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GMOs threatening farmers’ ability to grow crops

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GMOs threatening farmers' ability to grow tomatoes, maize, others

Sometimes last year, the internet was awash with pictures of healthy looking tomatoes sold at Ikpa, a local market in Nsukka, Enugu State. Grown by local farmers, the tomatoes were celebrated as testament to the fact that the Southeast region can be self sufficient in crop production.

But underneath this seemingly big breakthrough is an emerging troubling story of how new varieties  are displacing crop varieties the locals had known and planted for centuries, with telling consequences.

A good percentage of the fresh looking tomatoes had been the hybrid variant, generally referred to as ‘tomato oyibo’ by the locals, who were encouraged to adopt it because it grew faster and produced better tomatoes than the ones they used to grow. However, things are taking a disturbing dimension rather quickly.

Though not necessarily GMOs, the hybrid variant lasts only one generation, which means their seeds cannot be replanted, and for the farmers, it’s a big challenge.

“This year, I could not plant tomatoes,” Phina Ezugwu, a local farmer in Ede Oballa, a community in Nsukka, who had grown the tomatoes last year, told Business Hallmark. “The cost of the seeds has gone beyond my reach. I cannot afford over N100,000 for just tomato seeds. What will I now use to cultivate it and other crops?”

Like Phina many local farmers, who had been lured into adopting the ‘tomato oyibo’ say they have been forced to stop growing tomatoes altogether, because the seeds have become too expensive and the original organic variety no longer produce seeds when planted, even as they have nearly gone extinct.

“When I started planting the new tomato variety four years ago, we bought the seeds at the rate of N7,000. But suddenly it got to N12,000 and by last year 2023, it went to N70,000. This year, they are selling it at over N100,000. How can I afford that for just seeds when I have other things to grow?” wondered Ebere Eze, a widow in her 40s, who grows crops to sustain her young family.

For the locals, the idea of spending huge amounts of money to buy seeds every planting season is an odd one. The practice had always been to get seeds from the year’s harvest, preserve them for use in next year’s planting. But the new variety does not offer such privilege, which means that for each planting season, the local farmers must cough out huge, yet ever increasing amounts of money to pay for new seeds.

“The original tomato we used to plant before, if you plant it now, it will grow to a certain point then die off without producing any tomato,” said Phina. “That type is no longer an option. It doesn’t grow here anymore. So, for you want to grow tomatoes, you must buy those seeds, but they have become too expensive.”

The Nsukka zone of Enugu, blessed with fertile land, has always led the pack in agriculture in Enugu. Ose Nsukka (the variety of yellow pepper grown in Nsukka) is often in hot demand for its deep flavour. Nsukka has always grown tomatoes too from time immemorial, but more recently, farmers began to observe that crops began to decay before harvest, which also made them more willing to try the new variant.

But this has within a short period threatened its sustainability, with local farmers now dependent on corporations for seeds, which they are increasingly unable to afford, while local varieties are no longer adapted to the soil.

The GMO variants are still being experiment with.  It initially made inroads into Nigeria in October 2017 with the Federal University of Technology, Akure (FUTA) announcing that it had developed a high-yield new variety of tomatoes by culturing Eva F1 seedling imported from Israel and carefully nurturing it in its Green House under controlled temperature, it was welcomed with fanfare.

A statement from the university had said the new variety, named Eva F1, was cultured to suit the Nigerian market through the collaborative efforts of the School of Agriculture and Agricultural Technology (SAAT) and the Teaching and Research Farm (TRF) of the institution, and was “five times bigger in size than the commonly available one in the Nigerian market and it is capable of producing paste more than four times the latter.”

“The Eva F1 tomato, it continued, “has the rare quality of imperishability over a period of two weeks from date of harvest.”

The statement by the institution’s spokesperson, Adegbenro Adebanjo, also quoted the Dean, School of Agriculture and Agricultural Technology, Taiwo Amos, to have said at the formal presentation of the first harvest of the product to the Vice-Chancellor, Adeola Fuwape, that Eva F1 seedling was imported from Israel and carefully nurtured in FUTA’s Green House under controlled temperature, and the development was actualisation of part of the mandate and determination of the University to put science to work for the society.

“High crop yield is achieved under a small area of land as a unit of the Green House covers 192m2 (8m x 24m),” he had said.

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“With this technology, the tomato crop will be grown and produced round the season. The Eva F1 Tomatoes are organically produced and an indeterminate hybrid variety with an extended shelf life, good resistance to cracking with flower setting at high temperatures.

