Facts, fallacies of genetically modified crops
In the article entitled “Dangers of Genetically Modified Crops to Nigeria”, Part 1; published in The Guardian Newspaper on the March 22, 2016, the authors expressed sheer ignorance on the issue. First, the authors’ understanding of GM crops to mean invasive scientific manipulation of plant or animal genes at molecular level to withstand unhealthy doses of pesticides is not correct. But it is correct to say that the genes are sourced from bacteria or any biological source depending on desirability. Such genes can be inserted into plants, animals and/or microbes with the view to improving or enhancing them for a particular purpose. Some of these purposes in the case of plants may be to cope with adversities such as drought or even flood incident, resistance to pests, faster growth, acquiring traits such as seed colour for attraction, seed size for industries, biofortification among others.
According to them the Bt gene inserted into crops is to allow them withstand the lethal doses of the pesticides at the detriment of soil health, pollution, etc. This is where they get it wrong! The Bt gene is obtained from a bacteria named Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt). This bacterium along with closely related species, Paenibacillus popilliae, Bacillus lentimorbus, etc. has the ability to use its genetic machinery to produce a protein product that has a selective toxicity on insect larva only. In this way, the development of life cycle is disrupted. By the time the gene responsible for this protein is inserted into crops and expressed, it rather gives them inherent ability to resist those insect pests. This, therefore drastically reduces the need for pesticide application of whatever, type. This is unlike the authors’ assertion that the Bt gene inserted into crops is to allow them withstand the lethal doses of the pesticides at the detriment of soil health, pollution, etc. Notably, neither the bacteria nor the gene product are harmful to man or other biota. The specificity of the protein is on insect larva only. Another way of killing the insect larvae is when the larvae feed on bacterial spores that are sprayed as Biopesticides. These spores germinates or sporulate in the larval gut and the vegetative cells so formed penetrate into the haemocoel. This results in larval death. These biopesticides are wonderful pest control agents and do not require additional pesticide application. In this way glyphosate application may not be necessary or can be minimal even in pest endemic farms. This discountenance the insinuation that it is carcinogenic, etc. More so, even the most harmless substance – water – can be toxic, it all depends on the amount taken. The issue as to whether, a substance can be harmful to humans or other organisms depends on two factors; how toxic a substance is, and how much of it an organism is exposed to.
On the claim that farmers in Burkina Faso are not selling their products, the authors need to pay visit to that small country and see things for themselves. It is not good to negatively report the economic fortunes of Bt cotton in Burkina Faso which is considered the pride of Africa in terms of their ability to champion the application of modern Biotechnology in cotton farming. Comparison between farms where Bt cotton and the traditional variety are grown make it glaringly clear that the Bt cotton thrive more than its counterpart in a challenging environment of harsh weather and pest infestation.
In Burkina Faso, there exists a value chain where cotton farmers have ready buyers; an established cotton company located within Ouagadougou. This company buys all the cotton produced by farmers and supplies textile companies within and outside on agreed terms. The farmers are happy at all times with this arrangement and encouraged to produce more.
On the fear that when a GM crop is planted, pollen drift might cause contamination of natural varieties. The issue is, there exist protocols on development and deployment of GMOs. Once a GMO is developed, confined field cropping is conducted first under strict regulation. One of the regulatory conditions is that cropping should be done 9-10km away from the traditional farm. Once the agronomic performance of the GM crop is ascertained and no adverse environmental effect is noticed, then it is advocated. In Nigeria, a number of such trials are undertaken for cowpea and cassava under vigilance from NBMA. In a trial led by an erudite Professor Ishaku of ABU, Zaria, the team was able to obtain reliable data on resistance of GM cowpea to Maruca – a common insect pest of cowpea that compromises yield. The beauty of this is that if this resistant variety is planted with the susceptible variety, chances are that this beneficial trait can be acquired and in the long run, bumper harvest is ensured. Is this a contamination or improvement?
Those that call it contamination should know that the world is that of hybridisation. With or without intended genetic modification, it happens in nature. For example, no individual is exactly pure in terms of genetic composition. This is the reason why none of us can exactly be 100% like the father or the mother. More so, this is what accounts for generational change experienced today. Thus, intended insertion of genes into crops, animals or microbes is for improvement or enhancement of a particular trait and for a purpose too. It is a more refined way of achieving crop varieties, fattened cattle for milk and meat, broiler chicken, super bugs, etc. It is a responsible Biotechnology that is purely scientific and an advancement of the traditional breeding practised some decades back for obtaining improved varieties of mango, maize and indeed other crops.
With the challenges facing Nigeria today especially in areas of food insecurity, pollution and joblessness, we have to change from traditional way of doing things. We have to take advantage of this emerging technology –modern Biotechnology – to ensure both availabilty and affordability of foods in Nigeria and beyond. We should not be discouraged by the few who are ignorant of the huge benefits of this technology. Spurious claims are in the air that GM foods can be allergenic, carcinogenic etc. But it is good to remember that the chemical compositions of food crops is a function of the environment (soil type) where they are grown rather than the gene modification alone. If anybody wants to establish whether or not GM foods are harmful, it is better to use a scientific approach of food analyses. As a matter of fact for any GM food and non GM food grown in the same environment and under same conditions too, the principle of substantial equivalence can be used to ascertain significant compositional differences between the two. This must be done in a systematized way devoid of any bias. Acute toxicity studies should also be conducted using defined and shortest exposure periods possible. Chronic studies that last long cannot be used as a basis of condemning GMOs as there are certain factors such as physiology and aging which cannot be controlled. Whatever arise due to these factors, therefore, cannot be used to make assertions and generalisations.
The sure way of getting Nigeria out of the brink of joblessness, economic hardship, technological backwardness and food insecurity is the adoption of modern Biotechnology. This can lead to a kind of intellectual revolution of the economic sectors of the country. For example, as mentioned earlier, GM crops are possible with a particular trait that promotes yield, GM animals are possible with enhanced milk, egg and meat production, GM microbes with enhanced capacity in pollution control, food and drug-manufacturing, etc.
• Dr. M.B. Yerima, FNSM is President, Biotechnology Society of Nigeria