THE VIEWS OF NON-GOVERNMENTAL ORGANISATIONS (NGOs) ON GENETICALLY MODIFIED (GM) FOOD SAFETY

By EDEL-QUINN IJEOMA AGBAEGBU

ABSTRACT

Genetically Modified (GM) Crops Have Sufficiently Demonstrated The Potentials To Tackle Global Food Security.  

Abstract

All life on earth depends on the global commons: the ecosystems, biomes and processes that regulate the stability and resilience of the earth system. These are the basic components of our biodiversity and the foundation of our global economy and modern society. However, these are currently facing a tragedy of over-exploitation and rapid degradation. The World Economic Forum reported in 2017 that environmental-related risks featured among the top-ranked global risks. Four of the top five perceived risks in terms of impact identified were environmental risks, which developed from various anthropogenic activities that do not blend with nature. Ten years ago, none of these top five was considered a risk but today, environmental threats appear to be the greatest risk we face.


Our rapidly growing population, complex mix of ecologies, and increasing droughts and floods make progress toward food security frustratingly difficult. As we speak, there is a growing global demand for food, feed, fibre, fuel; and the inputs needed to produce them exert undue pressure on the environment and place ever-greater pressure on farmers to improve their harvests. Current reports from organizations such as the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) reveal that 821 million people still suffer from chronic hunger, a quarter of children less than five years of age are stunted and malnutrition affects a third of the global population. Hence, the growing recognition that managing the natural resources and safeguarding our biodiversity should be a priority in national plans, to deliver nutritious food for the present and future generations and achieve the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Genetically Modified (GM) crops have sufficiently demonstrated these potentials to tackle global food security.

These are products that offer substantial benefits ranging from more convenient and flexible crop management, lower cost of production, health and social benefits and cleaner environment. They offer us sustainable diets and promote the use of diverse foods which include traditional and local foods that make use of nutritionally rich species, varieties of plants and breeds of animals as well as wild, neglected and underutilized species. Indeed, the tide is turning, and biotechnology is moving ahead. We are seeing wins around the world:  three significant Bt. cotton approvals in 2018; the consideration of Bt. maize as a solution to fall armyworm for farmers across Africa; and the adoption of insect-resistant Bt. cowpea in Nigeria. With these results, we should therefore expect convergence of opinions in the very near future.

PROTOCOL

I wish to express my sincere gratitude to the organizers of this program today, for the opportunity to be a part of this important meeting. I heartily congratulate the National Biosafety Management Agency (NBMA) and the Program for Biosafety System (PBS)for their great initiative and the timely organization of this workshop for exchange of ideas and information on genetically modified food and feed safety in Nigeria.  

I will speak on behalf of Every Woman Hope Centre (EWHC), a Non-Government Organization (NGO) with strength in advocacy on gender, food security, sustainable development and good governance. In furtherance to what we stand for, and canvass on EWHC platform, we communicate also through a journal called Lifecare and I am privileged to be the editor in chief.  Of recent too, I have also received the extra privilege of having been appointed as Nigeria’s Country Representative, Voluntary Peer Review Process (VPR), Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

As an expert, the CBD office in Montreal Canada considered me worthy of being in the four-nation team to review the National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan (NBSAP) implementation in Uganda, July – November, 2019. It is my sincere hope that my experience and participation in advocacies and promotion of biodiversity sustainability will enrich our understanding and appreciation of the role of genetically modified crops in food and safety globally, most especially here in Nigeria.

INTRODUCTION

I stand here to air our views on Genetically Modified (GM) Foods and believe strongly that my contributions today shall significantly improve the current level of understanding of the general public on this matter, encourage the adoption for improved biodiversity health and livelihood and sustainable development.