“The first harvest of the fruits started after three months of planting and we hope to continue the harvest for the next six months.”

GMO crops are genetically engineered for improved insect-resistance and drought-tolerance, even as they have better yield. But as local farmers in Nsukka are realising from the hybrid variant, this can be problematic.

 

Since their introduction by scientists, GMOs have remained subject of hot debates and even conspiracy theories, with many Western democracies also wanting to have nothing to do with it. Today, at least 26 countries across the globe, including France, Germany, Italy, Mexico, Russia, China, Russia and India (19 of which are in the European Union (EU)) have partially or fully banned GMOs, while another 60 countries have placed significant restrictions on it. And for good reason, despite efforts by the government to sell the Idea in Nigeria, many Nigerians continue to view GMOs with much suspicion. Yet, the debate goes deeper.

In 1985, Andrae G. Beckman published a research paper on food policy titled, ‘The Wheat Trap: Bread and Underdevelopment in Nigeria,’ which explores wheat import and food security of bread and the resultant dependence in Nigeria, and how bread became a cheap staple for low income groups, changed consumer behaviour and led to capital intensive import substitution based on large scale irrigation.

Some have suggested that GMOs may have similar effect, while many have also argued that they could have health implications, with accusations made about them being some of the leading causes of cancer. But while this have been disproved by many health experts, emerging evidence suggests that the core issue with GMOs may not be about health, but about displacement of local crops.

Indeed, emerging evidence suggests that fears about GMOs displacing local crops and giving birth to what some have described as Agro Colonialism are not out of place. As with the case of tomatoes, many GMO crops cannot be regrown by farmers, meaning that for each planting season, they’d rely on corporations for new seeds, and as the interaction between the soil and these GMOs increasingly make growing original organic varieties impossible, there is real concern about Nigerians becoming completely dependent on these corporations for food production with potentially far-reaching consequences.

“I had this experience in 2022. The maize I kept for planting from my 2021 harvest did not germinate,” said a maize farmer Idiake Charles. “After waiting for about two weeks, I dug some out and found them to be just as I planted them. I didn’t know they were GMO. I had to buy another seeds for planting.”

Maize is widely grown in Nigeria, and constitutes the bulk of food consumed in local communities, even as several industries use it as raw materials. In the marketing year 2022/2023, Nigeria produced an estimated 12.7 million metric tons (MMT) of corn, with an average yield of 2.2 tons per hectare.

In January 2024, the Bola Tinubu led Federal Government approved the commercial release of four TELA GMO maize varieties, promoted to have been genetically engineered for improved insect-resistance and drought-tolerance, becoming the second African leader, after South Africa’s Cyril Ramaphosa, to approve the commercialization of genetically engineered corn. The approval came four years after the country approved its first genetically modified (GM) food crop — pest-resistant cowpea.

The National Biosafety Management Agency (NBMA) had noted that the decision to allow the environmental release of GM cowpea affirmed the crop’s safety, and paves the way for commercializing GMO cowpea and making the seeds available to farmers.

“Cowpea is the most important food grain legume in Nigeria,” Prof. Ibrahim Abubakar, executive director of the Institute for Agricultural Research (IAR) at Ahmadu Bello University in Zaria, which led the research, had said. “The low yield of the crops in Nigeria is due to many constraints, particularly, pod boring insects, which cause up to 90 percent yield loss in severe infestation cases.”

With respect to maize, the African Agriculture Technology Foundation (AATF) projects that yields of TELA maize could reach up to 10 tons per hectare if grown under good agronomic practices, but not many are impressed.

Dr. Ify Aniebo Rhodes-Vivor, an infectious diseases expert, associate professor and Science Leadership Fellow at Gates Foundation, who along with her husband, Gbadebo, are part of the advocacy against the introduction of GMOs into the country described it as a “sad moment.”

According to her, “A few of us fought aggressively to avoid the introduction of GMO into Nigeria. Gbadebo challenged Akin Adesina on this policy. I challenged the National Biosafety Management Agency and the National Assembly. Nnimmo Bassey’s organisation still speaks against this. We targeted all angles: advocacy, community engagement, stakeholder engagement, policy, and politics. One thing was missing: There was no political will.”

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Globally, at least 33 major food crops have been genetically modified, according to the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA). Of these, four (maize, cowpea, cotton and soybean) have been officially approved for commercialisation by the Nigerian authorities. Nigeria is listed among the six African countries leading in biotech crop adoption across the continent, but critics say this is dangerous.

“The real problem with letting GMOs into African agric supply chains has nothing to do with whether they’re healthy or not,” argues David Hundeyin, @DavidHundeyin, an investigative journalist in a contribution to the GMO debate.

