The plan by an American based biotechnology company to assist with the genetic modification of Nigeria’s cassava into what has been termed “Super Cassava” has been touted by the Environmental Rights Action/Friends of the Earth, Nigeria (ERA/FoEN) and over 30 other civil society groups in Nigeria as a neo-colonialist move to take over the country’s food production future.
The United States biotechnology company, Donald Danforth Plant Science Centre has offered to conduct field-testing of a genetically modified cassava they call Super Cassava. But the executive director of the ERA/FoEN, Nnimmo Bassey in a statement issued in Lagos said, “Nigeria does not need any super cassava. The genetic modification of cassava to produce Vitamin A is fraught with many dangers to the health of Nigerians who depend on cassava as a staple.”
Genetically modified foods generally undergo modification in laboratories with the purpose of enhancing productivity as well as improving their nutritional value. While some crops are genetically engineered to become drought resistant others are modified to prevent insect invasions, among other measures to ensure high level productivity.
In developing nations, the need to boost agriculture has become incumbent on governments who have to deal with their ever-increasing populations. The world’s population, which presently stands at over 6 billion, is expected to double in the next fifty years. This makes not only feeding but also the health concerns of populations a priority. It is in this vain that researchers at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology created a strain of rice containing high contents of vitamin A to fight deficiencies, which lead to blindness. The rice was named “golden rice“. The institute had also planned to introduce iron content into some staples but funding was stopped, dealing a blow to the somewhat humanitarian intentions of the research, probably due to activism in Europe.
Activists argue that the hazards involved in consuming genetically modified foods have not been sufficiently researched by governments to ensure proper regulatory measures. Some of their arguments include: Unintended harm to other organisms; reduced effectiveness of pesticides; gene transfer to non-target species; Allergenicity; Unknown effects on humans. Some activists also argue on environmental, health, moral and religious grounds.
Benefits outweigh risks
According to experts, the Nigerian government’s approval of the trade to the National Biosafety Committee (NBC), while giving the green light to the National Root Crops Research Institute (NRCRI) to go ahead with plans to conduct the contained field trials of the genetically-modified cassava, is simply because the “the benefits of the operation outweigh the dangers as more and more people risk hunger”. Another obvious factor is the recent “food crisis that hit developing countries around the world” and which has led populations in countries like Haiti to eat mud to survive.
The information on the approval was made open at the annual meeting of the American Society for the Advancement of Science, held in Chicago, U.S.A last month, where it was announced that Nigeria’s NBC had given the Danforth Centre approval to carry out field trials for genetically modified cassava in collaboration with NRCRI.
But the ERA/FoEN, who described the alleged approval as trading away Nigeria’s food future to modern colonialists hiding under the cover of agricultural biotechnology, has asked for an immediate stoppage to the proposed test, which is to be conducted on the banks of the Qua-Ibo River, in Abia State.
According to them “the biotech industry engineered the so-called golden rice to be rich in Vitamin A some years back, but one needed to eat 9 kilograms of that rice to have as much Vitamin A as one would have from eating just two small carrots! The golden rice was a golden hoax and the super cassava would turn out to be super fraud”.