The opposition against the adoption of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) globally is best described using the example and history of electronic communication.
Several criticisms were raised to challenge the idea of integrating technology with communication during its early days. And this was because people perceived communication as a natural process and technology as something artificial. So, the pessimists’ assumption then was that the marriage between these two would create an abnormal setting and distort the natural flow of communication.
The debate for or against this matrimony laid foundation for the postulation of many mass media theories as part of efforts to defend and prove the safety of this application.
The “Global Village”, a theory propounded by one of the finest media scholars that ever lived and a Canadian-born professor, Marshall McLuhan, dominated global dialogue under this era. The oracle coined the metaphoric word and popularised it in his book – The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man, in 1962 to describe the relationship between humans and fast speed technologies. It also highlights the shrinking nature of the globe and how it has being contracted into a village by electric technology.
The same fear that gripped the McLuhan’s global village has resurfaced and this time with more vigour to thwart the concept of biotechnology in society. This panic, although not scientifically verifiable, but occupied the centre stage of the debate. The naysayers made jest over the assumption that the world in its totality could be contracted into a small globe. McLuhan’s prophesies’ were out rightly jettisoned and later stereotyped the global village – McLuhanism, which simply means an extremist imagination that only exists in the mind of the originator.
But today we are all alive and witnesses to the reality of the digital age. Across the global village people have reached out and transcended their neighborhood. Humans are now involved in a community of networks stretching across cities, nations, oceans, governments and even religions. The simplicity with which relationship is shared nowadays through the new media has unimaginably and continuously eluded the human mind.
During the primitive age, people primarily stayed in tune with the simultaneous mode of their perception and thinking. But presently the human society has neurologically changed, with super machines taking the upper hand. Human brains are constantly adjusting and adapting to the modifications of technological advancements.
The merging of technology and communication has created new social status, connected and transformed lives in ways that couldn’t have been possible before because of their geographic location. Electronic communication has disrupted primordial sociological structures and reduced the scope of the world so cultures can be learned through interactions, as well as maintaining relationships from opposing divide.
The above story reveals that the hindrances bedevilling modern biotechnology development are more emotional rather than factual. It is now common sense to argue that the issue is not with the concept of the technology as largely acclaimed by many; instead it is with a phenomenon known as technophobia. This phenomenon is normally associated with man and new technologies. It connotes fear and dislike for technological innovations mostly among those who do not really understand scientific principles.
Technophobia as a phenomenon is as old as man’s encounter with science and depicts his amazement of its awful nature and ability to transform human experiences in every ramification. Account of the early resistance when technology was newly applied to mitigate the barriers of communication clearly exposed how people react to new scientific innovation.
Biotechnology by conception is simply any technique that uses living organisms or substances from the organisms to make or modify a product; improve plants, animals or to develop microorganisms. It is an easy application of natural processes that scientists have studied and are able to apply to enhance human activities.
Its origin predated existence even before 4,000 BC when the Egyptians mastered the art of wine making. Together with the Sumerians in 2,000 BC, they went further to learn brewing and cheese making.
The crisis here is that hunger, poverty, malnutrition, and sustainable agricultural growth disproportionately impact Less Developed Countries (LDCs). And solutions like biotechnology are often inaccessible where they are most solely needed. This technology is at the heart of this discussion, inciting a debate fuelled by misinformation and dominated by anti-GMO activists. Meanwhile, those whose lives would be impacted by advances in biotechnology are left out of the global conversation.
At the turn of this century, this technology has emerged as a powerful tool that has contributed immensely to socioeconomic activities. In agriculture for example, it has contributed to increased productivity in many countries. Since 1996, biotechnology derived-crops have been commercially planted by millions of farmers across the world.
Many protagonists mostly in the Third World believe that biotechnology is offering another opportunity to recapture the Green Revolution. They argue that it has the capacity to overhaul agriculture for better. The Green Revolution was centred on crops that were specifically created to give better yields in shorter times. Biotechnology wouldn’t only provide higher yield and resist diseases, but would also provide better improvement in nutrient quantities.
