Starting in 2015, individual E.U countries may be able to ban genetically-modified (GM) plants -- even if the European Union's own regulators have declared them safe for cultivation. Last week's edition of Sciencereported that the proposal to renationalize decisions on GM crops in Europe was agreed to earlier this month.
A defeat for science in Europe?
The new proposal has been called a defeat for science. Critics say the move undermines the entire concept of science-based risk assessment. Yet, despite regulatory reassurances, there is a widespread rejection of GM foods in Europe. Currently only one GM crop, Monsanto's MON810, a pest-resistant corn, is grown in the E.U and only in five of the 28 countries that make up the Union. No GM animals or derived products are on the E.U. market.
The E.U has established a legal framework regulating GM food and feed-derived products as well as the release of living genetically-modified organisms (GMOs) into the environment in order to ensure a high level of protection of human and animal health, and the environment. But because of the complexity of the decision making process in the Union, some food items that have been certified as safe by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) may never make it to the shelf.
If passed into law, the latest proposal will also enable individual European governments to respond to consumers' mistrust of GMO foods.
GMO in America
Despite a similar degree of mistrust of GMO foods, the United States does not have any federal legislation that is specific to genetically modified organisms. Rather, GMOs are regulated pursuant to health, safety, and environmental legislation governing conventional products. The U.S approach to regulating GMOs is premised on the assumption that regulation should focus on the nature of the products, rather than the process in which they were produced. According to the U.S Food and drug Administration (FDA), foods from genetically-engineered plants must meet the same requirements, including safety requirements, as foods from traditionally-bred plants. Therefore, compared to other countries, regulation of GMOs in the U.S is relatively favorable to their development. GMOs are an economically important component of the biotechnology industry, which now plays a significant role in the U.S. economy.
In response to the regulatory stance on GMOs in the United States, there have been strongly supported calls for mandatory food labeling. Polls have shown that up to 96 percent of respondents favor labelling of GM foods yet only one state, Vermont, has a labeling law with a date set for it to take effect. At the national level, there are currently 64 countries that require GMO labelling. The United States is not one of them.
GMOs in Nigeria
As the season of festivity approaches, where do Nigerians and Nigeria stand in all of this? A small study conducted only seven years ago indicated that there was low awareness about GMOs amongst a majority of the Nigerian scientists participating in the study. This is no longer the case. With the advent of broadband internet connectivity and the explosion of social media in Nigeria, awareness of GMOs have grown and so has resentment and resistance.
Opponents of GMOs in Nigeria have pointed to the damage that GM plants and agricultural practices have caused to biodiversity, the dependency on foreign companies that is created and the potential negative health consequences of consuming GM food as reasons why Nigeria should not support genetic engineering of food. They have even called GMOs "the Monsanto Poison."
Monsanto's role in the creation of Agent Orange is another reason for the mistrust of the GMO initiative in Nigeria. Agent Orange was a defoliant formulation used by the U.S military during the Vietnam War to deprive insurgents of cover. GMO critics say Monsanto's Agent Orange was also used in targeting food crops as part of a starvation campaign, destroying an estimated 10 million hectares of agricultural land.
Conspiracy theorists within the opposition camp also point to statements by Dr. Henry Kissinger, a former U.S. Secretary of State, as proof that the GMO initiative is part of a grand scheme to depopulate the developing world. In a National Security Memorandum obtained from the U.S. National Archives, Dr. Henry Kissinger wrote: "Depopulation should be the highest priority of U.S. foreign policy towards the Third World". The GMO opponents point out the genetically modified Epicyte corn intended to produce sterility in human males as an obvious indication that GMOs could be used for eugenics.
But there are many proponents for GMOs in Nigeria and some of them are scientists. They note that besides helping us understand the biology and physiology of plants, genetic engineering has led to the development of improved crops such as cotton, soybean, cowpea, cassava, tomato, coffee, banana and several products derived from them. They say the technique has also been used to generate crops with improved protein content, higher oil yield, and plants that serve as biofactories for hormones, vitamins and growth factors that could improve health care.
Those in support of GMO technology in Nigeria also note that considering the challenges facing global food production such as climate change, population growth, and competition for arable lands, foods have to be produced with reduced environmental impact and with less input from non-renewable resources if the increasing demands for food and medicine worldwide are to be met. Indeed, no region is as susceptible to food shortage and health risk as the African continent is. Thus GMO supporters say there is urgent need to adopt new technologies, such as genetic engineering, to address the looming crisis.
A Biosafety Law
But despite the reassurances of the safety and economic benefits of GMO foods by those Nigerian scientists and commentators in support of the genetic engineering, the opposition is hardly placated. They say the fact remains that most developed nations do not consider GMOs to be safe. Those are countries with even stronger risk assessment and regulatory systems.
In its response to the growing controversy over GMO food, the Nigerian Senate passed a Biosafety Bill in 2011. That bill was never signed into law because it was passed just a day before the end of the life of that Assembly. A new version of that bill is currently awaiting presidential ascent.
The way forward
It is the hope of this author that the Nigerian government will come up with a policy on GMOs that is based on accurate scientific evidence. Those policies should also give consideration to the fears and aspirations of the Nigerian people. The risk assessment that should inform the Nigerian policy on genetic engineering should be conducted in Nigeria by Nigerian scientists who have publicly-declared conflicts of interest. The policy should also clearly address the issue of food labelling in a proactive manner.
Nigerians have watched the debate over genetic engineering and GMOs unfold in the Western world for over 40 years. I hope we will apply the lessons learnt in a way that will truly benefit the current and future generations of our people.
This piece was first published by the University of Michigan Risk Science Center