Rose Gidado is the Scientific Officer and Assistant Director of the National Biotechnology Development Agency (NABDA). She is also the country coordinator of the Open Forum on Agricultural Biotechnology (OFAB) in Africa.
GM foods have been heavily criticised for their long term health effects and other demerits. However, in this interview with PREMIUM TIMES' Ebuka Onyeji, Mrs Gidado speaks on the safety of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) for agriculture in Nigeria. She responded to many health related issues and defects attributed to the consumption of GM foods. She also explained the importance of GMO technology to the country's agricultural system.
PT: What are GMOs?
Gidado: GMOs are those organisms, plants, animals and micro-organisms that have had their DNAs improved. Their DNAs have been altered in such a way that a trait is imputed into it. For instance, in the case of plants, there could be a trait you want your plant to have, like a pest resistant trait or a trait for nutritional enhancement. In the case of animals maybe you want your cow to produce a lot of milk or you want it for beef and then in the case of humans you can also use this technology to do gene therapy, you can either edit genes that can make you prone to certain ailments, you use it to treat and eliminate cancer from a human system. You can use it to eliminate sickle cell disease which is a debilitating disease that cause a lot of pains in children.
So you can see that GMO technology is not just a technology for agriculture, it can also be applied in other areas of the economy, environment, agriculture, medicine, industry and all. Why there is much noise about it in agriculture and the food system is because agriculture has to do with food and that's where people have concern. But it's actually for an improved yield, nutritional content of food and for agribusiness. GMO is a technology meant to play a complimentary role to the conventional natural farming system. It is not meant to over take the normal technology. Any challenge we have that can be solved using natural and conventional ways, there is no need of applying GMOs there. But there are some challenges that can not be solved through the traditional means, that is why we use GMOs. there is a lot of low level of knowledge about GMOs in the society that is why we misunderstand the concept.
PT: How safe are GMO foods for human consumption?
Gidado: GM foods or products are very very safe because they have history of safe use in developed countries where the technology is being adopted. It is well used in U.S., Canada, Brazil, India, Argentina, South Africa, Sudan among other countries. GM products are highly scrutinised. I can say they are even safer than our conventional foods that are not regulated. The scientists that invented this technology are responsible people because they know that they are picking a trait from an unrelated specie of crop, lets say from Sorghum and putting that trait into maize. Sorghum, every one knows, is a draught tolerant crop and maize is a rain fed crop and in Nigeria, it is not every where you can plant maize. In northern Nigerian there are places you have only three months of rain, like Maidugri we have places which is more like a desert. So if I want to plant maize in Maidugri, I will pick that gene in sorghum responsible for making it withstand draught then put it in the maize. So after the insertion, the new gene will get accepted in the host crop that is the maize and it will now express itself. But I might be afraid because they are not fully (same), so I have to watch it to make sure it gets accepted and expresses its self fully. I will now regenerate it into a plant and it comes up and grows, then the next thing is for me to subject it to different test analysis and as am doing this toxic chemical and nutritional analysis, I have to be sure that this new crop I came out with is substantially equivalent to the parent. I now have a new GMO maize but I have to subject this new maize to a comparative analysis with my traditional maize to determine If what I have done is with good intentions so that people in Maidugri will be able to have and plant maize without having to worry about draught and there will be food security. So I now have to go back to the lab, engage in field trials, plant the both side by side, check how they are growing, if it is forming a new thing or has; if it brought in a new gene based on the history of safe use of my traditional maize. I also have to study the agronomy. When the seed is ripped I still have to take it to the lab, crush it and do proximate analysis to check if it gives me what the normal maize contains. If my traditional maize does not have allergens, then my expectation of my new maize is that it will not have allergens. I expect to see the same results as it is in the normal maize. These safety testing of the GMO products itself are being progressively developed by international bodies responsible for food safety systems like the World Health Organization (WHO), Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) among others. These products also undergo a lot of rigorous safety test procedure here in Nigeria.
PT: Many research suggest that GMOs still have long term effect on consumers, what is your take on this? Has there been research on the long term effect of GMOs?
Gidado: As far as am concerned, the safety of GMO foods is assured. As for the question of long term effect, the truth is that people come up with fake publications just to undo the technology. Some of these write ups you see are politically motivated. We have agro-allied industries that this technology does not promote the sale of their product because if I develop my crop to be insect resistance, there will be no need to patronize agro-allied companies to protect my crops against insects and this is not going down well with these companies. Some of them are based in Europe. The concept of the technology goes against their own business, so they have to also put on a lot to fight the technology. GMO is an ongoing research, it does not stop, the scientists are aware; they are conscious that sometimes consequences and side effects don't show on time just like the antibiotics you take. When our bodies develop resistance to the them, the pharmaceutical industries will develop new ones and it has been happening over the years so its the same thing here. Studies are still ongoing but for now nothing yet. We don't know the long term side effect of eating GMO foods, but there is a lot of ongoing research on that. Bodies like WHO and FAO are on it. There is also no proof yet on the long term effect, so whoever comes up with anything, it has to be verifiable and there is no verifiable proof that GM foods has endangered any live as of now. I can not allude to that.
PT: Do you think GMO food is better than the organic food and why is a lot of money spent on GMO instead of investing in organic agriculture?
