Nigeria: Concerns in agricultural biotechnology

Source: Professor E. Efiom Ene-Obong

The last few weeks have seen several write-ups on the pages of newspapers in Nigeria about genetically modified crops (GMCs), food (GMF) and other products (GMPs). These are in reaction to the recent briefing by the Minister of Agriculture, Dr Akinwumi Adesina, on regulating the use of genetically modified crops and products in the country. In the Guardian Newspaper of Tuesday, May 20, 2014, Gbadebo Rhodes – Vivour, a Massachusseetts Institute of Technology-trained (MIT) architect, writing under the title, “GMO/hybrid seeds: Inviting cancer to our land, passing a death sentence on Nigerians,” gave a completely wrong and unscientific analysis on genetically modified products. The author completely lacks knowledge on the issues he discussed. For example, he referred to two methods used by scientists to modify genes, “one is marker assisted: A specific gene is spliced and bred with the same organism such as tomato. The other method is transgenesis, during which genes from another organism, such as bacteria, are moved into the genes of corn.” He went further to frighten Nigerians on the work of Monsanto and the fate of Bt cotton in India. The author is also part of a Facebook group, Nigerians against GMO, also giving wrong information on GM products. Incidentally, many such cells are funded by pressure groups out of fears, ethical, social and religious reasons. Two days earlier, in the Nation on Sunday, of May 18, 2014, this topic was reviewed by Joe Agbor Jr.

Such attacks on genetically- engineered products are not new and are even welcomed by scientists in the area, since every new technology in the past (e.g. discovery of electricity, space research etc.) had faced similar condemnations by the unknowing public. Unfortunately, however, these negative reports are not scientific, and are made by individuals who lack true knowledge of the science involved.

Dr Rhodes -Vivour's reference to two methods used by scientists to modify genes is wrong as the author does not know the meaning of markers, whether phenotypic or genetic. Marker- assisted breeding is used by breeders who use both conventional and biotechnological strategies for the improvement of plants and animals. Transgenesis simply means gene transfer and it is true that genetic markers, like antibiotics resistance genes are used for identifying successful incorporation of transferred desirable genes in a recipients' genomes.

Concerns in genetically modified crops products have been on for many years and were detailed by Ene-obong (2003, 2007). The issues include agricultural biotechnology and food security; bio-safety; risks to human and animal health from the use of GMOs due, for example, to the presence of antibiotics resistance markers in GE crops, animal feed and other products; bioethics, product acceptability and philosophical concerns; environmental contamination from genetic drift; socioeconomic concern and intellectual property rights (IPRs).

The fact that genetic engineering techniques can be used to improve and to increase food production, and thus ensure food security is acceptable to everyone. The fear is what could be regarded as possible side effects. Scientists have pointed out that gene exchange and transfers are not new, as they have been used in centuries in conventional crop improvement, through hybridisation (normal hybridisation and protoplast hybridisation) and in development of chromosomal addition lines. Here, many genes, running into several thousands, may be involved. Genetic engineering is employed to supplement conventional breeding, where the latter cannot solve a particular problem. Here, very few genes are transferred, usually four, the gene of interest, the promoter gene, the terminator gene and the marker gene. There are no fears concerning the promoter and terminator sequences, as these can come from the same crop to be improved. The concerns are about the marker gene, e.g. antibiotics resistance markers.

Concerns about the risk to animal and human health are based on the possible drift of transferred genes into untargeted organisms and the environment, such as the risk of the antibiotic resistance gene being transferred from GM crops into micro organisms in the guts of humans and farm animals; or even into microorganisms in the external environment.

There is also the concern about allergenicity from consumption of GM food. The investigations on these concerns, i.e. gene drifts and allergencity etc., are a major part of the programme adopted in introducing a new GE product for human and animal use. Investigations by individual scientists, laboratories and organisations like FAO, WHO, International Food Biotechnology Council (IFBC), the Allergy and Immunology Institute of the International Life Science (ILSI), the European Economic Union (EEC) and many governments have yielded protocols for the assessment of potential allergenicity of the novel proteins introduced in GM foods. Protocols have also been worked out for testing the possible genetic drift of transferred genes into untargeted organisms and the environment.

The year 2001 was particularly elevating to biotechnology as four major events took place. First, the United States Senate declared May 13-20, 2001 as the National Biotechnology week. Second, the United Nations (UN) entered the biotechnology debate in Spring, 2001, by releasing recommendations of the FAO and WHO on allergenicity testing of foods from GM crops, and declaring them safe. Third, the UNDP released a commissioned report on “Human Development – Making New Technologies work for Human Development”. This report gave an analysis of the potential of biotechnology and other technologies to contribute to reducing world poverty (Woodson, 2001). Fourth, the European Federation of Public Perception of Bio-technology, released the Briefing Paper No 10 on “Antibiotic Resistance Markers in Genetically Modified (GM) crops. They pointed out that “antibiotic resistance markers only confer resistance against specific antibiotics. They do not result in antibiotic production. There are therefore no antibiotics present in food produced from plants produced using biotechnology.” The developments came a year after the release of the Inter Academy of Science Report (under the auspices of the Royal Society, London, the USA National Academy of Sciences, the Brazilian Academy of Science, the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the Indian National Academy of Sciences, the Mexican Academy of Sciences and the Third World Academy of Sciences) in favour of Transgenic Plants in World Agriculture.

