Viewpoint: Anti-GMO forces in Nigeria have abandoned reason and the nation’s best interests

| May 13, 2019
e d z
Cassava harvest in Nigeria. Credit: IFPRI/Milo Mitchell
This article or excerpt is included in the GLP’s daily curated selection of ideologically diverse news, opinion and analysis of biotechnology innovation.

Anti-GMO forces in Nigeria are ratcheting up their opposition to the commercial release of the nation’s first two genetically engineered crops – versions of cotton and cowpea designed to resist a devastating pest.

The nation released the new cotton variety in the summer of 2018 and is in the final stages of releasing the new cowpea seeds to farmers. Breeders are hopeful these new GMO options will help farmers deal with yield-crippling insects like the cotton-hungry bollworm.

Cotton was once a driver of the nation’s textile industry. In the 1970s, it was Nigeria’s second largest employer with about 350,000 jobs. Today the sector is comatose because of low yields, caused by climate change and pests that have reduced yields by about 60 percent. Employment is around 20,000.

The GM cotton variety was developed using proteins from soil bacteria Bacillus thuringensis to confer resistance to the bollworm. This improved variety is projected to offer a significant yield increase over versions previously available to farmers.

Cowpea is an indigenous food crop and major source of protein to both rural and urban poor, Nigeria is the world’s largest world producer, but still experiences a consumption deficit of 0.5 percent.

a recent anti gmo public rally in abuja

Nigerian researchers at the Institute of Agricultural Research developed a variety resistant to pod boring pests. They turned to genetic engineering after several years of unsuccessful research using traditional breeding methods. This new GM cowpea promises a 20 percent yield increase, while also reducing pesticide sprays from about eight times to two times in a planting season.

The two new seeds have taken different routes toward commercialization – the cowpea was developed by the nation’s own scientists – yet they have each been greeted by fierce opposition from anti-GMO forces.

Those opponents have formed coalitions led by the Health of Mother Earth Foundation (HOMEF). As GM crops head toward commercial release, the coalitions have called for the federal government to withdraw their permits. They’ve alleged a range of safety issues for human health and the environment, while also raising fears of western control of the African food economy.

They organize press conferences, training workshops supported by their local and international partners – mostly NGOs from Europe –  and street rallies. They have mobilized farmer groups and civil society organizations with no background in biotechnology, while building alliances with specific media organisations, and lobbying policy makers and those with links to government.

They’ve used messages based on fear and misinformation to discourage government officials and the public from adopting these new products. And they have used the courts to slow the process, with the ultimate goal of generating negative attention for the crops.

Among their leaders is Philip Njemanze (see GLP profile here), a physician and entrepreneur who opposes GMOs. He was arrested in 2016 for falsely accusing the Imo state Government of human organ trafficking. He also faces several credibility questions relating to his claims on GMOs, western alliance with African nations, and claims that Nigeria will cease to exist in 2014.

During the approval process for the GMO cowpea, he threatened to sue all promoters of GMOs in Nigeria. Later, he wrote an opinion piece arguing that the militant Islamic group Boko Haram is a puppet of biotech firms looking to gain control of Nigeria’s food supply.

Related article:  South Australia to lift 'stifling' GMO crop ban that cost farmers $33 million
Follow the latest news and policy debates on agricultural biotech and biomedicine? Subscribe to our newsletter.

Yet the actions of Njemanze and others have dampened the public’s enthusiasm for these new crop offerings. This has prompted other organizations to step forward to offer another viewpoint to consumers, farmers and policymakers.

The Catholic Medical Practitioners of Nigeria, for example, have applauded the ingenuity of Nigerian scientists responsible for the new cowpea.

A coalition of civil society organizations and farmers – led by Prof. Celestine Aguoro, a plant biotechnologist and president of the National Biotechnology and Biosafety Consortium (NBBC) – said in a press conference that activists are enemies of the country. They argue that opposition to new GMO crops risks opening the country to unregulated GMOs and chemicals, and that it will make farming unattractive and prevent Nigerians from their rights to food.