Gidado: If you ask me, GM seeds are better in terms of planting, yield and consumption because they have been improved. Some traits have been put in it to resist diseases and infestation. Insect infestation alone can make a farmer loose every thing he planted. Have you seen farmers suffering, even the weather can be cruel on them. When they spray chemicals to tackle infestation before you know it rain will fall and wash it away so how much does the farmer have to keep buying chemicals and look at the labour intensiveness. The seed that has not been protected against this insects will be finished off and after that you are nothing. So, GM seeds are much better. GMO is just a tool and not a system. It is meant to improve the farming system and farming is all about harvest-able yields, if there is no yield then forget it. Currently we are even building our own capacity and system here in Nigeria, GM seeds are given to farmers. In the future we are planning to do our own gene construction, get our own genes here and develop our own ingenious crops. It's not like bringing in transgenic crops.
PT: How can GM seeds help Nigerian farmers to improve yield, quality of food and boost his sales and profit?
Gidado: If the farmer has the GM seed protected against the fall army worm, he plants it; and there is no infestation, he will have good harvest. Because a seed that has no protection against army worm once you plant it will be finished by the worm. But for the GM seeds you are sure that your seeds will do well and come out healthy. you are going to have a very strong harvest and strong yield. your crops will not be affected and that is profit for you as the farmer.
PT: What is the economic implication of bringing in GM into the food system?
Gidado: In terms of agriculture it will help us in doing business, in transiting from subsistent farming that the farmers have been enslaved, to business farming as we are diversifying to agriculture. For the BT cow-pea that has been developed, and we are marching towards commercialisation, we will have very huge harvest and the profit from that and the yield increase is about 22 per cent. We will make and realise N48 billion from it annually. The gene of that BT cow-pea was transferred into our own local gene variety and the farmers preferred beans. This has been tested and the farmers we interacted with said the BT cow-pea was planted in same time with normal cow-pea but the BT cow-pea matured earlier, so that is the advantage. Before, in the 1960s, output from agriculture used to be 65 per cent, but now its one per cent. So where are going? And our population is increasing, we have natural challenge like desert encroachment in the North, gully erosion in the east, oil spillage south and flooding in the north. How do we make our lands arable? We need this technology so we can improve our agriculture. We can use this technology and develop micro-organisms to mop up the oil spillage in the south and make the lands arable. With GM technology you can plant on less land with less water and much harvest and then much yield.
PT: Won't GMO seeds pose a threat to the normal seeds, bringing about monopoly to the food system of the country?
Gidado: Who does not like better thing, we all want to make money. lLke i said earlier, the technology will not take over the conventional but its just here to take care of those challenges with the farming system, and then there will be no more monopoly if GMO seeds are applied. Agriculture was started long time ago and with time things have improved. Before, maize used to be like a grass but today it is what it is because of evolution. Before cars came we had bicycles and even after cars we now have aeroplane but we are yet to abandon the use of bicycle so that is how it is. You can still use the normal conventional way. GM doest make you abandon the old ways. So if farmers want to continue, it's their choice. We don't force it on people. It's a matter of what you want, it's a matter of choice. its' a win-win situation. The companies developing this technology spend huge sum of money on them, the farmers don't have the empowerment top save seeds, the temperature affects the yield of farmers. But these seeds companies have the facilities to store the seeds.
PT: Has Nigeria fully Adopted GMOs?
Rose: I can say we have because Nigeria has put in two agencies, the National Biosafety Management Development Agency which is the agency that promotes, coordinates and does policy formulation on GMOs, research and development and awareness creation. We also have the National Biosafety Management Agency NBMA who regulates. So, yes authoritatively we have fully adopted GMOs. The biosafety bill was developed and taking to the National Assembly and signed in to law. So can we now say have we not?
PT: Was there enough awareness on this acceptance of GMO for common Nigerians to give their opinion and choose what they feed on before adopting GMOs?
Gidado: There is a fair chance for Nigerians to give their take on GMOs. We have been doing awareness since 2009. NABDA was created in 2001 and in 2009 OFAB was launched as a project that houses the awareness. It's an awareness outfit on GM technology to address the concerns of the general public, scientific bodies, religious bodies traditional bodies and the rest because policy makers and Nigerians are being fed with contradictory news and information about GMOs. They are fed with bias information, the technology is being misunderstood, scientific facts are being recreated, there is a lot of ignorance and low level of knowledge about GMOs. There is an information gap and OFAB is here to provide factual, scientific information by engaging the general public and policy makers through workshops, seminars, one on one engagements. Through TV programs, radio, social media among others. But you know Nigeria is very large and you cant cover enough. We are still looking for more funds to immerse it but we have gone to the nukes and crannies. We have covered the six geopolitical zones, we have interacted with farmers, CSOs and the rest. But we still need to cover more.
PT: How would you rate the awareness level so far?
Gidado: I will give it 30 per cent coverage. and we're still moving higher to tell you that there is more to do.
PT: There have been field trials of GMO cassava in the country recently which has been criticised. Won't it cause environmental hazards?
Gidado: there no side effect in that because there is use of less chemical, it's safe.
PT: Last month you reaffirmed government's plan of introducing BT cotton and cow-pea this year, can you briefly explain how that will be done?
Gidado: Its still undergoing processing. It has to comply with all the regulatory systems in the country first. They have to make submissions which will be subjected to series of regulation to make sure its in tandem with the NAFDAC laws and other regulators. So after that, we take the final decision before commercialisation. It will take some time.
PT: Any other thing you want the public to know about GMOs?
Gidado: The general public should have confidence in our system, we just want to enhance food security in Nigeria. The technology is not to take us back but forward, it will contribute a lot to our food and farming system. We are not saying its a panacea but it can help a lot, so people can have choice.