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Adoption of genetically engineered crops in Africa needs caution

The decision to adopt GM crops should be based on rigorous scientific research, ethical considerations, and the best interests of the African people and their agricultural heritage
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In January 2024, the Nigerian government approved the commercial planting of four varieties of genetically engineered corn (Tela maize ) in the country, making Nigeria the second country in Africa to give such an approval after South Africa. This is not surprising as Nigeria is ranked among the six leading countries in Africa in the adoption of biotech crops. However, despite the claimed benefits of genetically modified (GM) crops, such as high yield and drought and pest resistance, there are valid concerns about the long-term health, environmental and economic implications of GM crops for Nigeria and Africa, which necessitate to tread on this path with caution.

For context, genetically engineered foods or crops are developed by scientists through the introduction of selected genetic materials from one organism into a different organism to enhance desirable characteristics or to suppress undesirable ones. For example, insect-resistant genes from the bacteria species Bacillus thuringiensis are engineered into crops such as cotton and corn so that these crops can produce insect-resistant toxins as the bacteria from which the genes were obtained. The acclaimed potential advantages of genetically engineered crops include attractiveness, resilience, nutritional value, and less waste.

However, debates persist regarding the potential benefits of GM crops versus the risks associated with them, especially in Africa and other developing parts of the world. According to a report, “the promoters of GM foods hail genetic engineering as essential for addressing food insecurity and malnutrition in developing countries while its opponents counter that it will wreak environmental havoc, increase poverty and hunger, and lead to a corporate takeover of traditional agriculture and the global food supply.”

Also, there are concerns about the health risks associated with foods produced from genetically engineered crops. Some experts such as Dr Qrisstuberg Amua of the Centre for Food Safety and Agricultural Research in Nigeria have linked GM foods to health problems such as “cancer, fertility sterilizations, metabolic derangements, cardiovascular health disruptions, children obesity, autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorders in children, mental health problems and early memory decay (dementia) in individuals above 40 years of age.”

While promoters of GM foods will argue they are safe for human consumption, many experts believe that genetic engineering involving major changes in the metabolic pathways of crops or the insertion of multiple resistance genes, as being currently explored using emerging genetic engineering technologies, will complicate the determination of food safety, which raises serious food safety concerns.

For the new GM maize varieties and other GM crops approved for commercialization in Nigeria and Africa, there is a genuine cause for concern over the health safety of these crops as the regulatory bodies mainly based their approvals on the yield of these GM crops from short-term field trials and not based on comprehensive and long-term risk assessments. Considering that the application of genetic engineering in crop production is still something novel and evolving, African countries must not be in a hurry to accept the transfer of products of such emerging technologies until we have developed the capacity of our indigenous scientists and regulators to be able to properly interrogate and assess the short- and long-term health safety implications of GM crops and the technologies used in their production.

Furthermore, while some GM crops are said to have positive environmental impacts by reducing pesticide applications, some experts have reported that “the introduction of GM crops would in the long term shape the ecological landscape and lead to loss of diversity which would not only be harmful to the environment but also leave under-resourced communities (especially in Africa) at risk of widespread loss if something goes wrong.” There are also concerns over the risk of outcrossing, where genes from GMO foods pass into wild plants and other crops with unintended negative consequences.

Without doubt, the adoption of GM crops in Africa comes with significant future implications for food insecurity for Africa(ns). For instance, the adoption of GM seeds over our traditional seed varieties is tantamount to Africa handing its seed production systems over to the full control of foreign corporate interests (who own the patents and licenses to these technologies and GM seed productions), and this could be another tool of control and further exploitation of the continent by western interests as he who pays the piper dictates the tune.

Finally, there are ethical considerations to this issue as far as farmers and consumers are concerned. In developed countries, genetically engineered crops are properly labelled such that farmers and consumers can make informed decisions about whether to plant or consume them or not. However, in Nigeria and other parts of Africa, there is a high tendency to expose farmers and consumers to GM crops without their prior knowledge and consent, which is unethical and violates their fundamental rights.

In sum, while the potential benefits of GM crops seem enticing, African nations must approach the adoption of GM crops with caution, ensuring that proper regulatory frameworks and risk assessments are in place to safeguard the health and well-being of citizens and the environment. Ultimately, the decision to adopt GM crops should be based on rigorous scientific research, ethical considerations, and the best interests of the African people and their agricultural heritage.

 

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