To guide us all in appreciating the subject of this paper, I have decided to reproduce and push forward some fresh findings and stark realities which face the human race today, on the issue, hunger and allied matters. One of these facts is the postulation that the rise of extreme weather has diminished the productive capacity of the land and per-capita food production is declining. Another issue is the fact that threats of widespread hunger in sub-Saharan Africa, Nigeria especially, have been one of the world’s most persistent and daunting challenges of the past half-century. Food is becoming less available to a significant portion of the population, and nearly 20 per cent of Africa’s population (256 million) are facing severe food insecurity.  The rise in obesity afflicting one in eight, of the global community, driven by urbanisation and the relatively easy access  which poor people have, to energy dense processed food, with high fat, salt and sugar contents, is a worrying new trend. It doesn’t have to be this way.

 Against these realities that confront us as Nigerians, Africans, and part of the global community, there is a great question waiting for an answer. How do we feed a growing world population that is expected to increase by 2.6 billion people by 2050 sustainably? I have heard and read about some proffered answers. I align with those who have postulated that sustainable agriculture is the answer to reversing the trends that lead to biodiversity loss, and the deterioration and degradation of our natural resources. This must be accomplished by using resources more efficiently, while protecting the environment and adapting to a changing climate. The major response to malnutrition, pressures on feed and water supply, emerging diseases, shifting market demands and climate change is conservation and sustainable use of a wide range of plant and animal diversity. The era is gone when farmers rely on the same reused, low-yielding seeds planted by their forebears.

Luckily, there are techniques capable of integrating social, economic and environmental dimensions of sustainability with great potentials to conserve our natural resources and grow healthier food with fewer resources, while responding to increasing global demand for greater nutrition and responsible consumption. It only requires that farmers everywhere should have access to technologies, tools and strategies they need to maximize their productivity and profitability. Each new technology adds to the toolbox; yet it is not the toolbox rather, but it is how we use it that will define the future of agriculture. We must combine the best tools from each system as it will help us achieve a new and improved food system. 

Genetically modified (GM) technology is potentially a paradigm shift for farmers and an important tool in the toolbox for addressing these global challenges, such as persistent poverty, climate change, and the challenge of feeding 9.7, approximately 10 billion people by 2050. The commercial development of GM crops began in 1996 with GM corn and has expanded with the cultivation of GM crops. Global land use for GM crops reached 185.1 million hectares in 2016. Remarkably, GM crops that have so far been produced and globally commercialized are for bio-fortification, herbicide tolerance, resistance to insect, disease and drought. The Golden Rice (GR) for instance is genetically modified to provide beta-carotene in the rice grain and has demonstrated potential as a means to address widespread vitamin A deficiency in poor and low income countries where rice is a staple.

We have three staple crops; rice, maize and wheat with three animal species; cattle, pigs and chicken that provide majority of the world’s food intake. Intensification of production and increased use of external chemical inputs have resulted in significant reduction in range of varieties used in crop production and consumption. They also contribute to crucial shift towards diet simplification, with diets low in variety but high in energy causing escalating problems of over-weight and chronic diseases, increasingly found alongside micronutrient deficiencies. It is very important to note that the micronutrient needs for human health cannot be satisfied without animal, fish and plant genetic diversity, species diversity and ecosystem diversity.

Farmers are very central to meeting these growing food and nutritional needs in a sustainable manner as they can innovate to meet this world’s needs. Today in Bangladesh, farmers are reporting dramatic reductions in pesticide use after growing genetically engineered Bt. eggplant.  On average, these farmers report 62 percent less pesticide use, with some farmers reducing use by as much as 92 percent while experiencing a six-fold increase in their income.

THE CONTROVERSIES

1Although GM foods had helped sustain the nutritional needs of human beings and farm animals and mounting evidence showed that GM foods were substantially equivalent to traditionally bred food sources; they have sparked fierce debate about their safety. Genetically modified (GM) technology has become a highly controversial topic for today’s global food consumers. As the complexity of the GM issue mounts, the controversy surrounding GM food is moving farther away from science. Some people are largely opposed to GMO foods, but are not sure why. Many hardly understand the basic principles of GM technology but are much concerned about the safety of GM food. They have a relatively low level of trust about information from the government or even scientists. Most Nigeria consumers are unfamiliar with GM technologies and the benefits they provide. They are sceptical of scientists and the government on the topic of GMO, GM technologies and GM food. The internet becomes their major source of information about GM food and technology, and the media coverage is perceived as predominantly negative.