They called on the federal government to ignore calls by activists to ban GM cowpea because it is safe and poses no harm to humans or animals. Aguoro assured Nigerians that they followed various stages of the research and that there is nothing to worry about. They also encouraged government agencies to get activists involved in the process of developing GMOs.

The National Biotechnology Development Agency, remains committed to educating Nigerians on the technology and the products through the Open Forum on Agricultural Biotechnology (OFAB) unit, a knowledge sharing initiative of the African Agriculture Technology Foundation (AATF).

The forum has developed a network of stakeholders including scientists, political leaders, academia, religious groups, professional scientific associations, media and farmers. The goal is to explore and explain the real science behind the new crops and to educate Nigerians through the media. The effort has experienced some success, yet many Nigerians remain uneducated about the technology.

Responsible civil society organizations and groups work with the government for the common good of the masses. But many of these organizations have never taken the time to understand how various government agencies make their decisions, said Dr. Rufus Ebegba, director general of the National Biosafety Management Agency (NBMA). Such an approach raises questions about the true intent of critics and whether they have the nation’s interest at heart.

If they are truly worried about safety to human health and environment, and food security, then it should be done through constructive dialogue, education and objective assessment of risks, and not threats and smear campaigns. With such a rational approach we can bridge the divide and achieve lasting solutions to our common challenge of hunger, poverty and malnutrition.

Opuah Abeikwen is a co-initiator of Science Cafe Nigeria and a 2016 Cornell Alliance for Science Global Fellow. Follow him on Twitter @Opuahabeikwen

The GLP featured this article to reflect the diversity of news, opinion and analysis. The viewpoint is the author’s own. The GLP’s goal is to stimulate constructive discourse on challenging science issues.

Outbreak
Outbreak Daily Digest
Biotech Facts & Fallacies
Talking Biotech
Genetics Unzipped
a a b b a f ac a

Video: Death by COVID: The projected grim toll in historical context

The latest statistics, as of July 10, show COVID-19-related deaths in U.S. are just under 1,000 per day nationally, which is ...
mag insects image superjumbo v

Disaster interrupted: Which farming system better preserves insect populations: Organic or conventional?

A three-year run of fragmentary Armageddon-like studies had primed the journalism pumps and settled the media framing about the future ...
dead bee desolate city

Are we facing an ‘Insect Apocalypse’ caused by ‘intensive, industrial’ farming and agricultural chemicals? The media say yes; Science says ‘no’

The media call it the “Insect Apocalypse”. In the past three years, the phrase has become an accepted truth of ...
types of oak trees

Infographic: Power of evolution? How oak trees came to dominate North American forests

Over the course of some 56 million years, oaks, which all belong to the genus Quercus, evolved from a single undifferentiated ...
biotechnology worker x

Can GMOs rescue threatened plants and crops?

Some scientists and ecologists argue that humans are in the midst of an "extinction crisis" — the sixth wave of ...
food globe x

Are GMOs necessary to feed the world?

Experts estimate that agricultural production needs to roughly double in the coming decades. How can that be achieved? ...
eating gmo corn on the cob x

Are GMOs safe?

In 2015, 15 scientists and activists issued a statement, "No Scientific consensus on GMO safety," in the journal Environmental Sciences ...
Screen Shot at PM

Charles Benbrook: Agricultural economist and consultant for the organic industry and anti-biotechnology advocacy groups

Independent scientists rip Benbrook's co-authored commentary in New England Journal calling for reassessment of dangers of all GMO crops and herbicides ...
Screen Shot at PM

ETC Group: ‘Extreme’ biotechnology critic campaigns against synthetic biology and other forms of ‘extreme genetic engineering’

The ETC Group is an international environmental non-governmental organization (NGO) based in Canada whose stated purpose is to monitor "the impact of emerging technologies and ...
Share via
News on human & agricultural genetics and biotechnology delivered to your inbox.
Optional. Mail on special occasions.
Send this to a friend