As part of efforts to attain food security across the globe, experts have called for the adoption of genetically modified crops as a means of providing enough food for the fast-growing world population.
Genetically modified (GM) foods are produced, using the technology of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs).
GMOs are organisms whose genetic material (gene) has been altered, using genetic engineering techniques. They are also referred to as genetically engineered or transgenic organisms
Prof. Bill Weibold of the University of Missouri in the U.S. once said that with genetic modification, plants could become resistant to drought, pests, and herbicides, among others.
Weibold, a professor of Plant Sciences, who stressed that the organisms are better referred to as ``Transgenic Organisms’’ rather than ``GMOs”, however, said that when all the perceptible challenges were addressed in a crop, it engendered better yield.
The Centre for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), a U.S.-based non-profit organisation, says that one of the benefits of transgenic cotton, for instance, is that there would no longer be any need for the poisonous insecticide that was hitherto used in cotton cultivation.
In the case of soybeans, corn, sugar beets and canola, the transgenic plants are also advantageous since they reduce the time required for farming, as the farmers would no longer need not battle weeds, while they also reduce soil erosion.
Transgenic crops also reduce the population of pests, some experts say, stressing the U.S. alone cultivates about 170 million acres of genetically engineered crops.
Speaking in favour of GM crops, Prof. Bamidele Solomon, the Director-General, National Biotechnology Development Agency (NABDA), said that the adoption of GMOs in Nigeria would increase the farmers’ yield and income, while checking youth unemployment.
``For Nigeria, the problem of not getting our youths to go into agriculture can be effectively addressed by the use of GMOs.
`` For example, if we have the herbicide-tolerant maize and soya beans, whereby farmers will no longer have to weed farms; many people will be encouraged to go into farming because they will no longer have to labour and sweat unnecessarily.
``The other advantage relates to pest resistance. A lot of money goes into buying pesticides; so, if we can eliminate them, farming will be quite cheaper,” he says.
Solomon underscored the need for Nigeria to get ready for the onset of the biotechnology commercialisation when President Goodluck Jonathan eventually signed the Bio-Safety Bill into law.
Sharing similar sentiments, Prof. Anthony Olatokun, Director-General, Nigerian Agricultural Seed Council (NASC), said that GM crops had the potential of guaranteeing food security in Nigeria.
He stressed that with the country’s rising population, it would be somewhat difficult to follow conventional means of agriculture to meet the people’s food requirements.
Olatokun reiterated the need to apply biotechnology to genetically modify seeds for improved cultivation and harvests.
``If you look at the quantum of seeds that are required to meet food security challenges and if we stick to the conventional methods; the yield that we are getting now cannot satisfy the national demand.
``But if you really want to get the quantity of seeds that is required to meet extensive rice production, for instance, and attain food security, I think GMO is important,’’ he adds.
In Nigeria, however, the campaign for the adoption of transgenic seeds and crops in efforts to tackle food insecurity challenges is not very popular.
For instance, the Catholic Medical Association of Nigeria is at the forefront of the campaign against the adoption of GM foods in the country.
The association stressed that GM food would be injurious to Nigerians and it has called on President Jonathan not to give assent to the Bio-Safety Bill.
Its chairman, Dr Philip Njemanze, alleged that two American biotechnology agencies were the masterminds of the processes that led to the bill’s making.
The association warned the Federal Government to be cautious about plans to introduce GMOs in the country, adding that GM crops were widely rejected in Europe because of some uncertainties regarding their safety.
Such fears appear well-grounded, as Science Daily, a web-based science publication, recently reported that scientists had discovered a high contamination level of GM maize, using a new technology known as Bioluminescent Technology.
In its report of April 29, 2012, Science Daily quoted the scientists as saying: ``It is important to be able to monitor GM crops, not only in the field but also during the food processing chain.
``New research published in BioMed Central's open access journal BMC Biotechnology shows that products from GM crops can be identified at low concentration, using bioluminescent real time reporter (BART) technology and loop mediated isothermal amplification (LAMP).
``With the combination of these techniques, we were able to recognise 0.1 per cent GM contamination of maize, far below the current EU limit of 0.9 per cent.’’
Nevertheless, as part of efforts to create more public awareness on biotechnology applications in Nigeria, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), in collaboration with NABDA, recently sponsored a study tour of the U.S.
The study team included journalists, government officials, film makers and officials of the USDA and the U.S. Embassy in Nigeria.
Addressing members of the team, Prof. Kenneth Schneerberger of the University of Missouri said that GM foods were safe for human consumption.
The professor is the Programme Manager, Illinois-Missouri Biotechnology Alliance, College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources.
In an interview in Missouri, Schneerberger stressed that Americans had been consuming GM foods for more than 16 years without any report of health hazards.
He stressed that the obligation to ensure safety was given adequate consideration throughout the process of genetic engineering.
``I am very confident that GM foods are safe for U.S. citizens; we have about 15 years’ experience, we have not recorded any health problem or death arising from the consumption of GM foods; we even have people looking healthier.
``So, at this point, I have no hesitation in commenting that the GM foods are safe,’’ he said.
Schneerberger advised the Federal Government to allow Nigeria’s bio-safety laws to give room for research into GM foods.
Besides, Prof. Henry Nguyen, a professor of Genetics and Biotechnology at the University of Missouri, said that so far, reports about some health hazards associated with GM foods were mere speculations.
``GM foods are absolutely safe, there are no evidence of any harmful effect whatsoever in the production of transgenic soya beans and the food production system in the U.S and globally.
``There are no evidences of any harm, malnutrition or, in fact, any adverse effect on anything, in term of food safety. There are no safety concerns on GM foods whatsoever in the last 15 to 16 years.
``Obviously, biotechnology is just a tool; it is not the only tool that is available for the development of better seed varieties for the farmer.
``But biotechnology would definitely allow us get better seed varieties, better yield, greater pest resistance; it could have better drought tolerance that makes plants grow better and, in some cases, with better nutritional value,’’ Nguyen said.
Even American farmers were not left out in vouching for the value and safety of transgenic crops.
One of them, Mr Warren Stemme, advised Nigerian farmers to take advantage of the potential of genetically modified seeds to boost crop yield.
Stemme, the owner of 700-acre W. Stemme Farms, said that he had been using genetically modified seeds for over 15 years.
Experts are of the opinion that the Federal Government should embrace alternative means of cultivation to boost food production in Nigeria and reduce the country’s dependence on imported food.
Although President Jonathan has yet to sign the Bio-Safety Bill into law, cynics have continued to query the rationale behind the country’s intention to go into genetic modification of foods when it is blessed with vast lands suitable for conventional farming.
Advocates of GM foods, nonetheless, insist that the adoption of GMO technology remains the best option of boosting of food production in Nigeria, in line with current global practices.