In addition to this, negative information on social media had a great impact, driving down the willingness to accept GM food. This led to food-centred non-governmental organizations (NGO’s) directing their attention to generating debates, educational packages and other formats to reach out to the general public (e.g., work of US based Farmer’s and Rancher’s Association and IFT). A recent review by Van Eenennaam and Young2 gives an excellent summary of the complexity of surveying and interpreting global public opinion on GM foods. In short, the authors noted the negative view of GM food in Europe, was exacerbated by the Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) crisis first in the late 1980s and again in the 1990s. It was thought that GM technology might be used to mask the effects of poor housing of animals, not to mention the sense of supporting global agro-business rather than smaller family farms which are typical in Europe. In contrast, the United States, Canada and some Latin American countries (namely Brazil and Argentina) have widely adopted GM crops. Brazil is the second only to the United States in the land used for GM food crops.  

A research supported by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences showed that rumours about food security accounted for 45% of all internet rumours, which severely influenced the public’s trust.33 The study also attempted to probe into the public attitudes toward rumours about GM food on the Internet. For example, in China, rice is the main staple food for 60% of its people, and hybrid rice accounts for about half the planting area of rice. Rumours were spread that hybrid rice is a GM crop. This is out of place. Through self-interest, some non-GMO food producers condemned GM food with malicious gossip and misplaced nationalism, fomenting the notion that GM technology originated in the U.S. as a form of bioterrorism against China.

It has been observed that people who love to talk about what farmers want or need and the loudest voices are usually far from the farm. Most of them are urban elites, completely detached from the enterprise of farming but wielding undue influence over the social and regulatory systems that ensure access to biotech. Some nature-based Non-governmental Organizations, Every Woman Hope Centre (EWHC) for example, are striving to change the dynamics and unravel the truth. They seek out the opinions of growers and regulators such as National Biosafety Management Agency (NBMA), who are enthusiastic to understand the local and universal challenges of food production and ready to shoulder the burden of feeding 10 billion in 2050 while protecting our environment. Nigeria is on track to become the third-most populated country by 2050. We must stand up to the challenge of providing adequately for this population. The time has come to focus on adopting effective, sustainable farming practices and abandon the dogmatic thinking of organic versus GMO versus conventional. 

THE ISSUE

Throughout history, innovations have experienced both headwinds and tailwinds before being accepted by society. There is usually a persistent gap between expert knowledge of scientific issues and public perception. The conclusion of natural sciences usually is only truth, although the culture and attitudes can be diversified, being influenced by religious beliefs and political parties. Differences in public opinion towards GMO, GM technologies, and GM food should therefore be respected. What is needed is government leadership in constructing a transparent system for evaluation of these technologies for commercial use, while upholding the public’s right to have a choice by labelling GM food products. This will enable the public to make their choices about GM food.

Remarkably, a review of acceptance, policies and actions in the African countries illustrated the complex and myriad issues that slow the adoption of GM food, thereby deleteriously impacting African countries.38 It revealed that although the progress is slow, there seems to be a new receptiveness for GM food amongst some of the African countries, including Nigeria. In another study in Africa in 2005, showed that of the 7000 people surveyed, 80% did not know the meaning of the word “biotechnology”. These are indications that we need to strengthen communication to the public for a transformational and permanent change that will make order out of this confusion.

DEVELOPMENTS

Although much of the controversies around genetically modified crops are driven by the belief that the GM process of moving genes from one specie to another is “unnatural,” a new research study has shown that some 1 in 20 flowering plants are naturally transgenic. These plants, including; bananas, peanuts, Surinam cherries, hops, cranberries and tea, contain the Agrobacterium microbe — the same bacterium that scientists typically use to create GM crops. As reported by Joan Conrow, in a publicationon October 9, 2019, this study follows on the heels of the 2015 discovery that sweet potatoes are naturally transgenic. With these latest reassuring findings, I am sure scientists /researchers at this juncture, can confidently shout, ‘‘Eureka! GMOs are Natural!! It is that God made them first”!!!

