…Concerned activists kick
Recently, the Federal Government approved the first ever Genetically Modified (GMO) food crop in Nigeria.
The Pod Borer Resistant Cowpea (beans), developed by the Institute for Agricultural Research (IAR), Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, is now approved for environmental release, a statement by the National Biosafety Management Agency (NBMA) said.
The “PBR Cowpea has been genetically modified to resist the insect pest, Maruca Vitrata,” the agency said.
NBMA said with the release, “It means the crop is safe and posed no harm to human and the environment and can now be submitted to the National Variety Release Committee for consideration and registration as a commercial crop in Nigeria.”
Some leaders in Nigeria’s biosafety sector have lauded the move as a breakthrough.
The Executive Director of IAR, Prof. I. U Abubakar, in a presentation summarising the process that led to the development of the PBR cowpea said the decision to venture into genetic modification in cowpea breeding was as a result of pest infestation that over the years made cowpea farming difficult as farmers got less for their efforts and even had their lives exposed to danger due to chemicals sprayed to keep the pest away.
“Cowpea is the most important food grain legume in Nigeria. The low yield of the crop in Nigeria is due to many constraints particularly pod boring insects which cause up to 90% yield loss in severe infestation cases,” he explained.
Dr Abdourhamane Issoufou, AATF’s Country Director, said since the mid-1980s, cowpea scientists have declared maruca as the main limiting factor of cowpea production in Africa hence the intervention of the AATF based on its principles of providing access to appropriate technologies by small scale farmers.
“AATF was able to obtain access to the Cry1Ab gene used for this modification on humanitarian basis and worked with institutions in Nigeria, Ghana, Burkina Faso and Malawi for the transformation,” he said.
Meanwhile, Nigerians have begun to react to the news of the introduction of GMO into the country.
Suleiman Abdulhamid, a public affairs analyst, expressed worry that the approval might open a floodgate to GMO foods which, he said, are full of controversies even in countries where they are considered safe.
“First of all, the controversies of GMO food being agents of killer cancer have not been sufficiently cleared even in advanced countries. Nigeria is blessed with arable land that can feed its population and even for export if the right mechanisation is applied,” he said.
“Anything that is too good to be true is probably not true is a maxim in journalism,” he also noted.
He asked: “Have you seen the GMO bananas that stay in shelves for weeks, even months without going bad?
“I am afraid, if a crop that is supposed to go bad in few days can remain for weeks, it might as well remain so in the human system once consumed,” Abdulhamid said.
Also reacting to the development, an environmental rights activist and director of health at Mother Earth Foundation (HOMEF), Nnimmo Bassey, condemmed the recent approvals by the Federal Government.
In a joint statement with a coalition of CSOs and farmers, HOMEF criticised the recent approval for release of Bt beans for cultivation in Nigeria and demanded a rejection of the application for field trials of a cassava clone, asserting that the processes of making and approving these artificial crops presented enormous threat to human and environmental health.
They said the release of this genetically modified beans will contaminate indigenous varieties, place them at risk and expose our farmers and people to avoidable risks.
The coalition made reference to the study of pollinator characteristics of the natural West African wild cowpea populations which revealed that the Bt-gene will move from the genetically modified lines to non-modified lines of both cultivated and wild relatives, resulting to other plants gaining the resistance trait that will cause an alteration in ecological balance and present adverse effects.
“It is worth nothing that this cowpea containing the transgene Cry1Ab, has not been approved for commercial use anywhere else in the world. Use of this Bt gene was discontinued in South Africa where the cultivation of maize modified (with the gene) led to enormous pest resistance and infestation.
“Current research has revealed that protein produced by this transgene has toxic effects on human liver cells and induces alterations in immune systems of laboratory animals,” the research results showed.
The coalition added that the projection that this GM beans will increase yield by 20% above current levels is a paltry reason for exposing the nation to risks as the challenges of agriculture in Nigeria are complex and cannot be solved by one genetic engineering silver bullet.
The AATF’s Country Director, Dr Issoufou however said the research results have shown that the PBR-cowpea is safe for human and animals, completely resistant to Maruca and leads to yield increase of 20% with fewer sprays of chemical insecticides.
In an attempt to further clarify the raging controversy, the Director General of the National Biosafety Management Agency (NBMA), Dr Rufus Ebegba, dispelled fears of harm to humans by GMOs.
He said: “In the area of safety to human health, the agency ensures that GMOs are not toxic to humans and that they do not cause any allergies.”
He said appropriate procedures were followed before the approval was granted for the cowpea to be released for commercial growth.
Prof. Alex Akpa, Acting Director General, National Biotechnology Development Agency (NABDA) also said it took the country 10 years’ trial before the final results leading to the approval.
Beans, as cowpea is popularly called in Nigeria, is the most important food grain legume in the country and public debate over the GM variety is expected to continue.