Ebegba: Genetically modified organisms are safe for consumption
There are controversies over the adoption of genetic engineering or Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) in enhancing agriculture. Dr. Rufus Ebegba, Director-General, National Biosafety Management Agency (NBMA), allayed some of the fears being raised by the anti-GMOs in this interview with NKECHI ONYEDIKA-UGOEZE.
Can you explain what GMOs are all about?
Genetically Modified Organisms are products of modern biotechnology, which is a simple technique, whereby a favoured trait or characteristic of one organism is transferred into another organism, so that it can be expressed. For instance, Vitamin C could be moved from orange into yam or cassava.
This is achieved through a lab technique, whereby the material that gives orange the ability to produce Vitamin C is identified and moved to where that cassava or yam can retain the gene that gives it the ability to produce Vitamin C. The cassava or yam into which the new gene was transferred is now known as genetically modified cassava. The genetically modified crops now in the market, though not in Nigeria, such as BT corn (Bacillus Thuringiensis), which is a bacteria that has been around for years, and present in plants, is known not to cause any harm. Scientists have identified a particular gene in that bacterium and removed what makes it to have ability to kill some insects and then put it into the corn. So now, the corn has the ability to resist that particular insect. That corn has become genetically modified.
Scientists have been able to develop rice that has ability to use less water; less nitrogen and can also thrive where there is excess salt. Rice does not tolerate excess salt in the soil, but this particular one has been developed to have the ability to withstand drought and use less nitrogen, which means less chemical will be used for that rice.
The essence of GMO is to solve the problem that you cannot solve, using breeding conventional method. GMOs are not different from any other organisms, but their developments are more precise. Unlike other breeding methods, where you end up moving all the genes of one organism into another, that of modern biotechnology picks the only trait, which is the preferred material and moves it into another organism so that it can manifest. It is basically to solve specific problems you cannot solve, using conventional method of breeding. So, genetic engineering is a precise tool to solve problems, though it is not the only way that can be used to solve such problem, there are other conventional methods. But if these don’t work, a more advanced method, which is the modern biotechnology, a developmental process that does not produce synthetic material can be adopted. So, it is not true, when people say that GMOs are manufactured and are synthetic materials. They are not synthetic; they are natural crops. Some GMOs have been developed to tolerate herbicides.
Most of the things attributed to GMOs have not been scientifically proven. The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and World Health Organisation (WHO) have attested to the fact that GMOs are not different from other crops. When GMOs are developed, they are tested and risk assessments are conducted to check toxicity, to check whether the plant can cause allergy, the environmental impact, to check whether the nutritional value has been altered, as well as find out if the plant is still the same. For instance, if it is yam, does it still look like yam? Are the nutrients of the yam still the same? Once they are the same, it is confirmed safe. So, GMOs are tested, and they go through rigorous risk assessment before being allowed into the market.
There are allegations by some stakeholders that the Bill setting up your Agency was rushed and without their input…
In Nigeria’s case, the National Biosafety Management Act passed through rigorous legislative process. It took more than 13 years before we could achieve it i.e. from 2002 to 2015. Something that went through 13 years of legislative process cannot have been rushed. It went through two National Assembly sessions, which looked into the Bill before it became an Act. The 6th Assembly actually passed it in 2011, the two chambers concluded on it on the June 1 2011. By then, there was a new administration. So, before the President could settle down to look at it, the Bill elapsed.
So, it went back to the National Assembly in 2013, took the same process, public hearing was conducted and by March 2015, the two Chambers passed the Bill and the President assented to it on May 18 2015. One cannot say the two legislative sessions, the 6th and 7th Assembly are wrong. Some people alleged that the Act does not contain precautionary principles, but precautionary principle is not legal in term, as it is a way to say stop, when you feel that it is not safe. But the Act itself is the precaution Nigerian government has taken. Aside the law, they also have an agency implementing the law and even the way the law is made. It is not one single body making the decision; there are various institutional arrangements, as well as various individual involvements, before a decision on GMOs can be taken.
There is a liability and redress clause, which will applies on the event that any GMO causes harm to the environment or to anybody. The Act further averred that regulations would be made, while also clearly prescribing labeling regime. This Act has been adjudged internationally as one of the best in Africa.
How true is the assertion that GMOs are harmful to human health?
People have the right to express fears and concerns, but these are not verifiable and don’t have scientific bases. This technology is science-based and the regulation is also science-based. This is aside the socio-economic consideration taken into account, when doing any application or processing any GMO for approval.
So, people creating fears about GMOs are not patriotic enough. They should approach our agency and express their concerns legitimately, rather than dwelling on misinformation. The WHO, FAO and the food safety arm of these two bodies known as Codex Alimentarius Commission have confirmed the safety of GMOs. We at the National Biosafety Commission will scrutinise and ensure that no unsafe genetically modified organisms enter the Nigerian market.