Another related development is that Agrobacterium DNA has been found in tobacco plants. The findings were reported in a publication of Sept. 21 in the journal Plant Molecular Biology. Researchers studied the genomes of some 356 dicot species and found 15 naturally occurring transgenic species. They concluded, “Thus, HGT [horizontal gene transfer] from Agrobacterium to dicots is remarkably widespread,” as stated in the abstract.

In addition to these scientific developments, Michael Le Page wrote in New Scientist that it has been discovered that the horticultural process of grafting different plants together can lead to the exchange of genes, meaning; humans have inadvertently been creating transgenic plants for millennia. Le Page noted, the discovery bodes well for European researchers. They apparently can use these natural strains of Agrobacterium to create new plant varieties, without having them fall under the strict regulatory process imposed on transgenic organisms.

The European Union last year announced that its regulations exclude organisms modified through “natural” processes. He  cited Henrik Lütken at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark, who “has created a compact variety of a house plant called Kalanchoe blossfeldiana, which is now ready for commercial sale. He thinks these plants shouldn’t count as GM and the latest findings will bolster his case.” From these genome studies, we can see that gene swapping has been going on since the dawn of life. It is rather unfortunate that most of these facts are lost to the global public and even some high-ranking government officials especially in developing countries like Nigeria. Instead, various unfounded myths are creating unnecessary fears in the minds of the citizens, limiting sustainability and conservation of the ecosystem through modern technology.

As humanity strives to feed a growing population amid the challenges of climate change, increased urbanization, global trade barriers, shrinking natural resources, fickle consumers, and an aging farmer population, producing sustainable food, while dealing with the land use and degradation is most essential. We should concentrate focus on global commodities with a significant deforestation footprint on food security and safety goals in areas of rapid expansion in agriculture and expanded efforts on land restoration. We should embrace genetic engineering and GMOs as one of the most important technologies we have available to us to improve everything — food, clothing, fragrances, medicine, really everything we make. This is quite an amazing technology out there in nature we have. What a gift!

MORAL AND ETHICAL DIMENSION

Despite their vast potential to help deal with food security challenges, GM crops are currently grown in only 26 countries as a result of regulatory barriers and anti–GM activities. Revolutionary shifts in social, religious and economic life are needed to tame Bigfoot-style economic impact, safeguard and rethink food and agriculture. What we need and very urgently, is a radical shift in perception to view the global goals and agro-biotechnology as the greatest economic opportunity any generation has had, rather than a burden and constraint to growth. Now that we have the code, we can engineer what we want. All physical goods will end up being made with biology. That is the obvious endpoint and that’s the potential. People don’t even know it’s possible yet.

Interestingly, a Catholic Priest in the Philippines, Rev. Emmanuel “Father Noli” Alparce,  has called on religious leaders to advocate for scientific innovations across the world as reported byRichmond Frimpong,October 15, 2019.According to Noli, who was a 2015 Global Fellow, biotech promotes the integrity of creation. “And it contributes to the protection of the environment by reducing the use of and dependence on pesticides and toxic chemicals for controlling pests,” he added. Genetic engineering offers a spectacular step forward that can drive the world to produce more food to feed the growing population and provide best practices on dealing with climate change, he said.

Speaking to the 2019 Alliance for Science Global Leadership Fellows Program at Cornell University on “the moral and ethical dimensions of biotechnology and genetic engineering,” Noli said that many people in the Philippines do not go to church and fellowship on Sundays due to hunger and poverty. “You will see them in their homes instead of church halls,” he noted.  Noli is concerned that a person who is poor or hungry cannot praise God and would, in the end; blame God for creating him or her. It is religiously unwise for God’s children to suffer from hunger in the era of biotechnology, Noli said, hence his urgent call for religious leaders to support these agricultural tools and their role in protecting biodiversity.Noli urged religious leaders, particularly Christian leaders and chief imams to play key functions in formulating policies across the world to influence decision-making processes at any given time. He noted that their involvement in science advocacy stands the chance of dispelling misgivings against genetic engineering.

