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Activists seek to halt GM cowpea release, cassava field trials

A coalition of civil society organisations (CSOs) and farmers has denounced the recent approval for release of Bt cowpea (beans) for cultivation in Nigeria. The group is also demanding a rejection of the application for field trials of a cassava clone, asserting that the processes of making and approving these artificial crops present enormous threat to human and environmental health.

Anti-GMO public rally
A recent anti-GMO public rally in Abuja

On Monday, January 28, 2019, the National Biosafety Management Agency (NBMA) issued permits to the Institute of Agricultural Research, Zaria for the commercial release of a genetically modified cowpea said to be resistant to the Maruca vitrata virus.

The coalition in response to this stated that the release of the genetically modified beans will contaminate indigenous varieties, place them at risk and expose farmers and people to avoidable risks.

They referred to a study of pollinator characteristics of the natural West African wild cowpea populations which reveals that the Bt-gene will move from the genetically modified lines to non-modified lines of both cultivated and wild relatives, resulting to other plants gaining the resistance trait that will cause an alteration in ecological balance and present adverse effects.

“It is worth nothing that this cowpea containing the transgene Cry1Ab, has not been approved for commercial use anywhere else in the world. Use of this Bt gene was discontinued in South Africa where the cultivation of maize modified (with the gene) led to enormous pest resistance and infestation. Current research has revealed that protein produced by this transgene has toxic effects on human liver cells and induces alterations in immune systems of laboratory animals,” the coalition stated in a statement made available to EnviroNews on Sunday, February 3, 2019.

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The statement was endorsed by Nnimmo Bassey (Director, Health of Mother Earth Foundation), Gbadebo Rhodes-Vivour (Coordinator, GMO-Free Nigeria Alliance), Mariann Bassey-Orovwuje (Chairperson, Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa) and Jackie Iketuonye (Country Representative, Bio-Integrity and Natural Food Awareness Initiative).

The coalition added that the projection that the GM beans will increase yield by 20% above current levels is a “paltry reason” for exposing the nation to risks as the challenges of agriculture in Nigeria are complex and cannot be solved by one genetic engineering silver bullet.

Bassey said: “It is clearly impossible to label genetically engineered beans and its products in Nigeria. Our socio-cultural setting makes it impossible to give Nigerians the right of choice through labeling of GMOs. This is one reason why the rush into GMO approvals is extremely perplexing. Where is the push coming from and why this reckless rush?”

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He further added: “Within just a couple of years of Nigeria having a GMO regulatory agency, all we see are permits and propaganda, while the task of protecting the Nigerian people and our environment is being forgotten due to the blatant incestuous relationship with developers, promoters and merchants of these risky technologies.”

The group calls on the Nigerian Seeds Council or the Varietal Release Committee not to endorse recommendations from NBMA as doing so will dash the hopes of Nigerian farmers to preserve natural varieties, expose consumers to unnecessary risks and place the nation on an irreversible road to ecological disaster.

The group condemned a new application for a genetically modified cassava which is engineered to yield more starch than normal, stating that the application seeks to address a non-existent problem and appears to be promoted by industrial starch producers or by speculators who see genetic engineering as a means of making profit and serving industry needs to the detriment of lives and food system.

It also stated that Nigeria already has varieties of cassava which give sufficient starch and that the people are not complaining. They insisted that Nigeria must not be a test ground for dangerous food technologies as has already been recorded with a novel variety of cassava field-tested by the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) in 2018 (and which may already be in the environment) despite protests and objections.

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The coalition also decried the flooding of the Nigerian market with illegally imported genetically modified food products (as revealed in a recent market survey by HOMEF) and advised NBMA to invest time in regulating and protecting foods and promoting biosafety rather than parading itself as a permitting or revenue generating agency.

The body noted that the clamour by the Nigerian government officials for genetically modified food crops goes against the precautionary principle (a major principle of the Cartagena Protocol to which Nigeria is signatory) which advises governments to take precaution in the face of uncertainty of safety of GMOs in terms of human and environmental health.

In conclusion, the coalition advised that in place of the genetically engineered solution and modern agricultural biotechnology in general which requires a significant increase in input costs and could disrupt socio-ecosystems, Nigeria should instead focus on biological control as solution to pests invasion and augment with provision of needed infrastructure and other necessities such as credit schemes, access to land and extension services to farmers for enhanced productivity and food sovereignty.

They demanded that the National Biosafety Management Agency Act be critically reviewed to ensure that it protects the interests of the people, for example to include strict provision on Liability and Redress, emphasis on the precautionary principle and on public consultation.


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