Biotechnology is a powerful scientific tool which is revolutionizing the way we do things. It is the use of living organisms (plants, animals or microorganisms) to make useful products for economic outcome. While conventional plant breeding methods are generally time consuming and most times inaccurate, genetic engineering ensures that the desired trait is created very rapidly and with great accuracy. The specific aim is to improve the quality of the host organism.
With the growing concern about the environmental impacts of large-scale use of insecticides and pesticides and the campaign launched to reduce the use of such chemicals, biotechnology application provides a ready substitute. Transgenic plants that are resistant to pesticides can play an important role in reducing the use of these chemicals. Plant varieties resistant to insects (Bt cowpea and Bt. cotton) can help to cut down the total amount of insecticides used. This in turn can improve environmental quality. In addition, some transgenic plants can produce higher level of certain crucial nutrients which can improve the nutritional quality of foods.
In his speech at the opening session of a training workshop to sensitise staff of the Federal Competition and Consumer Protection Commission (FCCPC) on facts about genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and their products currently available in the country organized by the National Biotechnology Development Agency (NABDA) in collaborating with its partners, the African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF) and Program for Biosafety System (PBS), the NABDA director-general, Prof. Abdullahi Mustapha, said the place of transgenic crops in our food production endeavour was enormous.
Notwithstanding the benefits of GMOs, he acknowledged there are still dissenting voices concerning the desirability of encouraging the growth of transgenic plants. The dissenting group, according to NABDA boss, holds the opinion that they (transgenic plants) can have an adverse impact on the natural environment, ecosystem and biodiversity, adding, however, current rate of extinction in the world today called for timely intervention to conserve species that could thrive in harsh environmental conditions.
He further discredited concern about allergenicity as raised by sceptics, saying it had not been scientifically founded after all, listing some transgenic crops currently available in the world as maize, soybean, canola, cowpea, sugarcane and cotton.
Mustapha expressed the hope that the staff of FCCPC and all stakeholders participating in the workshop would be better informed about the critical importance of the domestication of modern biotechnology in the country at the end of the training.
In his remarks, the executive vice chairman of FCCPC, Babatunde Irukera, explained that biotechnology could be deployed to ensure higher yields, bio fortification, less exposure to chemicals, pest and drought resistant crops, among other benefits and also noted there are some perceived concerns over their safety to humans and the environment.
According to him, the essence of the workshop was to expose the members of staff of the commission to facts about the group of consumer goods and dispel the concerns.
“It is in the public domain that the safety of GMO is controversial in which both pro and anti-groups are justifying their positions. The opinions of both parties were harnessed during the dialogue on GM foods in Nigeria jointly organized by the commission in collaboration with Barns Connect, to provide an avenue for the two groups to voice their opinions on the subject matter.
“However, as a commission, it is our responsibility to ensure consumers have the right to full disclosure of information on products purchased and consumed, hence, GM foods must be labeled to promote choice on informed basis as already enshrined in National Biosafety (Implementation, etc) Regulations, 2017. Recently, the commission also signed an MOU with the NBMA to ensure smooth collaboration in the regulation of GMOs and their products for consumer safety,” he said.
Irukera who was represented by the commission’s deputy director, operations, Dr. Adamu Abdullahi, said the commission’s mandate covered all consumer products including GMOs and its derivatives, be it plant or animal-based products, to ensure consumers have access to safe and wholesome products and that their rights were protected.
“So, in a bid to carry out this function effectively with science-based facts and dispel the myths with regard to the products of modern biotechnology (GMOs), this workshop is being organized; that the members of staff of FCCPC will go out with key messages and facts, and allay the unwarranted fears of the public. As members of staff of the commission, you are consumers too and need to be empowered with the right information on GMOs in order to make informed decisions on what to consume,” he added.
On his part, the NBMA director-general, Dr. Rufus Ebegba, pointed out that the agency was established sequel to the active participation of the FCCPC in its different programs, adding NABDA was set up with the responsibility of ensuring safe procedures, practices, policies and principles are followed in biotechnology tool deployment as regards to GM foods.
He noted that the agency recently signed a memorandum of understanding with the FCCPC so both of them could be on the same page in terms of understanding each other as FCCPC is the commission representing the voice of consumers, while NBMA regulates a product generally perceived as controversial.
“Government wants to use modern biotechnology to drive the economy, and science and technology will drive the modern economy. So, our responsibility as an agency is to regulate, to make sure that the products are safe to the environment and human health,” he added.
This was even as he assured Nigerians of the safety of any GM foods which have gone through the processes to get approval for release by the agency, adding nothing that would pose any form of risk to human health or the environment would be released in the country.
Presenting the aim and objectives of the workshop, the country coordinator of Open Forum on Agricultural Biotechnology (OFAB), Dr Rose Gidado, said it was to provide accurate and up to date information about advances in the biotechnology sector since its adoption in Nigeria in order to ensure that the FCCPC staff are fully acquainted with facts about GMOs and effectively disseminate same to the public.
Gidado, who is also a deputy director at NABDA, listed the objectives of the workshop, including to build consumers’ confidence in biotech and their products and let FCCPC know the facts and myth about genetically modified crops; to demystify biotechnology concept and address issues of misunderstanding in the face of opposition from anti GM groups.
Others are to create a process for building public awareness about the opportunities and challenges presented by biotechnology development and to promote dialogue amongst scientists, the biotechnology industry, policy makers and the public; to make evident to decision makers that modern biotechnology can be an effective tool for increasing agricultural productivity, and thereby increasing economic growth; and to enable the staff of the FCCPC to make informed decisions about appropriate uses of biotechnology by providing accurate information about benefits, risks and impacts.