Penultimate week in Lagos, opponents of the bio-safety law that will guarantee responsible practice and application of Biotechnology in agriculture to enhance food quality, yield and expedite quest for food security, urged the National Assembly not to pass into law, the bill currently lying before it. But the Director-General of National Bio-technology Development Agency (NABDA) Prof. Lucy Ogbadu, said they didn’t give any scientific evidence for their position, in this interview with Mohammed Kandi, Excerpts:
Are bio-technologically processed or Genetically Modified (GM) foods safe for consumption?
Let me take you back a little; when you say are GM foods safe for consumption? You are talking about products that are already in the market; products that have gone through due process of production, using scientific procedures to produce them. If you are referring to such products, I can tell you, they are very safe for consumption.
This is because for any product to be released, it must have gone through a rigorous process of production which takes not less than 7 to 10 years experiment before it is released, and that means, all that needs to be done scientifically must have been done, including the design of the experiment; the entire process of engineering, the process of doing risk assessment to ensure the risk that are attendant to such a product are fully minimized. Thus, it is in this respect that I can conclusively say that they (GM foods) are safe. And usually, the research is not done by one person, it is a pair review exercise whereby the experimental design is presented to a group or a crop of scientists, who will do a critic on what you plan to do and ensure that what you want to do will not be harmful end users, and when the product comes out, it is a crop of scientists that will also gather and give the work a pass mark or a fail mark. So I don’t see how something that is harmful can come out of this whole rigorous process of at least 10 years.
What is the difference between hybrid crops and GM crops?
When people talk about the harmfulness of this technology it amazes me, because whatever we have now, whether you consider them product of conventional breeding they are also genetically modified in the sense that, they have come through crossing of one variety with another verity to give you what you have. You will not find any single variety today that is original as it were from unknown crosses. They have all come out as a result of crosses between related variety and sometimes non related varieties. It is when they are no related as such that we call them hybrid in the sense that you must
have cross boundaries to give raise to those varieties called hybrid.
And genetically modified products are those ones that, instead of waiting for natural crosses to happen or even forcing them in the laboratories to happen, you go straight to the genetic material of the varieties and take traits that you are interested in and insert were you want them to be for the sake of giving one the desired product.
For example, you may be interested in a trait that makes the crops resistant to pests; traits that will enable the crop to grow in a drought-prone environment, traits that will enable the crop grow in a marshy areas, or you may be interested in inserting a trait that may be, will delay the ripening of a particular fruit and so on.
Some farmers have said that GM seed cannot be replanted after the first harvest, is this true?
It is so with most hybrid crops too. The vigour is there with the first generation but as you continue to propagate, the vigour reduces. But since science is a continuous thing, the desire should be how to overcome or improve on this development rather than shooting it down.
The question should be, how can we address this issue of not being able to propagate the seeds from generation to generation? And science is the answer to all of these.
The opponents of bio-safety laws in Nigeria (anti-GMOs) are alleging that the bio-safety bill lying at the National Assembly and awaiting its passage into law lacks substance and that there are no strong safeguards to protect consumers. Do you agree?
The safeguard is the bio-safety law. That is why I don’t understand their protest. If they claim the technology is harmful or dangerous and that they we don’t want it for reasons that have no scientific bases, and then, a group of scientists have come with guidelines to guarantee a responsible practice, and you say no, I don’t understand.
We are right now at the point of getting our legislators to consider these guidelines and pass them into law. And unfortunately, we have been on it for too long. We have been on it for the past 12 to 13 years, and it shouldn’t be so.
Those that are opposed to GM technology are also claiming the products are already in markets in Nigeria, how true is this assertion?
Honestly I wouldn’t know, but I cannot say they are not here because the safety valve that is supposed to be in place is not there, so it is like asking me if you can smuggle goods into Nigeria. If it is true that you can smuggle goods into Nigeria, then it may well be that GM foods have been smuggled into Nigeria, I don’t know. But there is the possibility that they are here with us.
What are the benefits of Bio-safety law in Nigeria?
The benefits are countless. One, for those who said they are not comfortable with GMOs, they will now have a law that protects whatever is done; a law that guarantees that their fear is well taken care of, a law that ensures that scientists in Nigeria do not practice biotechnology haphazardly, a law that ensures that if anything goes wrong, they and other Nigerians are protected. Also, the law allows the scientist to practice biotechnology as their counterparts in other parts of the world are practicing it, because without this law in place, the scientists cannot practice, especially the third generation biotechnology.
What makes the bio-technologically engineered crops standout than the conventional crops?
Scientists undertaking any experiment with specific objectives and targeted goals, one of the benefits of BT crop is improvement of the quality of the material (crop) and another target may be for the enhancement of the nutritional development. For example, if you found out that the food material is heavily weighted on the part of carbohydrate and you want to introduce protein to balance it, you can design your experiment in such a way that you will not introduce protein today if you want to add micro nutrient, vitamins and iron elements, you can also add onto them zinc, iron etc. to improve the nutritional content.
If the government and some people are still skeptical about the GM technology, in your opinion, which of the non-edible crop would you want the government to at least approves?
We are calling for a holistic embrace of the GM technology. But we are not drawing a line between edible on non-edible. We are asking that we embrace the technology, deploy the technology for use on all crops. But if we must consider a non-edible crop for instance, the number one non-edible crop we desire to go into for now is BT cotton. And even the farmers of cotton cannot wait. In fact, the pressure they are mounting on us is more than what we are mounting on the legislator to pass this bill into law.
What is your advice for those opposing GM technology in Nigeria?
Let me tell you, that if you go out, those who are skeptical are in the minority. It so happens that the GM people have their way in the sense that, they are well funded. But, go and talk to the ordinary man, the ordinary man is not really bordered about what they are saying because the ordinary man knows that there should be enough food available. The ordinary man wants something that will reduce the stress, the pressure that is mounted by non-availability of food. The ordinary man wants something that will make life easier for him. He wants something that will reduce the loss of food through spoilage. The farmer wants a situation where he will not have to apply pesticide too many times on the farm. The ordinary man wants to go to the market and spend less money to purchase food. These are what the ordinary man wants.
So if you go out and do a vox-pop that is the kind of responses you will get from the people. Those crying out against the technology are in the minority and we have now come to see that they have an interest somewhere, they have an agenda and a motive for what they are doing and this is not difficult for anybody to see where they are coming from. I see those opposing the bio-safety law as anti-progress people because it doesn’t matter what they are getting out of it. As far as I am concerned, it doesn’t matter what personal benefit they are deriving. Their primary focus and consideration should be the good of the people, the economy of the nation and the general welfare of the citizenry rather than what they personally stand to derive from their campaign.
The opponents of the GM technology in Nigeria also said the Bio-safety bill does not make provision for protection of health of consumers, what is your own opinion?
I don’t know the background of this people and on what premise they always base their argument but, all I can say is that, this material (bio-safety regulation) was prepared by the entire stakeholders that are relevant for the cause. There is the input of the federal ministry of agriculture, the customs service, the immigration, the health and environment sectors.
If you pick up that document you will see all the stakeholders that participated in putting up that document. One thing that you cannot fault Nigeria on, is human capacity. Unless you are saying that Nigeria does not have enough educated people in these sectors, you can’t fault the document.
I have mentioned that among the contributors, there are professors and these people came together and put up this document so, I disagree with that assertion.
And in any case, this document can be compared with similar documents from different parts of the world.