The commercialisation of genetically modified (GM) beans has been celebrated by the purveyors and promoters of the artificial variety. The Pod Borer-Resistant Cowpea (PBR-Cowpea) also known as Vigna unguiculata is modified to express the Cry1Ab protein expected to “confer protection from certain lepidopteran insect pests of cowpea, principally the pod borer (Maruca vitrata Fabricius).”
Although the insecticidal beans variety has been advertised as the first genetically modified (GM) crop to be released into the Nigerian environment, and for consumption, it is actually the second crop. The first crop was GM cotton whose application for commercial release was approved by the National Biosafety Management Agency (NBMA) in 2016.
Most people see cotton as a crop whose use is only in textiles. However, the truth is that cotton seeds are used in making cotton cakes as well as cotton oil. Cotton is eaten by our peoples in one form or the other. We are emphasising this because some GMO promoters tend to wave off complaints on possible health impacts of the crop on the false claim that it would not enter our food chain.
Seeing the promoters of GM beans celebrate through press conferences, announcements and meetings is quite understandable. The approval for confined field trial of the variety was first granted in 2009, six years before Nigeria had a biosafety law. Another application for same purpose was approved in 2018. After spending over a decade working on the variety and having a system that authorizes its release into the environment and unto our food bowls, any scientist should be proud of the achievement. But the duration of an experiment does not suggest that the product is needed.
In assessing the application for release of the variety into the environment and market, the National Biosafety Committee decided that the beans was more or less the same as the natural counterpart. They also claimed that “The characteristics and factors affecting survival, multiplication, gene expression and dissemination are not different from those of the unmodified counterpart.”
They further claimed that “Interactions with the environment are not different from those of the conventional counterpart, except in the insect resistance trait for which the product was modified.” They also claimed that the GM beans is substantially equivalent to the natural variety. In fact, the only queries on the GM beans application are basically on typographical errors.
A section of the report of the recommendation document speaks to the socio-economic considerations regarding the GM beans. This is what they said: “The introduction of the Bt Cowpea will not stop the continued use of unmodified farmer preferred varieties by any farmer who chooses to do so. The use of the Bt cowpea will increase farmers’ wealth from increased yield and reduce Farmer investment in pesticides, it will reduce environmental pollution by the insecticides due to reduced amount of total insecticide sprayed, it will reduce farmers’ health challenges from insecticide exposure. Introduction of Bt Cowpea will translate to improved food security in the entire country due to availability of much higher amounts of cowpea. This will also translate to higher incomes due to export of the commodity, because less residual insecticide means higher acceptability of Nigerian cowpea in the international market.”
There are a number of contentious ascertains in the above quote. First of all, this GM variety will likely contaminate natural varieties through cross pollination, although beans are usually self-multiplied. There is a possibility that even where a farmer chooses not to grow the GM variety, the preferred natural variety could be contaminated. The release of the GM variety thus poses a threat to the preservation of natural species. A loss of natural varieties would mean that rather than promote food security, Nigeria could be stepping into an era of uncertainty, of unpredictability and food supply instability.
The declaration also claims that farmers will earn more income because the beans would have “less residual insecticide” and would thus be more accepted in the international market are questionable. Apart from the fact that the GM beans is actually an insecticide, it is very doubtful that there will be much international market for genetically modified beans, unless their identity will not be declared in such markets.
Although the Nigerian Biosafety Act requires labelling of genetically modified organisms, we have said repeatedly that our socio-cultural and food systems do not lend themselves to labeling. This is obvious with the way our foods are prepared, packaged, presented, served and eaten. It means that regulating our food systems must take our context into consideration and much more care should be taken than may be necessary elsewhere. We are in a situation where the NBMA and the GMO promoters are ambushing both the farmers and the consumers through the release of these needless varieties into our environment and food system.
It is important to note that there are natural innovative strategies to solve the problem of pests including the Push and Pull method and biological control which have proven effective. The rush to adopt a technology immersed in so much controversy and linked to health, environmental as well as economic problems is unnecessary and ultimately unhelpful.
We have had reasons to warn that the NBMA’s process for GMO approval is stacked against contrary opinions and objections. This position has been strengthened by the Recommendation reports posted by the agency on the website of the Biosafety Clearing House (BCH). Two of the reports relate to applications from the Institute of Agricultural Research (IAR), Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria. One is for GM Beans, while the other is for “confined field trial of maize genetically modified for resistance to stem borer insect and for drought tolerance.”
The NBC members that signed the recommendation document for the GM maize application include vested interests represented by prominent and frontline promoters of GMOs in Nigeria. We cannot expect rigorous evaluation and assessment of applications when the promoter is saddled with the task of such assessments.
Considering the above, it is imperative that the risky beans are recalled before it is too late. It is never wrong to retrace your steps when you find that you are on the wrong track. No matter how far you may have gone.
Nnimmo Bassey is Director, Health of Mother Earth Foundation (HOMEF)