Nigerians need not panic. There are presently no GMOs in the country officially. We are carrying out a survey to find out if there are GMOs unofficially or not, and if there are, we will take the necessary steps to ensure that the law applies. People have been saying that the bananas, apples, mangoes and watermelons being sold all over the place are genetically modified, but they are not. These were done through normal breeding techniques.
A lot of research institutes do these through normal breeding method. Some people allege that GMOs destroy the soil. I don’t know how a GMO that is done to produce Vitamin A will cause harm to the soil. So, most of these claims have no scientific basis. The chicken you have in the market are not genetically modified, they are crossbred through normal reproductive method. Genetic engineering is precise; you just take one or two genes. Nigerians should not panic, as most of the food we have in the market are certified by the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC).
How many organisations or companies are into GMOs in Nigeria and how does your agency monitor to ensure that standards are not compromised?
So far, we have some research institutes in the country that have been accredited to carry out modern biotechnology activities. We have the National Cereal Research Institute, National Root Crop Research Institute, the Federal University of Agriculture Akure and the National Biosafety Management Agency. These institutions are seriously monitored. Before they start work on any GMO, they have to notify the agency. The only company we licensed of recent is the Musanto Agriculture Nigeria Ltd., which applied for permit for confined field trial and also for commercial release.
The one for experimental field may take the next five years before they come into the market. The companies have to apply for commercial release, which still has to go through the Vital Release Committee and that may not come into the market in the next two years. For every institution that deals in genetic engineering, we have a committee that work closely with the agency to ensure institutional compliance to all Biosafety requirements. We also do inspection of those facilities. We assure Nigerian that nothing would be left undone to ensure we have a good Biosafety regime in the country.
How many GMO trials have been conducted so far in the country?
Before the establishment of our agency, under the Biosafety unit at the Federal Ministry of Environment, we carried out some confined field trials. One was for the availability of Vitamin A and for increase on iron content … African Mosaic Virus. They have concluded those four experiments and they have collated the data.
These are experiments, they could be successful and they may not be. They are basically to test the efficacy of the modification to see whether what was put in there was sustained. If it is confirmed that the gene is still there, the performance will now be different. The Institute for Agriculture Research was into Moroka cowpea, this virus that eats up the flower and beans over the years, leading to over 90 percent loss of the beans. We have been able to discover a gene that would put an end to that. That is the most successful field trial, and has left the preliminary stage. We have another one called African Bio fortified Sorghum. Guinea corn has certain nutrients that have not been made available for the use of man or animal. GMOs are for different purposes and different genes are used to achieve a purpose. The essence of every GMO is to make some profit.
Do GMOs increase yield and why is government going ahead with the adoption of GMO, in spite of the public outcry?
There are ones that can be developed to encourage increase in size. There is a fish that has been developed for increase in size, but it is not in Nigeria. There are others that were developed to solve specific problem, such as insect infestation and disease control. When this is done, less will be spent on the use of chemicals and you know the impact of chemicals on the environment, which is causing ozone layer depletion, green house gases that leads to climate change and other problems.
Most of GMOs are not to increase the size of crops, but because of the disease affecting these crops, which make them unable to perform optimally. When you are able to bring down the pressure of the disease or pest, you discover that the plant will perform optimally.
Government will not embark on anything that will not be beneficial to the people. There is massive economic benefit from the technology. We have about 15 Agric research institutes in this country and some federal universities of agriculture, Agric research council and National Biotechnology Development Agency. Government has invested so much in all these institutions and agencies. If government did not find anything useful in this technology, these institutions would not have gone into all these research.
Biotechnology is not just about agriculture alone; raw materials could also be developed to drive the industrial sector. It can also be applied in the medical field, even though we don’t regulate those ones, NAFDAC does that. Most of the potent drugs we have, which go into the mainstream of humans are genetically derived, such as the insulin, which is derived from the pancreas of pig. If anybody is suffering from diabetes, he/she cannot be cured without the biotechnology method that has been used to increase the insulin. You will end up killing about 20 or more pigs before you can get enough insulin to treat the person.
So, there are very good ways this technology can be applied, but why we are here as an agency is to avert the use of this technology in a dangerous way that will harm humans or the environment. Biotechnology can be used in the health, agriculture and environment sectors for sustainable development. Presently, there is a research going on to develop organisms that can mop up oil spill and bio-degrade some materials, which under normal circumstance cannot be degraded. Let Nigerians look at the good aspect of the technology and apply it.
Recently, about 110 Nobel Laureates said the anti-GMOs should not mislead the world, that they should let the world use the technology to enhance the wellbeing of mankind. If GMOs are as bad as people make them to be, the world will not keep quiet, UN will not keep quiet.