Health  

Addressing GMOs’ promise, problems


*NABDA, AATF refute link with ill-health, seek media’s help in educating Nigerians about benefits of biotechnology
The debate over the promise and problems of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO) has continued to rage.

GMO has become a controversial topic as its benefits for both food producers and consumers are companied by potential biomedical risks and environmental side effects. Increasing concerns from the public about GMO, particularly in the form of genetic modified (GM) foods, are aimed at the short- and long-lasting health problems that may result from this advanced biotechnology. Complex studies are being carried out around the world independently to evaluate the advantages and disadvantages of GM foods.

The debates over GM foods focus mostly on uncertainties concerning the potential adverse effects of GM foods on human health and environmental safety. The anxiety among consumers can be attributed to four sources: the difficulty of the scientific community in explaining concisely to the lay public the biological techniques involved; concerns about the improper dissemination of GM foods; and the ethical principles inherent in traditional food processing; the misgivings with regards to the adequacy of evaluation of the GM foods.

Three major health risks potentially associated with GM foods are: toxicity, allergenicity and genetic hazards. These arise from three potential sources, the inserted gene and their expressed proteins per se, secondary or pleiotropic effects of the products of gene expression, and the possible disruption of natural genes in the manipulated organism.

For one thing, the unequivocal declaration that all GM crops are safe flies in the face of the World Health Organization’s (WHO’s) assertion that “it is not possible to make general statements on the safety of all GM foods.” As the WHO noted, because “different GM organisms include different genes inserted in different ways” it is necessary to assess them “on a case-by-case basis.”

To domesticate and address the concerns about the safety of GMOs, the Federal Government has established the National Biotechnology Development Agency (NABDA) under the Federal Ministry of Science and Technology (FMST) and the National Biosafety Management Agency (NBMA).

The NBMA was established by the National Biosafety Management Agency Act 2015, to provide regulatory framework to adequately safe guard human health and the environment from potential adverse effects of modern biotechnology and genetically modified organisms, while harnessing the potentials of modern biotechnology and its derivatives, for the benefit of Nigerians.

Assistant Director/Country Coordinator, Open Forum on Agriculture Biotechnology in Africa (OFAB) Nigeria Chapter, Dr. Rose Maxwell Gidado, told The Guardian unequivocally: “The WHO has given the final verdict that ‘no effects on human health have been shown as a result of the consumption of GM foods by the general population in the countries where they have been approved.’”

Gidado during a courtesy visit to The Guardian, in company of the Regional Director, African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF) Abuja, West Africa, Dr. Abdou Rhamane Issoufou Kollo, concluded: “Any quest to prove beyond doubt that GMOs are safe will run into the same roadblock, as nothing can be proven 100 per cent safe. More than 2,000 studies and 20 plus years of consumption by humans and animals have produced no evidence that GMOs represent an unusual health risk. Every major health and regulatory body in the world agrees. Critics are left holding out the argument that there is unknown threats lurking in the shadows of our future.”

AATF is a not-for-profit organisation that facilitates and promotes public/private partnerships for the access and delivery of appropriate agricultural technologies for sustainable use by smallholder farmers in Sub Saharan Africa (SSA) through innovative partnerships and effective stewardship along the entire value chain.

Kollo told The Guardian: “In Africa, resistance to GMO crops is strong. Organized groups supported by Europeans’ Non Governmental Organisations (NGOs) mostly cause it. These groups appear very dynamic. Excited by two recent contradictory events about GM crops in West Africa – the decision of the Government of Burkina Faso to stop growing Bt-cotton; and the decision of the Nigerian Government to authorize its cropping- the Anti-GMO proponents became hyperactive; they have been organizing concerts, radio talk shows, workshops and conferences. Their methods consist of creating confusion about GMOs and scaring the uninformed public of the supposed dangers of GM crops. Thus, mineral fertilizers, pesticides, hybrids and GMOs are often lumped together. It is appears that some of the anti-GMO proponents are organic farming crusaders who want to impose their views on the society.”

Gidado and Kollo urged the media to help in educating the public of the benefits of biotechnology to the country and Africa.

