By Prof. E. EfiomEne-Obong, FAS
Currently, a Facebook group is distributing information on the negative effects of a new product by Monsanto, on laboratory rats in an experiment carried out in France. Monsanto is said to have released the product for use after only three months testing.
This cannot be possible because a company is not allowed to release such products for public use. There must be years of testing by the company, governments, scientists in different parts of the world, International Agencies etc. Investigations by individual scientists, laboratories and organizations 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. Fourth, the European Federation of Public Perception of Biotechnology, 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 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 commercialize 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 FlavrSavrTM delayed ripening tomato. This was followed by the registration in 1996, of AgrEvo Canada’s Liberty Link Canola – variety Innovator-.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. Many other countries in Africa, Asia and the Americas have now introduced genetically modified crops and products, although the European Union is lagging behind.
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.
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.
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 hectarage 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). 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 have also introduced BT cotton and resistant cowpea into the country.
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 by companies, groups and unofficially by Nigerian tourists. What is wrong with the regulation of the introduction and use of these products? Why should we not know what is being brought into the country; where, how, why and when these products are used in the country? The laws may even ban the introduction and use of certain products as well as protect the Intellectuol Property Rights of Nigerians, and even the Rights of Nigeria to the abundant endowed natural products.
Finally, in the recent workshop on Agricultural Biotechnology in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, organized by the Network for African Science Academies (NASAC) and the European Academies Science Advisory Council (EASAC) in 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.
Professor E. EfiomEne-Obong, FAS is of the Department of Genetics and Biotechnology, University of Calabar, Calabar.