Environmentalists to NBMA: Revoke permits for BT Cowpea release, Cassava field trials

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From: Bamidele Fashube, Abuja

A group of environmentalists and farmers have called on the National Biosafety Management Agency (NBMA) to revoke license issued for the commercial release of BT cowpea and nullify proposed cassava field trials.

The group, under the aegis of Health of Mother Earth Foundation (HOMEF) and a coalition of CSOs and farmers argued that the processes of making and approving the ‘artificial crops’ allegedly presents enormous threat to human and environmental health.

The NBMA had recently, on 28th January, 2019 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.

NBMA is a regulatory agency under close supervision of the Federal Ministry of Environment meant to check Genetically Modified (GM) products and ensure safety while the Institute of Agricultural Research, (IAR) Zaria functions under the Federal Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development (FMARD).

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

Anti-GM Protesters During a Protest in Abuja             Source: Premium Times

The coalition further made reference to study of pollinator characteristics of the natural West African wild cowpea populations which according to them revealed that the Bt-gene would 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.

A press statement made available to AgroNature by the director of HOMEF, Nnimmo Bassey, in Abuja reads in part: “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 added that the projection that this 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.

“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?”.

The statement jointly signed by Gbadebo Rhodes-Vivour, the Coordinator, GMO-Free Nigeria Alliance, Mariann Bassey-Orovwuje, the Chairperson, Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa and Jackie Iketuonye, the Country Representative, Bio-Integrity and Natural Food Awareness Initiative including Bassey added that, “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.”

Nnimmo Bassey During a Protest Against GMO Held in Abuja

The groups further called on the Nigerian Seeds Council or the Varietal Release Committee not to endorse recommendations from the 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 groups 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 our 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 despite protests and objections.

Beyond that, the coalition also decried the flooding of the Nigerian market with illegally imported genetically modified food products and advised NBMA to invest time in regulating and protecting our foods and promoting biosafety rather than parading itself as a permitting or revenue generating agency.

The group stressed that the clamour by the federal 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.

However, the coalition advised that the country should rather focus on biological control as solution to pests invasion and augment with provision of needed infrastructure and other necessities and forgo GM products.

According to the campaigners, such initiative including credit schemes, access to land and extension services would enhance productivity and food sovereignty.

They further called for the critical review of NBMA Act to ensure that it protects the interests of the people such as inclusion of strict provision on liability and redress, emphasis on the precautionary principle and on public consultation.

Meanwhile, the NBMA has always assured that the Act setting up the agency is to protect the public against harmful GM products despite public perceptions.

The Environment Minister, Surv. Suleiman Hassan Zarma, recently also charged the NBMA to create clear distinction between its regulatory role and perceived functions.

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