Prof Dele Fapohunda, a Food and Feed Safety activist, Founder and President, Safe Food and Feed Foundation, is an ardent advocate of safe foods. In this interview with News Editor, ONCHE ODEH, he decries the quietness of Nigerian government and experts over issues of Genetic Modification (GM) of foods, despite evidences that they are flooding the country, among other issues on the global GM controversies. Excerpts.
What do you make of the controversies surrounding Genetically Modified (GM) Foods?
First, let us start with the genesis of all this. The project started in the 1960s when attention of the financiers was focused on the hungry millions of people in India, Mexico, the Philippines and Africa. High yielding varieties of rice and wheat were to be developed with genetic modification, and heavy input of fertilisers, herbicides and pesticides. This is why the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) was formed in the Philippines. It was alleged that widespread corruption and insecurity were twin factors that did not allow the experiment to succeed in Africa. The Consultative Group on International Agriculture (CGIAR), a research and aid organisation, has been very active and visible in the initiative that concentrated on producing high yielding varieties. This commendable initiative of reducing starvation among the world s poor then by experts was led by Norman Borlaug, now called the father of Green Revolution. As we speak, some countries are large producers and major world exporters of the monocultutres and many ready-to-eat foods, which are now GM.
Why is the project being opposed now?
Opponents insist that the foods are unnatural and an unacceptable because they meddle with the natural biological processes. They therefore continued to create a ‘fear effect’ in the mind of consumers. Many citizen groups are daily calling for Genetic Engineering (GE)- free zones around the world and vote instead for conventional organic agriculture. Health and environmental concerns have heightened of recent, with Rights groups taking many governments to court. This has happened in USA and in the Philippines. Although they noted that increased food production meant people no longer die of hunger, they, however, are dying of malnutrition as some of the new improved varieties lack essential nutrients like iron and vitamin A resulting in food and nutrition related morbidities. Since this form of agriculture also depends on huge doses of pesticides and fertilisers, death of fish, as well as health impacts to human consumers through allergies and cancers are equal sources of concern. Pesticide residues are regularly monitored by the WHO and FAO because built-in pesticides cannot be removed from agric produce. Also this large input of petrochemicals and emergence of secondary pests, which ultimately shoot up production costs has widened the gap between the rich and poor. The emerging economic challenge has led to the migration of small holder farmers and landless farm workers to urban settlements.
Is it true GM foods are being rejected?
That s very correct, and there are practical cases of rejection of GM corn from one country by another. Hormone – fattened cattle are also being rejected in Europe. This year, the government of Hungary destroyed thousand s of GM corn fields and gone proceeded to tighten control as dairy cow feeds. Sometimes the protests have gone violent, for example, a wheat farm was destroyed by protesters in Australia in 2011. Vandalism against the experimental stations was also reported in the Philippines in 2013. Such violent act on laboratories, and field experimental stations had also happened in the USA and Europe. There are many non-violent groups like Friends of the Earth, Union of Concerned Scientists, Food and Waterwatch, Institute of Responsible Technology, Organic Consumers Association.
But supporters have continued to allay fears?
Yes, supporters have accused opponents of relying on results of unverified junk research. There are recent researches on animal field trials citing many feeding studies conducted by public research laboratories which concluded that there are no safety problems linked to long-term consumption of genetically modified food. The anti GM activists had advised that GM food should be banned, or accordingly labelled to afford consumers the opportunity to make choices. In what speaks of the contrary, a report quoted, Hamburg, a very senior official of the FDA in March as saying that the FDA hasn’t changed its position on GMOs, despite two decades’ worth of studies linking GMOs, and the pesticides and herbicides required to grow them, to everything from allergies to cancer, Hamburg said the FDA has “not found evidence of safety risks” associated with GMOs. Therefore there is no need to specially label GM food as so.
Sincerely, what do you think is the future of GM?
That is a difficult question for me because a highly probing review of the Green Revolution package has revealed a tough divergence of opinions, each equally seemingly convincing. Intricacies and complexities involved in assessment of food security have thrown up bitter divergence in the role of a critical aspect of Green Revolution. The vehement and frontally tendentious divide is capable of threatening the financial base of some international companies and capable of rocking the political stability of the world if not well managed. Remember that big names and corporate bodies are involved. Money and politics are twin characters on the table that serve as platform of presentation that paraded the potential of blinding and neutralising each side of the argument. Huge financial commitment has been made over the years and such investment cannot just be overlooked by any latter-day criticism. But the question remains: Can we say the conception and execution of the project is sincere, ab initio? Sometimes the claims and counter claims can be alarming with profound implications for example the opponents insisted that contrary to claims, it is indeed scientifically proven that the dangers and long term health implications far outweigh so called benefits.
But Norman Bourlaug, the brilliant man at the centre dismissed negative claims as ranting of the uninformed, describing the critics as armchair opponents who never witnessed nor experience penury and hunger. He believed that if they lived just one month amid the misery of the developing world, as he did for fifty years, they’d be crying out for tractors and fertiliser and irrigation canals and be outraged that fashionable elitists back home were trying to deny them these things. He admitted the project has not turned the world into a Utopia, but equally insisting that it was a step in the right direction
What is the position of Nigeria on this?
Many countries are involved in the two sides. These include France, Finland, India, Switzerland, Peru, Italy, Greece, Spain, Austria, Russia, Australia, Hungary and South Africa. I am not sure of the stand of Nigerian government, scientists and the business group on this. And this loud silence to me is scandalous, when one considers the rate at which many GM foods flood Nigeria. Meanwhile, this scientific and economic battle rage in other parts of the world, and Nigeria still continues to battle with issues of corruption and insecurity, unfortunately the twin factors that enhance national retrogression I just got a report now that the next phase of the Green Revolution is targeting Africa, through a grain research centre in Mexico, and that could be sooner than expected. Are we ready to accept or criticise, based on verifiable facts? Food safety activists like ours will do their best to sensitise Nigerians and we are open to collaboration with similar minds in this crusade