Gidado said the agency’s mandate is to ensure adequate level of protection in the field of safe transfer, handling and use of GMOs resulting from modern biotechnology that may have adverse effects on conservation. She said that there is going to be direct and indirect employment and production of high quality materials for industries regarding the emergence of NBDA in the country.

Gidado said that modern biotechnology as a term adopted by international convention to refer to biotechnological techniques for the manipulation of genetic material and the fusion of cells beyond normal breeding barriers.

“Biotechnology will ensure sustainable use of biodiversity, taking into account risks to human health, animals, plants and environment.”

However, there has indeed been evidence of GMOs link to ill effects, and many studies published in peer-reviewed journals have detected ill effects to the animals that consumed a GM crop. For instance, a systematic review of the toxicological studies on GM foods that was published in 2009 concluded that the results of “most” of them indicate that the products “may cause hepatic, pancreatic, renal, and reproductive effects and may alter hematological, biochemical, and immunologic parameters the significance of which remains unknown.” It also noted that further studies were clearly needed. Another review that encompassed the additional studies that had been published up until August 2010 also provided cause for caution. It concluded that there was “equilibrium” between the research groups “suggesting” that GM crops are as safe as their non-GM counterparts and “those raising still serious concerns.”

Between 2008 and 2014 there have been eight such reviews published in standard journals, and as a whole, they provide no grounds for unequivocally proclaiming safety. As Sheldon Krimsky, a professor at Tufts University, United States (U.S.), observed in a comprehensive examination that was also published in a peer-reviewed journal: “One cannot read these systematic reviews and conclude that the science on health effects of GMOs has been resolved within the scientific community.”

But Gidado said: “In the three decades since the introduction of GMO crops, there have been more than 2,000 studies evaluating health and environmental aspects of genetically engineered products. The vast majority of studies have found nothing to indicate that GM foods represent a health threat. The consensus among scientists is that gene altered crops offer no more risk than those developed through conventional breeding techniques.

“More than 275 independent science organizations from around the world have concluded that foods grown from genetically engineered seeds pose no unique health concerns.”

She said more 110 Nobel laureates issued a joint communique in June 2012, stating: “Scientific and regulatory agencies around the world have repeatedly and consistently found crops and foods improved through biotechnology to be as safe as, if not safer than those derived from any other method of production.”

According to Gidado, after a two-year evaluation, in the most comprehensive evaluation of GM crops ever undertaken, the US National Academy of Sciences concluded that genetically engineered crops have not caused increases in cancer, obesity, gastrointestinal illnesses, kidney disease, autism or allergies: there are “no differences that would implicate a higher risk to human health from eating GE foods than from eating their non-GE counterparts.”

Gidado and Kollo dismissed a long-term study that yielded disturbing results. In it, a team of university researchers led by Gilles-Eric Séralini demonstrated that a GM crop approved by regulators based on a medium-term, 90-day toxicological feeding study caused significant damage to the rats’ livers and kidneys when tested over the long-term (two years).

Those results cast doubt on the entire GM food venture because no regulators require tests greater than 90 days, and several GM crops have entered the market without any toxicological testing at all.

So when the study was published in a respected journal in 2012, proponents of GM crops bitterly denounced it and demanded its retraction. But because it was a solid toxicological study, they could not attack it on that ground. So they focused on the part of the study that reported an increased rate of tumour development in the GM-fed rats, and they argued that too few animals had been used to meet the standards for a carcinogenicity study.

However, they disregarded several crucial facts:
(1) The research was not designed to meet the standards of a carcinogenicity study.
(2) It did fulfill the standards for a toxicological study.
(3) The troubling toxicological results were reliable.
(4) Tumours are supposed to be reported when detected during a toxicological study.

Nonetheless, despite the weakness of their claims, they continued to pressure the journal until, more than a year after publication — and after the addition of a former Monsanto employee to the editorial board — the study was finally retracted. But not only did the chief editor acknowledge the adequacy of the toxicological findings, the lone reason he proffered for rejecting the tumour-related findings was that they were “inconclusive,” which is not a valid reason for retraction. Furthermore, according to standard guidelines, even if there had been good grounds for retracting that part of the study, the remainder should not have been withdrawn along with it.

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