“Nigerians have been eating GMO foods for decades, it did not kill anyone” – Naija Farmer

Ejike Kanife
“The current outcry over GMOs is because people are not aware that they have been consuming GMO foods for a long time”, he said
Nigerians have been eating GMO foods for decades, it did not kill anyone – Naija Farmer
GMO Corn

As the debate surrounding the acceptability of GMO foods (genetically modified organisms) continues to take centre stage, prominent social farmer, Olanrewaju Akintobi popularly called Naija Farmer has disclosed that GMO foods are not new in the country as Nigerians have been eating them for several decades.

The farmer said this during a chat with Technext.

Lanre, also CEO of Lanse Farms, said most staple foods in Nigeria like beans, rice and maize are mostly genetically modified hybrids. He said this is so because staple foods are very important to human sustenance.

This is the reason researchers focus on developing new varieties so that they can be able to feed the ever-growing population and ensure food security by using technology to improve the seeds people eat a lot.

The current outcry over GMOs is because people are not aware that they have been consuming GMO foods for a long time. We import maize, the imported maize is GMO. The farmers plant GMO beans. When they want to fry akara, or make moi-moi, do you ask the seller if the beans they made akara or moi-moi from are GMO beans? We have been eating GMO foods for a long time,” he told this reporter.

He pointed out that the reason people are not aware that they have been eating GMO foods is that Nigerian foods are not labelled. So people just go to the market, measure their grains and buy.

He said this is unlike the West where foods, even poultry and dairy products are labelled such that people know the exact farms their foods are coming from.

Nigerians have been eating GMO foods for decades, it did not kill anyone – Naija Farmer
Olanrewaju Akintobi. Credit: Naija Farmer

He noted that truly organic foods, grown with organic manure, are expensive, almost four times the cost of the conventional food the population eats. Given the current economic realities in the country, people can’t afford organic food therefore GMO ensures that they can afford their food.

“The current economic realities of the country now, we just want food to eat because we are hungry. Purchasing power is so low. So do people want quality food or do they just want to eat? Organic food is for the rich people, it is not for everybody. So even if you label it (GMO), so far it is cheap, people will go for it. Because you cannot buy one ton of beans for 1 million naira and sell a ball of akara for 200 naira while somebody else is selling for 50 naira. The common man on the street will not care, they will buy the 50 naira own,” he said.

Why is GMO in Nigeria?

Explaining why GMO foods are very important for the survival of the country, Mr Lanre pointed out that there is something called ‘production advantage,’ which means if a country is hitting or even surpassing its production expectations and needs for a particular crop, it has production advantage and there is, therefore, no point bringing in GMO varieties.

For instance, because Nigeria is the highest producer of onions in Sub-Saharan Africa, achieved with regular onions, there is no need for GMO onions.

However, GMO seeds are required for crops which the country is not producing enough to guarantee food security. For instance, Nigeria only produces 2 tons of maize per hectare whereas other African countries produce up to 10 tons per hectare. The reasons for this drastically reduced output are changing climate conditions, and pest infestation by a maize pest called armyworm or stem borers.

The natural solution would be to apply pesticides. However, pesticides would not undo a large portion of the damage. Also, there is a standard practice called the ‘withdrawal method’ which states that a farmer must not apply any pesticide 14 days before harvesting because of the high likelihood that the chemical will settle into the food. This has been linked to cancer and even Parkinson’s disease when ingested.

For white beans, the common destroyer is the pod borer pest. This pest is said to be so devastating that farmers need to apply pesticides to their bean crops almost five to six times in their few months’ lifecycles just to manage the damage.

So to prevent all of this, researchers could come up with a GMO seed that is resistant to that pest. In 2019 for instance, the Nigerian government approved the genetically modified pod borer-resistant beans for commercial release to farmers.

his will improve both the quantity and quality of the beans since there will be no need to spray them with pesticides.

Nigerians have been eating GMO foods for decades, it did not kill anyone – Naija Farmer
There are GMO-modified beans in Nigeria

Climatic change has led to irregular rains and drought in some parts. This could lead to low yield. However, the genetically modified drought-resistant maize known as Tela maize has been released to ensure high yield despite drought. This maize is engineered using desirable traits from sorghum.

Lanre explained that in the dry season, the sorghum plant folds its leaf to reduce saturation. Bringing that trait into maize means even in drought, the maize will still do well.

A lot of maize goes to poultry feed and a lot of poultries are closing down because of the high cost of maize. Two to three years ago, a ton of maize was around 170,000/180,000 naira. Now, a ton of maize is 840,000 in Kaduna rural market. So if you bring it down south we are talking about 1 million naira per ton. So if we can get this maize that pest will not affect and the ones resistant against drought, we will be able to harvest more maize and we will be able to feed ourselves,” he said.

He however pointed out that GMO is not the solution to Nigeria’s food problem, just a small solution to a small part of it. He also noted that GMO seeds are not necessarily being imported as they are also been engineered here in Nigeria by both private organisations and government research institutes. Indeed the Tela maize research was led by a northern Nigerian professor.

Fears surrounding GMO foods in Nigeria

The purported introduction of GMO foods into Nigeria’s food security system has elicited widespread rejection and condemnation with many people raising concerns about possible health implications like causing cancer and stroke, etc.

Others have suggested that genetically modified grains cannot be replanted and therefore will leave the country at the mercy of the organisations modifying the food.  

Lanre, however, debunked the claims, attributing the outcry to people’s natural resistance to change, especially about technology. He also blamed it on the fact that people who know better are not speaking out more, leaving gaps for people with limited knowledge to spread misinformation.

For claims that GMOs cause cancer and other health challenges, Lanre said GMOs have been with us for decades and so far, there has not been any linkage between them and cancer or any other health challenge. So far there has been no scientific publication or health publication linking human or even animal health challenges with the consumption of GMO foods.

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A maize farmer

For claims that they cannot be replanted and therefore the country must be at the mercy of the developers, he pointed out that this is not entirely correct. Tela maize for instance is not a sterilized seed and can be replanted.

However, the replanted seeds cannot guarantee as much yield as the original GMO seed itself so it doesn’t make sense to replant. However, Tela maize is a government-funded project so the government must not invest for profit.

For private organisations that invest to make a profit, the story is different. Because it takes years of hard work and millions of dollars in funding to produce GMO seeds, to recoup their investments, the researchers make the seeds sterile through technology so that farmers cannot replant the harvest. As such, they must buy new seeds every farming season.

“They are just theories that are baseless and do not hold water, and because people do not have the right information and are not open-minded, they accept these theories from people they trust to know better but who are unfortunately as naïve as they are,” Akintobi concluded.

See also: Social agriculture: 7.5 million Kenyan farmers sell their produce through social media

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