology as a viable solution to the food and climate challenges. Agroecology was explained as a science, a set of practices and a social movement. As a science it studies the interrelationships between the various components of ecosystems. As a set of practices it comprises of sustainable and diverse farming practices (including crop rotation, mixed cropping, biological pest control, composting, agroforestry, livestock integration) that optimize and stabilize yields. As a social movement, it respects and promotes the right of farmers and communities to decide what they grow and how.
Agroecology works. A study which reviewed 40 initiatives using agroecological methods showed an average crop yield increase of 113%. Although yield of individual crops may not necessarily be higher in Agroecology than in the chemical intensive farming, total agricultural output is larger because agroecological farmers rely on a diversified pool of crops and of livestock.
While the Modern Agriculture portends overlapping ecological, environmental and economic crises, Agroecology nurtures ecosystems, ensures economic stability and it is structurally just. Soils farmed with Agroecology methods trap in carbon and so contribute to the mitigation of climate change. Agroecology reduces pesticide use and brings about soil restoration.
After the intensive discussions, a number of recommendations were made by the participants which include: that the deployment and use of GMOs in Nigeria should be halted while we conduct rigorous and independent research on their implications for the Nigerian people. It was also stressed that there should be deeper and wider awareness creation to ensure that other professionals, farmers, and indeed the general public get to understand the current challenges, the state of biosafety in Nigeria and the risks of consuming genetically modified food products.