Noli’s observations come in the midst of an intense global debate on one aspect of agricultural innovation — the production and consumption of genetically modified (GM) foods. However, he acknowledged that nothing in this world is 100 percent safe. “It is difficult to actually and quantitatively predict the consequences of new technologies,” Noli conceded. “On the other hand, it will be virtually impossible for humans to exist without biotechnology.” “If you acknowledge the works of your doctors, nutritionists and other scientific works, why oppose genetically modified food, which is also the work of another scientist?” Noli asked. “If genetic engineering is to be vilified due to its power to change individuals, then it means most medical intervention should be condemned as well,” he added.

THE VIEWS OF NGOs ON THE SAFETY OF GM FOODS

I want to believe that many of us know what the word NGO means and who NGOs are. NGOs are organisations that are ‘‘Non-profit; independent of governments… that perform a variety of services and humanitarian functions, bring citizens’ concerns to Governments, advocate and monitor policies and encourage political participation through provision of information’’. This is why I think the organisers of this conference further deserve commendation for taking the right decision to seek the views of NGOs about safety of GM Foods. Getting to have correct and current information is good. Dissemination of the information and to the right audience is necessary too. With good, accurate and current information NGOs can carry out their jobs of advocacy and monitor of policies better. This is why at all times; I think that NGOs must be carried along in policy making and implementation. A better informed NGO will serve society and humanity better. 

Can anybody imagine what will happen if the wider society goes ahead with the view which a few, highly uninformed, have  casually expressed,  that  GM Foods are hazardous to health or if I may use their crude word, ‘poisonous’?  Such usages are voiced out without facts or credible evidence to support what they say and there will surely be chaos in the society. Many people will run away when you mention the word, GMO or GM Food. Many will prefer to die in hunger. This is where the job of NGOs comes in handy. In circumstances or situations like this, NGOs are expected to mount platforms or forum, to present alternate view, the correct situation about the situation, if the contrary, is the case.

Every Woman Hope Centre has had several opportunities in Nigeria and beyond to engage opponents of GMO to provide evidence. I must tell you, it is a fluke to believe that NGO food are poisonous. No credible evidence has been adduced. We have also been involved in documentation of research findings, to see if anywhere, there is a proof now that GM Foods are injurious to health, I must tell you that none exists. No NGO will accept to propagate a view or join in advocacy in favour of a position that is more of fiction than fact. But NBMA should move now to stop the conflagration of the false view about GM food safety. One way to go will be to commission an opinion poll. This is the current global trend. It should also further support NGOs to go on extended advocacy on the right path.

In a recent research study in China, a question was designed to address this issue: “If GM technology is applied in medical area to produce medicine, such as insulin and hepatitis B vaccine, what is your opinion?” The percentage of those who supported, opposed or were neutral to GM pharmaceuticals was 46.8, 12.8, and 40.4%, respectively. Support for GM pharmaceuticals was higher than that found for GM food. And again, there were many in the neutral category. This result suggests that some respondents were against GM food but not against GM technology. Some studies have suggested that efforts to change consumer perception about GM food should address risk perception factors and promote the beneficial effects of biotech crops. 24

Also there was a case of a non-partisan, non-profit organization, in the USA called Intelligence Squared U.S which held a TV debate on December 4, 2014 on whether the world is better off with or without GM food. The discussion was whether GM food is safe, how it impacts the environment and can it improve food security. Both the positive and negative sides had experts debating for or against GM food.

Among the attendees who were present, the percentages in favour or against “genetically modified food” were 32 and 30%, respectively, before the debate, but this changed to 60 and 31%, respectively, after 100 minutes of debating the topic. This result is a proof that efforts to change public perception about GM food should address risk perception factors and promote the beneficial effects of biotech crops.