It is necessary to mention at this point that those improvements were premised on the application of all sorts of chemical including fertilisers, insecticides, and herbicides to encourage these crops to grow as expected. Most of the farmers then in the Third World, not just Nigeria, didn’t have the capacity to practice these things as was required. So, they didn’t benefit from the then Green Revolution with the attendant famine, hunger, poverty and all that accompany them are still plaguing the Third World.
Sadly, like the electronic media, technophobia has appeared again but this time in the form of anti-GM campaigners, those who are not in support of biotechnology. This technology has come under serious scrutiny with many asking for its abolition. The majority of these people in fact believe that this biotechnology is consciously developed as a form of control and tool to eliminate mankind.
In Nigeria for instance, different interest groups have staged opposition since the establishment of the National Biotechnology Development Agency (NABDA) in 2001 to promote the development of this technology, as well as the National Biosafety Management Agency (NBMA) in 2015 to regulate its safe practice.
These groups want the government to repeal the NBMA Act as part of efforts to frustrate biotechnology growth in the country. It is also important to note at this junction that it took almost 14 years before the NBMA Act became law because of the intensity of the anti-GM slogan. The groups, which include environmentalists and civil society organisations, brutally protested and expressed their grievances against the introduction of this technology into Nigeria’s environment.
This new generation of activists have raised diverse issues most of which focuses mainly on hypothetical risks and questions related to value, safety and impact (agronomic, economic and environmental). They also questioned the competent of the NBMA to regulate a technology that they considered as been too sophisticated for humanity.
But the federal government totally differs with this viewpoint. It is the realisation of the importance of this cutting-edge technology that led the Nigerian Government in 2001 to establish the NABDA after putting in place a National Biotechnology Policy. And later established the NBMA in 2015 to superintend and ensure environmental and health safety in the practice of modern biotechnology development.
Two major forces have appeared since the establishment of these agencies – the agro-chemical industries, and those who feel the advert of biotechnology would deprive them of their livelihood sources. These are the forces contending for the soul of biotechnology in Nigeria.
But those who believe in the safety of this technology have severally dismissed these claims. The Director General and Chief Executive Officer of the National Biosafety Management Agency (NBMA), Dr. Rufus Ebegba, said the technology is controversial because of its special position in fostering socio-economic activities.
The chief regulator added that the creation of the NBMA to ensure that these products are safe before they are adopted is a major step by the federal government to balance the development of the technology and its products with safety. The government, according to him, would have expected that with the agency in place as well people should have more confidence.
“But I can tell you that there are those that have made up their minds never to trust the agency because they have ulterior motives and their livelihood is centred on what they are doing. Once people’s livelihood is touched they could become very violent and do anything,” he said.
Truth be told, however, the Nigerian government believes in safe technologies and is ready to deploy them to solve national problems.
Professor of Microbiology and lecturer with the University of Abuja, Rosemary Isu, believes that the arguments raised by the two contending forces are baseless. The science enthusiast argued that the technology is extremely safe and that the focus should rather be on how to strengthen the NBMA to effectively police its practices.
While the tussle for the soul of biotechnology continues, it is important to note that Nigeria is still very backward in the development of this technology. There are many things that the nation is not doing. Nigeria has no germplasm pool and lacks full control of her gene bank, for instance.
These things need to be finger printed so that whoever is using them anywhere would know and be very clear that he or she is using a genetic resource from Nigeria. That Nigeria doesn’t have a firm grip on her genetic resources alone is alarming.
Presently, most of these things are yet to be identified and whoever needs any of them anywhere goes for them. You don’t need to carry a big bag when taking a genetic resource because it can be put right into your pocket. These genes can move and what was yours yesterday would become someone else’s tomorrow.
The necessary institutions need to ensure that Nigeria have her own genetic resources intact so as to know what the nation have in terms of genetic resources and have a firm grip on them.
So, going forward, these are the things that require urgent attention in addition to more encouragement of biotechnology as the government strives to enhance the standard of living of the millions of Nigerians who stand to benefit from all the anticipated successes.
By Etta Michael Bisong, Abuja