It all began in 2004 when Nigeria signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with the United States government to support genetically modified crops after which a Biosafety Law was enacted in in April 2015. Since then the question has bordered on whether Genetically Modified Foods (GMFs) are good substitutes as claimed by some experts? If the GMFs are indeed a boost to crops, they why all the furore about it with several countries imposing a ban on their production? Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) are a fairly new form of biotechnology introduced to Nigeria. Not much is known about this form of genetic modification to the public. And while some developed countries have embraced this form of food production, several others have banned it because of the fear of its possible side effects. GMOs are organisms (i.e. plants, animals or microorganisms) in which the genetic material (DNA) has been altered in a way that does not occur naturally by mating and/or natural recombination. These organisms have been improved, or fortified, with additional traits by the use of genetic engineering. Genetic modification, genetic manipulation and genetic engineering all refer to the same thing – the use of modern biotechnology techniques to change the genes of an organism, such as a plant or animal.
In attempting to allay the fears about of GMOs, the Open Forum on Agricultural Biotechnology in Africa (OFAB) gave a response in one of its policy briefs, saying that “in real life nothing is absolutely safe but a degree of certainty is assured compared to other conventional breeding procedure. Yes, it is safe and the technology through which it was developed is highly regulated to ascertain the safety required by human and environment.” It also pointed out that genetic modification technology can be an important component in a broader food security strategy that ensures plentiful and affordable food around the world and requires every tool available in the toolbox, including putting good policies into action, better incomes for farmers, improved irrigation, and stable food prices, among many other factors. GM crops’ benefits, like higher yields on smaller areas of land, lower pesticide costs to farmers, and crops that grow better in local conditions, are very important in producing a food secure nation. Experts in the health sector have argued that natural foods are the best for healthy living as GMOs are experimental foods that can lead to health complications for humans later in life. As such, they could create more problems than they tend to solve. The argument sustaining this project are that the process would lift farmers from subsistence to commercial farming, that it helps to develop a variety of crops that repel insects, and that GMOs are not synthetic. It has also been said that it could help to prevent stunted growth in Nigeria, with the country once recording the highest rate of stunted growths. This unenviable record was linked to the lack of proper food fortification to supply the necessary nutrition for child growth and development in the country. However there are several other ways to prevent stunted growth than the GMO route.
The issue of GMOs today is still a very controversial topic in Nigeria. It is worth noting that in March 2015 the World Health Organisation (WHO) classified glyphosate, the key ingredient in herbicides and pesticides, as carcinogenic. In some developed countries like the United States, its government makes it mandatory for GMO products to be clearly labelled because not everyone approves of that method of growing food. That way, people are allowed to choose what to eat and farmers what to grow, whether natural or GMOs, without being manipulated or deceived.
The chemicals used for these genetic modifications are said to be highly toxic and destroy beneficial organisms in the soil, creating environmental challenges. The strongest argument by its proponents – that it boosts productivity – has been described as a myth. Experts insist that the cultivation of genetically modified cotton, for instance, had to be phased out in some countries in Africa due to the disastrous yields it gave. They also maintain that agricultural biotechnology poses peculiar risks as the nation is not prepared to handle the health, environmental and economic implications of GMOs. We are compelled to share the concerns of those in a position to know – that GMOs have not been fully studied or accepted in most developed countries. Consequently, the federal government should invest in more research on GMOs, while looking at alternative healthful ways to prevent stunted, especially by creating more awareness for healthy living in Nigeria.
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