The People's Republic of China was the first country to commercialise a GM crop - a virus resistant tobacco variety followed by a virus resistant tomato in the early 1990s. In 1994, Calgene obtained the first approval in USA to commercialize Flavr SavrTM delayed ripening tomato. This was followed by the registration in 1996, of Agr Evo Canada's Liberty Link Canola – variety Innovator (James, 1997). Since then, the world wide area under commercially grown GM crops has tremendously increased with insecticide and herbicide resistance traits accounting for up to 60% GM crops grown. The major countries growing GM crops are USA, Canada, China, Argentina, Australia, Mexico, and South Africa, in that order. In 1996, the global area under GM crop cultivation was 2.8 million hectares. This increased to 12.8 million in 1997, and in 2012, while the European Union was still lagging behind with 129,000 hectares, the global GM crop cultivation rose to 170 million hectares. The EU, however, seems to have double standards regarding GM products. After the mad cow disease in animals fed with local offal, the EU now imports over 70% animal protein feed requirement, mainly soybeans from countries like Argentina (100% GM), Brazil (82% GM) and USA (93% GM ). Meanwhile, European farmers are not allowed to grow GM soybeans (Thomson, 2014; Schlemann and Crute, 2014). Most Academies of Science and scientists in the EU are currently mounting pressure on their Governments to allow the use of genetic modification in crop improvement. The emerging themes from the recent Planting The Future (PTF) meeting of the European Academies of Science Advisory Council (EASAC) and the Network of African Science Academies (NASAC) to the European and African governments and the public are on: Developing capacity to harness crop genetic improvement technologies (GCIT); Legislation; Policy disconnect on GM Technology; Science Communication; Partnerships; Funding , Infrastructure and Technical Support and African – Inter- Academies Programme in Agricultural Biotechnology

In the Eni Njoku Memorial Lecture of 1985, Dr Orebamjo described him of being of “excellent and admirable character, whose exemplary life and unparalleled intellectual capacity had inspired many of his students to scale great heights”, and as a “very versatile and dedicated teacher”. In 1972/73 session, Professor Njoku taught us plant growth and development, including photosynthesis, in the honours class. His interaction with the students did not mirror the wide gap in personality between the learned academic and the students. He was a teacher and a father to all. Professor Njoku became the Vice Chancellor of the University of Nigeria in 1966 and civil war broke out a year later. During the war years, the University of Nigeria became the University of Biafra, and he remained as the Vie Chancellor.

Almost all countries in the world, except a few like Nigeria, have laws on Biosafety and Intellectual Property Rights. Many countries in Africa, including South Africa, Ethiopia, Ghana, Zimbabwe, Cote D'Ivoire and Zambia have introduced genetically modified crops. South Africa was the first country in Africa to adopt GM crops and today a considerable hectare is under cultivation, mostly Bt cotton (Bollard introduced in 1997), Bt yellow maize (1998), Bt white maize (2002), Ht soybeans and cotton (2001) and Ht maize (2003) (Obokoh, 2014). Under the CSIR-CRI Collaborative Research project, Ghana is working on improving protein quality in sweet potatoes, Nitrogen and water use efficiency, and salt tolerance in rice. They are also introducing Bt cotton and resistant cowpea (Afokple, 2014) into the country.

Before leaving this section, it is necessary to point out that the recent statements by the Minister of Agriculture, is about the regulation of the introduction and use of genetically modified products into Nigeria. This has been done by most countries. The truth is that genetically modified crops, food and pharmaceuticals have been in use in Nigeria for more than one decade, brought in, unofficially. There is need to have laws to regulate their introduction and use.

Finally in the recent workshop on Agricultural Biotechnology in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, organized by NASAC and EASAC, (February, 2014) recommendations were made to increase the use of biotechnology in food production in Africa and Europe. As summarized by Prof. Walter Alhassan, president of NASAC “the engagement of Africa in agricultural biotechnology should aim at attaining Sir Gordon Conway's doubly green revolution i.e., increasing food production with less land use, less agricultural inputs and less water. This is in line with the concept of Sustainable Intensification”. It is, therefore, necessary to harness the potential of all tools of biotechnology to include marker –assisted selection and genetic engineering in support of conventional breeding, mutation breeding and integrated pest management procedures for Agriculture. No technology should be excluded a priori on ideological grounds (Alhassan, 2014).