‘Fake food’: How far can ‘Genetically Modified Produce’ go in Nigeria?

by Adedayo Ademuwagun

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Nigeria presently imports rice, wheat and certain other foods to make up for inadequate local production, and according to the Food and Agriculture Organisation, Nigeria is the second largest importer of rice in the world.

To curb this, this year the government banned rice importation through land borders and hiked tariff rates for the importation of the grains through seaports. But this exacerbated smuggling at the land borders and caused retail prices to rise.

For some, the ban came too early, as Nigeria’s agriculture industry has not yet started producing enough food for the country’s growing population. An effort to give the industry a hand happened in 2013, when Nigeria joined nine other African countries in the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition.

The Alliance is a collaboration established in 2012 between the G8 Summit, the enlisted African governments and the private sector led by a number of multinational companies. The goal of the programme is to increase food production and sufficiency in Africa through private sector investment in agriculture.

In Nigeria, there have been various government programmes in the past for increased agricultural productivity. There was the National Accelerated Food Production Programme by the Gowon government in 1972. There was the Operation Feed the Nation by the Obasanjo government in 1976. Then there was the Green Revolution in 1980 by the Shagari government. These programmes were mainly unsuccessful for political and administrative reasons.

The Goodluck Jonathan government has attempted sweeping changes in the agriculture sector. According to the minister of agriculture Dr Akin Adesina, the “Agricultural Transformation Agenda” is based on the philosophy that agriculture is a business and not a development programme. Furthermore, he says the goal of this administration is to have added 20 million tonnes of food to the domestic supply by 2015 and to have created 3.5 million jobs.

Some people are canvassing for Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) to be introduced in the country in order to boost production and make farming more profitable for farmers in Nigeria. However, some other people oppose the idea on safety grounds.

GMOs are plants or animals whose cells have been altered using genes in order to give them new or improved characteristics. For example, plants might be so modified to make them more nutritious or resistant to pests and drought.

GM plants are commercially available in many countries. More than 40 types of plants have been genetically modified worldwide, including corn, soybean and cotton. In America for instance, 90% of the cereals grown are genetically modified.

Genetically modified products (e.g plant seeds) take a lot of research to produce. Companies who are in this line of business invest a lot of money in research and recoup the investment by patenting the products. This means, for instance, that farmers who buy these GM seeds can’t legally store or replant the seeds.

There are certain merits for using GMOs. For example, the Monsanto Company produces the world’s most used herbicide, glyphosate, which it markets as ‘Roundup’. Because of the popularity of Roundup, Monsanto began to produce seeds which it called called Roundup Ready. The seeds have been genetically altered to give them resistance to glyphosate.

Ordinarily, farmers would have to plant seeds in rows that are far apart. Then when the seeds start to germinate and weeds also show up, they would need to till the land to remove the weeds.

But for the “Roundup Ready” seeds, farmers plant the seeds and then apply glyphosate when the plants start growing. The GM seeds are resistant to the herbicide, so only the weeds are killed. This lets farmers plant more rows close to each other, such that the farmers get to save space and plant more seeds on a given piece of land, increasing the amount of yield they can get from that land.

Despite such proven benefits of GMOs in agriculture, some scientists and activists claim that GMOs are unsafe for consumption and hazardous to the environment. They also say that applying GMOs threaten the diversity of plant life and amount to bio-piracy, which is a situation where indigenous knowledge of nature is unduly used by others for profit. Many of these claims are disputed and have not been scientifically proven, but that has not stopped many controversial cases regarding the commercial application of GMOs. One of them is the application of a synthetic hormone called rBST.

Monsanto developed and sold this hormone, which increases milk production by 11-16% when injected into cows. The use of rBST has been condemned by many people who have concerns about its effects on the cows and the milk they produce.

Last May, there was a worldwide movement against Monsanto and GMOs, involving marches in dozens of countries across the world including Ghana and South Africa. Worldwide, GMO use continues to face stiff disapproval.

In developing countries like Nigeria, people think that the application of GMOs will present greater risk to low-income farmers than benefits. These risks are in terms of high costs, uncertain yields and the threat to local non-GM breeds.

Moreso, there is also strong scepticism about proper regulation of GMO application. Dr Adu, a lecturer at the Department of Botany in Lagos State University says, “As for me, I wouldn’t eat any GMO products if they are ever introduced in this country, because we can’t be sure of appropriate regulation. It’s hard to control things in this country. We’ve seen it with fuel and other things.”

Cynthia Umoru owns a farm. She says, “We need to work with some form of biotechnology. The question is, can it be controlled?

“We know the system is porous and corrupt. So it’s important to pass the biosafety bill so there’ll be a solid regulatory system. But it’s not just the passage. Beyond that, there’s a need to strengthen the institutions that will do the monitoring or else it will be in futility.

“We need to have lots of lab work and field experiments, not just for some people to go to the lab and come up with something just six months later.

“But the thing is that people just scream against it. We need to educate them and orientate them.

“With GMO, there’ll be improvements and increased yields to cater for our large population.”

“We have the advantage to produce some crops that can compete favourably anywhere in the world,” said Richard Olafare in a recent interview. He is the president of Seeds Entrepreneurs Association of Nigeria, and he was discussing reasons for insufficient food production locally.

“We can produce rice, maize, wheat. The land is there, the farmers are there. You will find out that some of the farmers are knowledgeable enough to produce these seeds and grains. What has been their problem is [a lack of] market.

“When they produce, they don’t have the market to sell. So, they are limited to subsistence farming: produce and eat. Now with the food value chain approach, we have the producer in there and the end user there. We try to link the farmers who are the producers to the users who are the millers. What is not there is how these farmers can get finance to produce. The farmers are there. It is just to encourage them to have access to
facility.

“How many small scale farmers have access to funding? It is the big farmers, the commercial farmers, that have the access. About 70 percent of our production in Nigeria is by small scale farmers. Very few commercial farms are obtainable. If you aggregate the production of all the small scale holders, it is very big.”

As elections approach and the future political situation looks uncertain, it is unlikely that the introduction of GM crops will come through any time soon. Nevertheless, even as some people scoff at the idea and some embrace it, people generally agree about the need for reforms in the agriculture sector to ensure food security for the Nigerian people and more profitability for Nigerian farmers.

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