Inviting cancer to our land, passing a death sentence on Nigerians:” A Response (1)

“People are always entitled to their OPINIONS but not their FACTS”

Over the times, there have been repeated tales by many people (especially from the non-scientific class) that Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) are dangerous for human consumption; that they have resulted in sicknesses and subsequent death of a number of people across countries.

One such campaign of misinformation has been launched, this time by an Architect, Gbadebo Rhodes-Vivour on Monday, May 19 2014 at http://www.ngrguardiannews.com/index.php/news/national-news/162150-gmo-hybrid-seeds-inviting-cancer-to-our-land-passing-a-death-sentence-on-nigerians. Rhodes-Vivour as an architect, should know more about building designs than scientific issues that are related to laboratory researches. This author is hardly an authority in any scientific field, including biology, chemistry or agriculture. He is not known to have carried out any research or collaborated with any scientist to arrived on a result that GMOs are harmful to humans.

In his “GMO/hybrid seeds: Inviting cancer to our land, passing a death sentence on Nigerians,” Rhodes-Vivour assumed that it is inappropriate for the Agriculture Minister to have stated that “Appropriate regulatory agencies would be put in place to check the benefits and risks associated with such foods.” It is needless to burden readers with the stories of regulatory frameworks that are being put in place for the advancement of agriculture in Nigeria. But it is important to remind us that Nigeria’s biosafety bill, which has been in development for nearly 15 years now, was finally enacted into law by the Senate on June 1, 2011. This bill provides for the establishment of regulatory agencies while researches that are backed by field trials are taking place in many universities across the country.

In the interim, the federal government has established the Biosafety Office at the Federal Ministry of Environment. The Office has commenced the drafting of some of the regulations for effective implementation. This is in anticipation of the signing of the Biosafety bill into law by Mr President. The Law calls for the establishment of the National Biodiversity Management Agency under which a Biosafety Department, expected to be the focal point and authority on biosafety in the country, would be.

That Nigeria is Africa’s most populous nation (167 million) and a food deficit country, is not debatable; that the country’s subsistence agriculture can no longer supply the needs of its growing population, is undoubtedly true. This is the very reason for the country’s adoption of agricultural biotechnology and the biosafety law seeks to provide the framework for Nigerian scientists who have done much research to move forward from field trials into commercial testing phases for eventual deployment to farmers.

Rhodes-Vivour claims that “biotech improved tomatoes are engineered so they do not rot quickly… what is not considered is that perishability of that tomato is linked to the human body’s ability to digest it.” This is a deliberate attempt to confuse his readers into “veiledly” believing his misinformation. “Rot,” as used in the piece applies to a “fresh” and “uncooked” tomato. The human body would always be able to “digest” the engineered tomato that is cooked.

Armed with all traditional connotation, the piece was written entirely without scientific evidences to buttress his argument that GM foods cause cancer. There is no known scientific research, which result shows that these foods are harmful. In categorical terms, Rhodes-Vivour does not have any peer-reviewed scientific proof published in any journal, which link “illnesses, such as organ failure, sterility and cancer”to GMOs.

Even as scientists, there are few ones that have ties to the organic or natural products or a history of anti-GM activism, who have called the safety of GM crops into question. In spite of these questions by the pessimistic scientists, there are undoubted weight of evidence of scientific scrutiny. These have overwhelmingly found GMOs to provide benefits to both farmers and the environment.

However, Rhodes-Vivour, an architect that has no knowledge of plant science, in another write-up told of why he joined the crusade against agricultural biotechnology. We all know how anti-GMO are making it big for working as crusaders. It is worthy of note any way, that some renowned environmentalists like the celebrated Mark Lynas, now a visiting fellow at the Cornell University, have seen the scientific reasons for the adoption of these technologies. He is now a strong advocate of genetically modified crops.

For instance, trying to put human face on beneficiaries of biotech, Lynas has noted that although scientists have developed a biotech – virus-resistant solution for the crop, farmers may not be able to access it. “It’s really very tragic because it’s holding back technology that has the potential to do a lot of good.
I like to put a human face on the beneficiaries. Technology has transformed all of our lives, it is probably biggest driver of change. Why should it be any different in Africa? When you want change, because people are living in poor, subsistence situations, why should those be the ones who have the least access to technology?”

In the ongoing debate surrounding genetically modified foods, Lynas who is a young environmentalist (not an architect) talks about farmers’ accessibility to the crops and not its harmfulness. His earlier position before understanding the scientific truth about GM foods was that GM foods were harmful.

As a Media Fellow of Agricultural Biosciences, I have met and interviewed Lynas;
I have visited research centres across the country and research centres and laboratories of some seed companies in the US and the UK. I have participated in some DNA extraction in plants with scientists in some of these places. In the course of the tests, I have not seen anything “playing God.” What I saw was “scientific magic,” the way any one who has never seen an aeroplane, sees it for the first time, take off. I have had the privilege to talk with renowned scientists in some universities in Nigeria; in the US and the UK who are involved in plant breeding. I believe that everything is “scientifically natural.”

“Are they playing God?” This is another resonating question that the advocates of traditional agriculture have continued to ask. All knowledge is from God. He imparts it on whom He wishes. God, as the best Architect who designed a “pillar-less” sky; as the best Creator, who created the Swallow, from which the plane was designed; the Beetle from which the Beetle car was designed; the Snake from which the train was designed and scores of other God-given art, man has always learned from the bountiful knowledge of God to improve on his life. Scientists have continued to borrow from the knowledge of God to improve on the lives of human beings.

