What effects could genetically modified crops have on the environment?
Agriculture of any type has an impact on the environment. Genetic modification because of reduction in the use of pesticides/chemicals may contribute to more sustainable practices.
Moreover, if gene flow occurs, it is unlikely that the hybrid plants would thrive in the wild, because they would have characteristics that are advantageous in agricultural environments only. In the future, genetically modified plants may be equipped with mechanisms designed to prevent gene flow to other plants.
A controversy has arisen about whether certain genetically modified plants (which are insect resistant because they carry the Bt gene) could harm not only insect pests but also other species such as the monarch butterfly. In the field, no significant adverse effects on non-target species have so far been observed. Nonetheless, continued monitoring for such effects is needed.
Genetically modified crops may have indirect environmental effects as a result of changing agricultural or environmental practices. However, it remains controversial whether the net effect of these changes will be positive or negative for the environment. For example, the use of genetically modified insect-resistant Bt crops is reducing the volume and frequency of insecticide use on maize, cotton and soybean.
The broad consensus is that the environmental effects of genetically modified plants should be evaluated using science-based assessment procedures, considering each crop individually in comparison to its conventional counterparts.
What are the implications of GM-technologies for animals?
Animal feeds frequently contain genetically modified crops and enzymes derived from genetically modified micro-organisms. There is general agreement that both modified DNA and proteins are rapidly broken down in the digestive system.
To date no negative effects on animals have been reported. It is extremely unlikely that genes may transfer from plants to disease-causing bacteria through the food chain. Nevertheless, scientists advise that genes which determine resistance to antibiotics that are critical for treating humans should not be used in genetically modified plants.
As of 2004, no genetically modified animals were used in commercial agriculture anywhere in the world, but several livestock and aquatic species were being studied. Genetically modified animals could have positive environmental impacts, for example through greater disease resistance and lower antibiotic usage. However, some genetic modifications could lead to more intensive livestock production and thus increased pollution.
Are GMOs regulated by international agreements?
Certain barriers to international agricultural trade have been reduced by the World Trade Organization (WTO). A WTO agreement adopted in 1994 establishes that countries retain their right to ensure that the food, animal, and plant products they import are safe. At the same time it states that countries should not use unnecessarily stringent measures as disguised barriers to trade.
Several international agreements relate to the environmental aspects of genetically modified crops. The Convention on Biological Diversity is mainly concerned with the conservation and sustainable use of ecosystems but also with environmental effects of GMOs. A part of this convention is the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, which regulates the export and import of genetically modified crops.
The International Plant Protection Convention was adopted to prevent the spread of pests affecting plants and plant products. It identified potential pest risks related to GMOs that may need to be considered, such as the potential development of invasive species or effects on beneficial insects and birds.
Agricultural biotechnology can be seen as both:
a scientific complement to conventional agriculture, aiding for instance plant breeding programs, and
a dramatic departure from conventional agriculture, enabling transfer of genetic material between organisms that would not normally mix.
Agricultural biotechnology has international implications and may become increasingly important for developing countries. However, research has tended to focus on crops important to developed countries.
To date, countries where genetically modified crops have been introduced in fields, have reported no significant health damage or environmental harm. Moreover, farmers are using less pesticides or using less toxic ones, reducing harm to water supplies and workers’ health, and allowing the return of beneficial insects to the fields. Some of the concerns related to gene flow and pest resistance have been addressed by new techniques of genetic engineering.
However, the lack of observed negative effects does not mean that they cannot occur. Scientists call for a cautious case-by-case assessment of each product or process prior to its release in order to address legitimate safety concerns.
“Science cannot declare any technology completely risk free. Genetically modified crops can reduce some environmental risks associated with conventional agriculture, but will also introduce new challenges that must be addressed. Society will have to decide when and where genetic modification is safe enough.”(FAO, 2004).
Having explained the basic concept of modern biotechnology and genetic engineering in the previous parts, it is therefore important to provide some insight into why Nigeria is making efforts to deploy the technology.
The devastating effects of pests and diseases in Nigeria are reflected in the amount of resources spent by farmers on their farm inputs. But inspite of this huge spending farmers are still witnessing rapid declining per capital land sizes, frequent droughts, inadequate planting materials, unsuitable soil types, numerous pests and diseases, costly farm inputs, low technology base and low farm productivity.
When one thinks about the Nigerian agricultural system today, one cannot help but remember how promising things looked some few decades back.
In the Sixties and Seventies, Nigeria was a net exporter of major food and cash crops, not importers as we are today. About 20 per cent of national budgets at that time went to agriculture.
Deliberate efforts were made on the part of government to encourage scientific incursion into agriculture via policy measures specifically designed to encourage research and development and adoption of these technologies.
We all can remember the groundnut pyramids in Kano, the bales of cotton in Bornu, Kano and Sokoto; the rice fields of Abakaliki, the floating timber and expanses of oil palm across the country.
If I may ask, what happened to them? Today, it seems that while much of the world has moved forward, Nigeria moved backward.
Over the past three decades, agricultural productivity in Nigeria has been stagnant or in decline. Why? Because of years of under-investment particularly in modern science & technology. Funding to agriculture, to universities and to research centres fell steadily and steeply. Too many of the gains we had made were reversed. Our Universities lost good people. The quality of education declined.
To make matters worse, average global spending on agricultural research also fell.
Is it any wonder, that there is so much poverty and hunger on our land? The resulting waste of so much human life and potential is not only tragic; it is an unfortunate incidence because there is simply no reason for it.
We know what needs to be done. And we know what can be done. If we do not use this understanding to make a significant and lasting dent in the rates of hunger, under-nutrition and poverty in Nigeria, then we will have failed our nations and ourselves.
Mindful of the above scenario, government is making efforts to reverse the trend and return Nigeria to the much talked about Golden Age. The passage of the National Biosafety bill into Law and the establishment of the national Biosafety Management Agency (NBMA) is a firm commitment to that effect as this will allow the safe application of Modern biotechnology in Nigeria.
The current government under the leadership of President Mohammadu Buhari has promised significant investment in Modern Agricultural science to boost food and industrial production and also encourage the private sector to do same.
A successful operation of a Biosafety law in the country ensures that over 70 million Nigerian farmers will begin to reap the significant benefits agricultural biotechnology similar to economic transformation currently experienced in Canada, Philippines, Bangladesh, Brazil, India, Burkina Faso, Egypt and South Africa that have all adopted this modern approach to boost their food and cash crop production activities.
With a Biosafety law in place, Nigeria has commenced a silent revolution towards transforming agriculture from subsistence level to commercial/business level, addressing food security challenges of a growing population and consolidating the diversification of economy from oil revenue to a more sustainable revenue generation from massive food/cash crop production activities supported by modern agricultural biotechnology.
GM trials in Nigeria:
Cowpea: Cowpea is a staple food crop in Nigeria. Commonly referred to as beans, it is consumed on a daily basis in the eastern, southern, western and northern part of Nigeria. Cowpea is grown in Nigeria at varying degrees, but the crop seems to do best in the drier climates of the northern regions. Nigeria is the largest cowpea producer in Africa and the 4th largest producer in the World after India, Canada and Burma.
Gidado (PhD), is the Coordinator, Open Forum Agricultural Biotechnology in Africa, Nigeria Chapter.