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Science, Food and the Public Interest

Should science not be to the advantage of society? Does science always serve the public interest? Nnimmo Bassey, director of Health of Mother Earth Foundation (HOMEF) posed these questions in his opening words at the media training organized in Abuja recently. The answers to these questions are obvious. The training session went ahead to question whether science was being used in the public’s interest in matters of food safety in Nigeria.

The training featured top electronic, print and online media personnel in Abuja and Lagos and was focused on the issues of biosafety and the challenge of agricultural modern biotechnology.

GMOs, or “genetically modified organisms,” are organisms (plants or animals) created through the gene splicing techniques of modern biotechnology to possess certain characteristics that they do not naturally have. Such characteristics include the ability to withstand herbicides and also of making the organisms become pesticides.

The training sought to present facts that would help erase the tonnes of misleading information circulating about genetically modified organisms.

In his presentation, Gbadebo Rhodes-Vivour, who is a Public Policy Expert and the Convener of Nigerians against GMO, said that problems started when the lines between public good and commercial interest became blurred, stressing that the scientists who should engage in proper research to ascertain and enlighten the public on the risks associated with GMOs were largely serving corporate interests, just as was the case when medical doctors were co-opted to present cigarettes as safe and promoted smoking. He also stated that even in the USA there is a dispute as to who has the ultimate responsibility of ensuring food safety. The question sometimes gets tossed between regulatory agencies in the USA and the manufacturers of GMOs.

According to Ify Aniebo, a molecular geneticist from Oxford University, the very process of gene transfer creates lots of problems as scientists do not have absolute control over the movement of such genes. These new genes can disrupt the functioning of other genes and create novel proteins that have never been in the food supply and could create toxins and allergens in foods.

Whereas the impact of eating GMOs may take years to manifest, the best tests that biotech companies such as Monsanto have conducted have been on rats for a mere 90 days. Tests done by independent scientist such as Professor Gilles-Eric Seralini over a two-year period, using same parameters as Monsanto, have shown sever impacts on the health of the laboratory rats. The rats fed GM potatoes were seen to have smaller livers, hearts, testicles and brains and damaged immune systems. They were more vulnerable to infection and disease compared to other rats fed non-GMO potatoes. Stomach and intestines cells proliferation was also observed and this could be a sign of greater future risk of cancer.

Another speaker at this training Jackie Ikotuonye-Offiah who is a botanist and Country Representative for Bio-integrity and Natural Food Awareness Initiative explained that GMOs actually increase the use of pesticides and herbicides instead of reducing them.

She cited a report by agronomist, Dr Charles Benbrook, that showed that GM herbicide-tolerant crops led to a 239 million kilogram (527 million pound) increase in herbicide use in the United States between 1996 and 2011. Apart from contaminating soils and making them unproductive for non-GM crops, the herbicides do also wash or seep into water bodies making them harmful for both aquatic species, animals and humans.

Should we embrace a harmful technology just because it is available?

Mariann Bassey Orovwuje, a Lawyer as well as an environmental and food rights advocate, spoke on the Nigerian Biosafety Management Act, 2015. She stated that this Act which is supposed to provide the regulatory framework, institutional and administrative mechanisms for safety measures in the application of modern biotechnology in Nigeria is flawed and incapable of protecting the people from the adverse impacts of GMOs on human health, animals, plants and environment.

She stressed that the Act rather than being a strict regulatory tool is rather a permitting instrument and does not make public participation obligatory when applications to introduce GMOs are being considered. Farmer and consumer organisations are not represented on the Governing Board, instead the Board has GMO promoters and vested interests on it. The Act has no provision for mandatory labelling which leaves the public with no choice in an issue as important as the food they eat.

 

What is to be done?

 

It was a full day of robust presentations, debates and networking. At the end of the discussions, the following are the conclusions were reached:

·     The Nigerian Government needs to support our research institutions, invest in rigorous and independent scientific research that puts the health and welfare of Nigerian citizens first.

·     Our agricultural system should be developed including by providing more extension services, food processing facilities and rural infrastructure to ensure that foods get from the farms to the markets.

·     Our food and environment must be protected.

·     The Nigerian government should revoke the permits to Monsanto and partners

·     The National Biosafety Management Act 2015 should be urgently reviewed or repealed.

It was also agreed that the media has an enormous responsibility to inform the public about issues that fundamentally affect their safety – especially with regard to the sort of food or things that we eat. Nigerians can feed Nigerians. Genetic modification is not the silver bullet that would solve Nigerian or African food problems because the biotech corporations are only driven by their profit objectives. Our farmers have the solution.

 

Written by By Joyce Ebebeinwe, Project Officer, HOMEF