Like his contemporaries, the Rhodes-Vivour chose to go it traditional, a reason that propels one to ask that since accidents claim lives of travelers, should government ban the use of motor vehicles, ships and planes? Should government enact a law to enforce the use of donkeys, horses, etc to travel to London, Saudi Arabia and so on in order to avoid accidents?

These are safer means of transport, especially in this age of advanced technology?

In all facets of human endeavours, traditional methods of doing everything, including farming have long given way for improved methods. That these methods have associated risks and disadvantages does not foreclose people from adopting them, which limit the adverse effects of the risks. This brings the reason for frameworks (biosafety laws). It is the same way that road/air traffic laws are put in place to reduce rates of accidents.

I do not intend to hold brief for Monsanto or any seed company but for reason and records, which speak for the real situation of Indian farmers. The anti-GMO groups have had over the years, no better arguments than that the multi-national seed companies are agricultural evils. Therefore, in following cue of his sponsors, Rhodes-Vivour alleged in his write-up that “Official figures from the Indian Ministry of Agriculture confirm more than 1,000 farmers kill themselves in India each month.” No one would say that Indian farmers do not “kill themselves” (commit suicide) but it will be historically wrong for anyone to tie the suicide of the farmers in India to Monsanto or any seed company for that matter. Those who have knowledge of history on Indian farmers’ suicide acts, are better informed.

I think the general public have the right to know the truth and not falsehood. If however the anti-GMO still want to deceive the people, they should be wiser by feeding us “improved falsehood” as against the repeated lies and fabrication.

Indian farmers do sometimes commit suicide, and this is unfortunate. But the fact is such suicides began before the introduction of GM cotton in India in 2002 and therefore independent of Monsanto and GM seeds. Rhodes-Vivour should refer to the report of the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), a United Nations organization, which states that suicides among farmers have been decreasing since the introduction of GM cotton, and are no higher among Indian farmers than among the Indian population as a whole.

As we shall share with readers, research indicates multiple societal issues as contributing to farmers suicides in India. Inclusive of these researchers are the international community that has conducted several studies to identify the reasons for the suicides in India over the last three decades.

For example in 2008, a study by the International Food Policy Research Institute found indebtedness among Indian farmers as linked to numerous causes. These causes include a lack of reliable credit facillties, changes in government policies, cropping patterns, plant and insect resistance to pesticides, and even shifts in the crops planted on the farm. This is a verifiable study for anyone who cares to know the truth.

Similarly in June 2012, a study on Socio-Economic Impact assessment of Bt Cotton in India carried out by the Council for Social Development’s (CSD), identified the key reasons leading to farmer suicides as lack of irrigation facilities, unavailability of timely credit and fluctuating cotton prices over the years. Other studies are, “Measuring the Contribution of Bt Cotton Adoption to India’s Cotton Yields Leap,” International Food Policy Research Institute Discussion Paper 01170, Guillaume P Gruere, Yan Sun; Economic impacts and impact dynamics of Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) cotton in India, Proceedings of the National Academies of Science, May 15, 2012; and Indira Gandhi Institute of Development Research Study: Suicide of Farmers in Maharashtra (January 2006).

Rhodes-Vivour’s assertion that the new seeds were being forced on farmers is nothing more than the normal ignorance portrayed by the anti-biotechnology. In the first place, one cannot count how many conferences have been organised to talk about agricultural biotechnology, where farmers get educated and questions asked on grey areas. I have attended so many such meetings organised by universities, research centres, the National Biotechnology Development Centre, and many others. The most recent meeting that I attended was the Annual Open Forum on Agricultural Biotechnology in Africa (OFAB Africa) Review and Planning Meeting. This meeting was attended by various leadership of farmers, including the National President of Cotton Farmers Association. He was so optimistic about the importance of biotechnology to Nigerian farmers.

While, as it seems, Rhodes-Vivour may not have been involved in farming and therefore does not know the new taste of farmers, I hope too that he is not a failed architect that has taken to crusade against biotechnology and, in the process, working against the general interests of Nigerian farmers. More so, there are growing sales of biotech products in the countries where farmers have access to biotech seeds and buy more of them year after year. In the process, they are not cheated for having to buy the seeds year-in-year-out. They do not regret buying these seeds every year because of the resounding yields and benefits there-from.

He mentioned some countries, including Brazil where he alleged that millions of farmers took Monsanto to court demanding 6.2 billion Euros as royalties. Do not these contradict situations where regulatory and government approvals have been granted in the United States, Canada, Europe, Brazil, Argentina, Australia and other developed countries that test all new products for safety before they are placed on the market?

I would have expected Rhodes-Vivour to state some benefits of biotech crops to humanity, especially in the face of the present global population explosion. Some of us who have farming background and who have seen how our parents toil hard ONLY to grow not-enough food to feed their families, know the striking difference of agricultural biotechnology against the traditional methods of farming.

In the last part of my response to Rhodes-Vivour’s piece, I will attempt to give a brief about plant breeding, genetically-modified organisms and why these are important if we must feed the projected world population of nine billion by 2050. Look out for the last part of this response.

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