“The actual issue is that these variants, developed using proprietary technology by their American patent holders, can mix with local crop variants around the world and become dominant. The patent owner has the right to stop you from planting his GMO seeds, and to dictate how much of it you can buy.

“These GMOs are also engineered not to reproduce the normal way, so that instead of just planting part of the old harvest, farmers must buy seeds every planting season.

“A time will come when the local variants will disappear, and farmers will need to buy seeds from the American GMO patent holders like @SyngentaUS every planting season – which means that a country’s ability to grow FOOD will be directly dependent on its relationship with the Yanks. I’ll leave you to think about the implications of this.”

Deductions have been made from the experience of American Indians, who were allegedly subdued, not by guns, but by instruction of another variety of potato, which displaced the original variety they had, and made them dependent with telling consequences for their survival as a group.

Similar fears have been expressed by environmentalist in Nigeria, with Arch. Nnimmo Bassey, Director of Health of Mother Earth Foundation, an environmental think tank and advocacy organization, noting that GMOs have been linked to cancers, diseases, allergies, and all sorts of health challenges due to environmental implications because of their dependency on toxic pesticides and the destruction of biodiversity and nutritional diversity.

Bassey maintained that there are many challenges associated with genetic modification crops that cannot be denied, noting that it’s, “totally unacceptable that in the name of food sufficiency, the country is exposing its citizens to products of risky technologies without adequate, independent and/or long-term assessment on their impacts on human and environmental health.”

However, the Nigerian authorities appear undeterred by the concerns. Following the fresh wave of concerns raised by Nigerians, the Federal Government, last week, assured Nigerians it will ensure that GMOs do not affect the country’s rich biodiversity, which includes about 7,895 plant species and 22,000 vertebrate and invertebrate species, stating that the law safeguarding human health from potential risks associated with GMOs, like food safety, has been taken care of by regulating modern biotechnology and the law that supports agricultural modernisation and others.

The Director General, National Biosafety Management Agency, Dr. Agnes Y. Asagbra, who gave the assurance while addressing journalists in Abuja, to allay fear of the citizens, said modern biotechnology began in Nigeria 21 years ago, and now it is accepted.

“We have been proactive in the field of biosafety, recognising early on the potential of the innovation and the need for a robust regulatory framework. We will ensure the safe handling transportation and use of living-modified organisms (LMOs),” he said.

“Biosafety is not just a policy; it is a commitment to safeguarding our nation’s health, biodiversity, and environment. We will monitor technological advancement, particularly in agriculture that are beneficial and pose no harm to people or our land.”

Continuing controversy

With the Tinubu administration, pro West in its outlook, likely to give more approval for GMOs, it’s a debate that is likely to continue for the foreseeable future. In February, the Chairman of Global Prolife Alliance, GPA, Dr. Philip Njemanze, wrote a letter to the National Assembly seeking for total ban on genetically modified foods describing them as national threat.

The letter titled, “National Security Threat: Biotech Terrorism Using GMO Seeds” claimed that certain GMO foods, like corn allegedly contain an Epicyte gene linked to sterilization, saying that allowing such foods will amount to mass sterilization of Nigerians.

It partly read “the terminator gene, a genetic use restriction technology, GURT, makes plants produce sterile seeds in second generation, known as suicide seeds. Biotechnology companies intend to permanently control Nigeria’s food security by ensuring farmers must purchase seeds each planting season. This would result in the perpetual capture of the country’s financial, health natural and human resources by foreign biotechnology investors.

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“To address these security concerns, the government should consider implementing a complete ban on all GMO seeds and crops in Nigeria”

However, the Biotechnology Society of Nigeria (BSN) in a counter letter to NASS by its president, Prof. Sylvia Uzochukwu, described Dr. Njemanze’s position as primordial and archaic.

The society said his letter portrayed him as one, who may have not appreciated technology and the huge advancements it has brought to livelihoods globally, arguing that as plant and food biotechnology expert and promoter, it strongly urge NASS not to heed Njemanze’s advice because it is not only unfounded but also not backed by any scientifically proven evidence.

It insisted that genetically modified crops are not a national security threat or form of biotech terrorism, because they have been rigorously tested and regulated before commercial release to ensure safety for human health and the environment, even as they have been happily consumed in Europe, America, South Africa, China and other parts of Asia for more than 25 years, without adverse effects.

 

Note: This story has been edited to reflect the fact that further investigation revealed that the tomatoes by the farmers were the hybrid variant, which are different from GMOs.

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