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GMO, safety and food security in Africa (III), by Professor M.K. Othman



How safe are GMO for human consumption? This was the question posed at the ending paragraph of part II of this piece. This question became necessary for people to wholeheartedly embrace the biotechnology innovation in the name of GMO crops.

The issue of yield increase of GMOs compared to non-GMOs was succinctly presented from the evidence of research results across the world. Part of this evidence was the analysis of 147 published articles made in 2014 by Klümper and Qaim.

They found an average yield increase of GM crops as 22 per cent higher than the yield of conventional crops (https://gmoanswers.com/ask/how-can-gmos-increase-amount-food).

A similar study conducted in the Institute of Life Sciences in Italy led by Elisa Pellegrino, which involved a meta-analysis of 6,006 peer-reviewed studies from 1996 to 2016 on genetically engineered maize.

The results showed that genetically engineered (GE) maize produced a greater yield ranging from 5.6 to 24.5 per cent compared to non-GE maize. Their study made 11,699 observations of production, grain quality, and concluded that the yield increases of GMO crops resulted from fewer weeds and pests infestation of the crops. Data for this study came from GMO corns produced in the United States, Europe, South America, Asia, Africa, and Australia.

The safety of GMO crops is linked to the fear that the crops may be responsible for causing diseases, especially terminal disease. In this regard, it is claimed that GM crop causes cancer. Cancer is the most dreadful and most fearful ailment in the history of mankind, a mere mention of this terminal disease keeps people off and away permanently.

Another claim was an allegation by some scientists of detecting multiple toxins from GMOs in Maternal and Fetal Blood.

READ ALSO: GMO, safety and food security in Africa (II), by Professor M.K. Othman

All these fears of safety of GMO crops may be baseless as there is no scientific evidence to entertain such fears. This is because the safety of GM crops has been a top agenda of international organizations such as the United Nations, regional organizations, advanced countries and food safety authorities across the globe.

These important stakeholders have all vehemently given GMO a clean bill of health for public consumption. The World Health Organization (WHO) was reported not finding any risks associated with the consumption of GMO foods.

According to WHO, GM foods currently on the international market have passed risk assessments and are not likely to present risks for human health. In addition, the general populations in the countries where consumption of GMO crops was approved have not reported negative effects due to the consumption of such foods.

Another reputable organization, Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) has stated categorically that no adverse impact on human health have been shown as a result of the consumption of GMO foods by the general population in the countries where they have been approved.

In the African continent, African Union (AU) and NEPAD have all nodded their agreements for the use of GMOs and adopted the biosafety measures to safeguard likely health risks to the people: A body known as African Biosafety Network of Expertise (ABNE) has been established under the AU-NEPAD to assist member countries to develop the right biosafety expertise to effectively carry out biosafety regulation.

This is to balance the adoption of biotechnology as a tool to advance the Continent by AU. Working under the UN, 54 African nations signed the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, which requires countries to domesticate the Cartagena Protocol having their own respective Biosafety Laws.

Authorities of many countries in Africa and other regions are strongly united to ensure safe and environmentally friendly of the GM crops. Yes, there is a need to be extra cautious on the GMO crops by subjecting them to intense safety regulation before release. Lack of scientific evidence of their harmful effect now may mean the world has to continue to be vigilant on genetic engineering.

Before conclusion, there is still one major concern on the imported GMOs is the issue of possible infusing of  “terminator gene”, which makes it compulsory for farmers to purchase new seeds on a seasonal basis.

Terminator gene technology or “suicide seeds” is technically named “Genetic use restriction technology (GURT)”, which is a method of restricting the use of genetically modified plants by causing second-generation seeds to be sterile.

The GURT technology was developed under a cooperative research and development agreement between the Agricultural Research Service of the United States Department of Agriculture and Delta and Pine Land Company in the 1990s, but it is yet to be commercially available. But why was it developed?

This means that GURT produces sterile seeds, so the seed from this crop could not be used as seeds, but only for sale as food or fodder, which will force farmers to buy seeds from the seed Companies or Biotech Firms on a seasonal basis. Use of GURT is seen to be largely beneficial to seed companies at the expense of farmers.

This concern forced Monsanto, one of the International Biotech Companies known for the sales of GMO seeds to refute an allegation that it has commercialized the ‘terminator seeds’.

“Monsanto has never commercialized a biotech trait that resulted in sterile – or “Terminator” – seeds. Sharing the concerns of small landholder farmers, Monsanto made a commitment in 1999 not to commercialize sterile seed technology in food crops.

We stand firmly by this commitment, with no plans or research that would violate this commitment”, a statement quoted from the Company’s website; https://monsanto.com/company/media/statements/terminator-seeds-myth/

Still, GM technologies are not for gripping easily without much sweat. It is a highly costly venture beyond the affordability of most developing countries like Nigeria.

On the averagely, GMO takes 13 years and $130 million of research and development before coming to market (https://gmoanswers.com/ask/). So, Africa must increase its agricultural investment to play a significant role in genetic engineering and achieve food security in the face of Covid-19 pandemic.

Professor Othman is the Executive Director of National Agricultural Extension and Research Liaison Services (NAERLS), ABU Zaria.

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