GMO debate affects public sentiment in Nigeria

By Abdullahi Tsanni

April 5, 2019

“Do you know genetically modified organisms (GMOs)?”

“Oga, dis one na big grammar o,” Bisi said with a laugh, perplexed by the question. “I never hear anything like dis before,” added the 35-year-old, using Nigeria’s popular pidgin English slang as he sold roasted fish on a street in the Jabi neighborhood of Abuja.

Like Bisi, many Nigerians interviewed on the streets of the nation’s capital had never heard about GMOs. They did not know that GMO refers to a plant, animal or microorganism that has been engineered to introduce genetic material from another organism to produce desired traits. These include Nigeria’s first GMO food crop, Bt cowpea, which can resist the ravenous Maruca vitrata insect that accounts for over 80 percent yield loss, pest-resistant cotton, drought-tolerant maize and other crops.

Nor did they realize that the global cultivation of GM crops has increased 100-fold, from 1.7 million hectares in 1996 to 185.1 million hectares in 2016, making biotech the fastest adopted crop technology in recent times. But although GM crops have helped sustain the nutritional needs of human beings and animals for more than two decades, and mounting scientific evidence shows that GM foods are no more risky than other foods, they have sparked a rancorous debate and safety concerns remain high.

This is true in Nigeria, where the recent commercialization of two GM crops – Bt cotton and Bt cowpea — has generated unprecedented criticism, with one section of the public canvassing for and the other against the approval of these crops. Those who oppose the use of GM technology have organized into groups and carried out numerous activities aimed at discouraging public acceptance of GMOs. Consequently, Nigerians are confused about who to believe, which has also psychologically affected the sentiments of many Nigerians towards GMOs.

Some Nigerians who reported self-awareness about GMOs, like tomato seller Dorcas Timothy, were misinformed and lacked a proper understanding of the principles and use of GM foods. When asked, “Do you think it’s OK for Nigerians to use and/or consume GMOs?” Dorcas replied, “It is not. We prefer natural foods, and we don’t like GM foods. We know that tomatoes are perishable, so when a foreign material is introduced into it that makes it unperishable, then it becomes unnatural.”

Dorcas, who recently heard about GMOs on the radio, fears that GMOs are produced in the laboratory and are therefore unnatural. “I prefer natural foods,” Dorcas said. “The natural foods we know have their natural taste, and in Nigeria we have farmers and they produce it every season. It’s always available. Therefore, I see no reason for consuming GM foods.”

The public perception of GMOs in Nigeria is quite complex and interwoven with the level of science knowledge that ordinary Nigerians have. Thus, in the absence of sufficient understanding of biotechnology the sentiments of many Nigerians on the streets towards GMOs were misleading. “When this banana goes through another process in the laboratory, it’s not banana anymore because [a foreign material] has been added into it. So, the taste of the banana can change, which means it’s not natural,” said Anazodo, 42, a banana seller at Abuja market.

Dr. Abdulrazak Ibrahim, a molecular biologist at Ahmadu Bello University in Zaria, is accustomed to hearing those kinds of sentiments. But as he noted, humans have long used plant breeding methods to change the genetic makeup of crops. “There is nothing natural about any modern crop,” he noted. “The ancestor of modern banana tastes and looks nothing like our current banana so the use of the word ‘natural’ doesn’t even arise.”

Additionally, the process of genetic engineering itself has no effect no taste, unless the objective is to alter the taste. Otherwise, “if you improve normal agronomic traits, such as enhancing disease resistance or tolerance to climate change, etc., the new crops will taste exactly like the ‘natural’ ones,” he explained. “There will be no change in taste.”

Nigerian scientists at the University of Nigeria Nsukka (UNN) conducted a 2016 study, using structured questionnaires to assess the perception of 60 consumers in Enugu metropolis toward GM foods. The results showed that about 65 percent of the respondents believed GM foods were artificial, 23.3 percent thought otherwise, and 11.7 percent had no view at all.

To increase public understanding of GMOs, advocates of biotechnology in Nigeria, most prominently the Open Forum for Agricultural Biotechnology (OFAB) Nigeria, continue to engage many Nigerians via daily engagements on social media, TV and radio programs, as well as “seeing is believing” tours for farmers.

Rose Gidado, country coordinator of OFAB Nigeria, emphasized the enormous potential benefits of GMOs in reducing hunger and malnutrition, as well as enhancing the general well-being of Nigerians. She added that GM crops have the potential to not only meet basic needs, but also bring a wide range of economic, environmental and health benefits. Gidado noted, however, that many Nigerians simply don’t know about GMOs. “Until we are able to produce GMOs in large quantity, where it is seen physically in the market, that is when ordinary Nigerians will know about it.”

Biotechnology remains one of the most innovative technologies ever developed in the 20th century, and it holds more promise in the 21st century with the emergence of new tools such as gene editing. Despite its promise, however, the public has greeted it with mixed feelings and it remains controversial. Thus, there is a need to educate much of the Nigerian public through balanced, evidence-based perspectives of the technology, including possible risks. Regulatory authorities also must demonstrate — in a transparent manner — their ability to ensure the safety of genetically modified products.