It is timely to find out the official policy of the Nigerian government on Genetically Modified (GM) crops? This has become necessary in view of the crass ignorance of the average Nigerian on what GM crops are; and, if Nigerians are ignorant of what exactly GM crops are, then how sure are we that these controversial and in some instances dreaded crops are not already here in Nigeria.
Again, some ubiquitous Nigerians have many uncanny ways and some of these include trading on banned and counterfeit products. They go all out, and even against extant laws of the country to buy and import into the country items they know too well are dangerous and disruptive to the economy and the environment such as used refrigerators, old cars and machinery, fake drugs as well as despoiled food items such as rice and many others. This situation is further complicated by our porous borders and gullible security agents manning them.
It is on this premise therefore, that I seek to discuss GM crops in Nigeria and possibly find out what the official position of government is on it.
GM crops are crops or seedlings that have undergone genetic modification in the laboratory. This includes the introduction of a well-characterized gene or genes into an established genetic background or between species. A product of biotechnology or crop engineering, the resultant features include the ability of the crop to now grow and flourish in difficult terrains or barren farmlands; for example, they become drought resistant crops in arid soil or salt proof in high salinity farmlands.
In year 2000, the Times magazine had discussed the work of the Swiss biologist Ingo Potrykus who led the team that engineered the “golden rice”. The rice, a flagship product of Biotechnology (in the words of Dick Taverne’s essay in Prospect Magazine, 2007) was to start a new green revolution to improve the lives of millions of the poorest people in the world. It was estimated to help remedy vitamin- A deficiency, the cause of 1-2million deaths a year, and could save up to 500,000 children a year from going blind. No other scientific development in agriculture in recent time is thought to hold such promise.
Only a decade after their commercial introduction, GM crops were already in cultivation in well over 100million hectares spread across 22 countries by over 10million farmers. About 9 million of of this number are resource-poor farmers in developing countries, mainly India and China. Most of these small-scale farmers grow pest-resistant GM cotton. In India alone, production has tripled over the past 3 years to over 10million hectares. This cotton has proven to benefit farmers because it reduces the need for insecticides, thereby increasing their income and also improving their health.
However, beyond all these attributes, features and claims, there are deep rooted fears amongst the enlightened world that GM technology is most unsafe and harmful to the environment, and that it only lines the pocket of the big agricultural companies. Though GM crops are in abundance in parts of Europe, they are also effectively banned in most countries. Indeed, EU regulations, based on the precautionary principle, provide safeguards against “contamination” of organic farms by GM crops; they require any produce containing more than 0.9 percent GM content to be labeled as such, with the clear implication that it needs a health warning and should be avoided.
However, in view of the extant food security woes in Africa, for example, in parts of West Africa, the average rate of application of NPK fertilizer is reported to be an abysmal 13kg per hectare; should GM crops be relied upon and allowed to close up the food supply gap and flourish in Africa?
Factors responsible for poor fertilizer use have included cost and scarcity of the product when needed by farmers. The implication has been the heavy post harvest losses calculated at 50per cent for fruits and vegetables and 30per cent for root crops and tubers. Compared to the entire continent, recorded loses include 22kg of Nitrogen (N), 2.5kg of Phosphorus (P) and 15 kg of Potassium (k) per hectare per year through soil mismanagement. This is equivalent to US$4 billion worth of fertilizer (at United States prices) and likely US$30 billion at African fertilizer prices.
Also, sadly; with climate change now ravaging the continent, people are becoming increasingly affected as worsening droughts in particular is ruining the lives and livelihood of many households and have continued to hamper farming activities. Water mismanagement, inappropriate land use, as well as poor knowledge of anti-drought measures have continued to constrain the soil’s productive capacity to produce food. Consequently, local livelihoods are being jeopardized while increasing poverty for thousands of farmers expands.
GM crops on the other addresses these loops as they reduce reliance on agrochemical sprays, saves energy, uses less fossil fuel in their production and reduces the emissions of greenhouse gases; and by improving yields, they make better use of scarce agricultural land. These have been confirmed by different studies and reports which reveal that the “environmental impact” of pesticides and herbicide use in GM –growing countries had been reduced by 15 per cent and 20 percent respectively.
Energy-intensive cultivation is being replaced by no-till or low-till agriculture. As at today, more than a third of the soya bean crop grown in the US is now grown in unploughed fields. Apart from using less energy, avoiding the plough has many environmental advantages. It improves soil quality, causes fewer disturbances to life within it and diminishes the emission of methane and other greenhouse gases.
But whatever the merits are, there are oodles of dreadful demerits of GM crops. And one salient argument that is yet to be defeated is the fact that GM crops are “one-off-seeds” i.e. the seeds cannot be preserved or stored for replanting in the following farming season. This therefore imposes on the farmers the task of yearly purchase of the seeds at enormously high costs. How many poor farmers in Nigeria or other places in Africa can afford to go through this ritual yearly?
There are also other concerns such as the environmental threats, particularly those to biodiversity. It is feared that the takeover of natural environments by GM crops could easily lead to mass gene alteration in the entire ecosystem and that this could be counterproductive.
These arguments remained the crux of a class debate amongst nine African scholars on environment while on a residency program at Brown University, USA last fall. We had debated that regardless of the so called abundant benefits that GM crops are evil and are capable of impoverishing Africans in the long run. This was based on our fear that it would erode indigenous or local seeds from Africa; and make the already impoverished small holder farmers and peasants perpetually dependent of imported seeds.
This argument also raised other fears, such as those that claim that once traditional farmlands have been exposed to GM crops, the entire landscape subsequently becomes the exclusive dominance of GM crops as no other crop would be capable of doing well in such farmland. Though this fear still remains hypothetical; empirical analyses in this regard may not even be necessary as people commonly prefer organically produced food because it is neither a quick-fix solution for world hunger nor an exploitative endeavor.
As a country with large population; the most populated in Africa; the official policy of the Nigerian government on GM crops need to be known. Is it here already, or is it yet to arrive? Certainly, we need to know what the position of the Nigerian government is on this matter.
But whatever it is, there is enormous need for citizen education on the pros and cons of GM crops to enable at least an understanding and awareness creation. This has the potential of assisting us, particularly the farmers from deceit and deception by those with ubiquitous uncanny ways.