We are at a precarious point for the fate of the global commons and there is an urgent need to explore the possibility of a framework for robust agricultural technologies. We are facing one of the biggest challenges of our time. It is a challenge we must own as leaders, policy makers, investors, farmers and business people”, said H.E. Hailemariam Desalegn, Former Prime Minister of Ethiopia and the new chair of the AGRF Partners Group and the AGRA Board. 

In view of the fact that future changes in income and population may come close to doubling the current environmental impacts of the food system, we stand at the defining moment of the future of the planet and human wellbeing. Rising to this challenge of climate change would impact on food production, our markets and livelihood. ‘‘While most food companies and agribusinesses are ill-prepared to meet this challenge, the future of the planet depends on their response.” – Jack Bobo, founder and CEO of Futurity. Our actions on climate protection over the next few years will determine whether we continue on a part of exponentially growing national disasters or pivot unto a path towards a safer, more prosperous world. Now that technologies have emerged that will revolutionize crop production and supply chains, the food and agricultural landscape is expected to change more in the next 30 years than it has in the last 200 years. The choice is ours; to contribute to the problem or become part of the solution?

With just five years behind, NBMA has made tremendous impact in her vital role in improving and protecting lives and the environment. NBMA should continue to create programs that support safe application of modern biotechnology in agricultural practices that make big impact on all lives including the world’s poorest. This agency should also continue to work in tandem with NGOs and all groups that insist on evidence-based decisions and policies. I can assure you that preponderance of opinion from NGO groups in Nigeria is supportive of NBMA in the discharge of its statutory responsibilities and implementing the Cartegena Protocol on Biosafety (CPB).

Our food system is broken and we must repair it. Nigeria should streamline the work towards producing enough food rather than wasting further resources on labyrinth processes. Someone will have to do this, and soon; or these wicked problems will come home and roost. As captured in a statement by Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Co-chair, Global Commission on Economy and Climate ‘‘It is time to be smart about Financing Clean Development”. Adoption of technologies that will promote GM Foods shall ensure food security for the growing population and mainstream a biodiversity based economy for future. They are quite safe for consumption and key to revitalizing the stability of our ecosystems. 

EWHC advocates a consensus (in the public domain) for more discussion on GMO and GM technologies to forge a better understanding of the scientific and social benefits from GM food. Public lectures and other educational formats need to be expanded in Nigeria to help the public develop evidence-based attitudes about GM foods. Until public doubts about GM food are addressed in a balanced and evidence-based manner, it will be difficult for Nigeria to develop sound policies and programs that will benefit the agribusiness industry and consumers. The Nigeria media should be encouraged to incorporate scientific facts in their reporting and discourage exaggerated reports and “fake” news. There should be a constructive vision and plan for building a future society that includes rational attitudes and a foundation for a food-secure global society with adequate safety safeguards in place. This has to be done and very urgently too. Remember in all we do in life, it is Food First!

References

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THANK YOU FOR LISTENING AND HAVE A FRUITFUL DISCUSSION

A PAPER PRESENTED ON A 2-DAY BIOSAFETY TRAINING WORKSHOP ON GENETICALLY MODIFIED FOOD AND FEED SAFETYORGANIZED BY NIGERIA BIOSAFETY MANAGEMENT AGENCY (NBMA)IN COLLABORATION WITH THE PROGRAM FOR BIOSAFETY SYSTEM (PBS)

EDEL-QUINN IJEOMA AGBAEGBU

Founder/Executive Director, Every Woman Hope (EWHC) http://www.everywomanhopecentre.org

Editor in Chief, LifeCare Journal

Secretary, National Biosafety Biotechnology Consortium (NBBC) http://www.nbbcnigeria.org/

*Nigeria’s Country Representative,Voluntary Peer Review Process (VPR),Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP)

VENUE: Corinthian Villa Hotel and Suites, Garki 2, Abuja

Date: October 29-30, 2019




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