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Webinar Series 2: Genetically Modified Foods: The Science, Nutrition and Safety Concerns

GMO: A blessing or a curse

Consumers have been eating GM foods since 1996; no evidence so far of any harm from GM. International organizations such as World Health Organization (WHO), Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), have examined the evidence of safety and have indicated that GM foods are not less safe.

CAFSANI Webinar Series – 2

Topic: Genetically Modified Foods: The Science, Nutrition and Safety Concerns

Date: 16 October, 2020; Virtual

Moderator

  • Prof Olugbenga Ogunmoyela – Professor of Food Science and Technology, Bells University of Technology Ota, Past Chairman of the Body of Fellows of the Nigerian Institute of Food Science and Technology and Executive Director, CAFSANI

Background

Some people cringe at the words “Genetically Modified Origin” referred to as GMO foods, but genetic modification is an important method people have used for centuries, while domesticating both crops and animals. When plants and animals are selectively mated, the genes from both parents are mixed and many inherited traits are changed, which can be readily observed in the wide varieties of certain species, such as dog breeds.  Without much knowledge about genetics, plants and animals were purposefully changed when people observed differences in plants and animals, and then mated what appeared to be the “best” ones to create and/or preserve beneficial traits and characteristics.

Today, similar variants of these different breeding methods are used to improve plants, including the traditional methods (when possible). Regardless of method, all such activities involve modifying the genetic makeup, or genes, of an organism. All living organisms – plants, animals, microbes, have genes, and all genes are made of DNA (Deoxyribonucleic Acid), which is the universal coding system that determines traits such as crop yield, height, hair color, horns, etc.

In contrast to a plant created by modifying its DNA using traditional breeding methods, a GMO plant is created using a newer, more controlled method referred to as genetic engineering. This method changes plants by inserting a gene from another organism to add a useful trait to the recipient organism, such as disease or pest resistance. With genetic engineering, the DNA can come from organisms that cannot mate with the crop being modified, e.g., bacteria, fungi or another crop or unrelated plant. For example, one might move a drought-tolerant gene from a drought tolerant plant to a corn plant. Since the 1980s, an important GMO is bacteria that have been modified to produce human insulin. These bacteria resulted from inserting the human gene for insulin into the bacteria DNA, so they can produce the human insulin protein. This has been of immense benefit to mankind as bacteria produce about 90 percent of human insulin today. Similarly, traditional crossbreeding methods were used to develop seedless and pulp-rich varieties of tomatoes which were introduced around 1968 by the Institute of Agricultural Research in 1968 in place of the seed tomatoes widely cultivated at the time, which helped in eliminating the use of manual grinding stones in many homes in Nigeria.

With genetic engineering, usually only one gene from the donor, with a known role or coding for a known protein, is added or inserted into the current set of genes of a recipient plant. In contrast, traditional breeding methods mix many genes (from similar plants) in the mating process. Further, the resulting plants or offspring could have multiple and/or unpredictable outcomes, some of which can be undesirable (e.g., negative impact on yield, quality, or flavor).

Within the past decade, an even more precise method of genetic engineering has been developed known as “gene editing”. This method simply “edits” the DNA code of a gene in an organism to modify its expression, instead of introducing a new gene, to give the organism certain characteristics such as more drought tolerance or enhanced nutrition. Related techniques can also be used to insert a new gene from another organism into a precise location in the organism’s DNA.

CAFSANI As the Voice of The Consumer for Safe and Nutritious Foods in Nigeria

Consumer Advocacy for Food Safety and Nutrition Initiative (CAFSANI) was established specifically to serve as an advocacy platform in Nigeria and beyond, as may be necessary to inform, protect, educate and promote consumer interests against the increasing incidences of sharp and unwholesome practices in the area of food safety and nutrition. CAFSANI provides a credible advocacy platform for promoting best food safety practices, consumer education and awareness of nutritious foods.

The goal is to leverage on the emerging innovative technologies for advocacy activities in order to be able to alert the general public in real-time, on the dangers of unethical practices, as well as improperly prepared and processed foods. The unsuspecting consumer has an expectation that must be met at all times in the absence of which there are adverse consequences on the health and well-being which may even result in death.

As part of the core objectives of CAFSANI to secure the rights of consumers and educate them on safe and nutritious foods, CAFSANI has identified some major questions and concerns associated with the Genetically Engineered Foods. These include:

  • What are genetically modified organisms and foods
  • Why are GM Foods produced?
  • Is the safety of GM foods assessed differently from conventional foods?
  • What are the main issues of concerns for human health?
  • What are the issues of concern for the environment?
  • Are GM foods safe?
  • How are GM foods regulated nationally?
  • What kind of GM foods are on the market in Nigeria?
  • What further development can be expected in the area of GMOs?

Webinar Objective:

  • The web conference was convened to educate consumers on the concept of GMO, the nutrition and safety concerns, and the need to harmonize the points of view of stakeholders on the production, marketing and consumption of GM foods.
  • In particular to understand whether there is sufficient scientific basis for exploiting the benefits or otherwise, to promote the application of this technology in our crop production and crop protection strategies in Nigeria and other developing countries.

 Highlights of Presentations                                        

  1. Genetically Modified Foods in Nigeria: Food Safety Concerns

Speaker – Professor Sylvia Uzochukwu, Professor of Food Science and Biotechnology & Biosafety Specialist, Biotechnology Centre, Federal University, Oye-Ekiti, Nigeria.

Genetic modification is a special tool of gene technology that alters the genetic machinery of living organisms. Combining SPECIFIC genes from different organisms is known as Recombinant DNA Technology. The resulting product is said to be of “Genetically Modified (GM) Origin (GMO)” OR Genetically Engineered (GE) or Transgenic Organism”. Genetic modification or Genetic engineering, is at the core of Modern Biotechnology. There are today many other methods of genetic modification, including Particle Gun, Biolistic/Ballistic methods of DNA delivery, Electroporation, Protoplast fusion, Optoporation – Laser-induced DNA delivery and Genome Editing, especially CRISPR-Cas system. The 2020 Nobel prize in Chemistry was awarded to Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna for discovering the CRISPR-Cas system for gene editing. The CRISPR-Cas9 genome editing method is important in that it can produce non-GMO genome-edited products.

The assessment of the impact and safety of products of modern biotechnology and the development of policies and procedures to support the achievement of this goal is popularly known as Biosafety of GMOs. Safety concerns about modern biotechnology were identified by the scientists themselves. In 1975, a group of experts met at Asilomar, California on the need for strict regulations for the new technology. This led to the establishment of guidelines for use in rDNA R&D – by WHO, OECD, FAO, EFSA } The National Biosafety Management Agency (NBMA) regulates GMOs in Nigeria.  

To make a GMO, the gene of interest is inserted into the organism’s genome using a vector. This vector might contain several other elements, including regulatory sequences such as promoter and terminator sequences from bacteria or viral elements, antibiotic resistance and other marker genes.

General Safety Concerns associated with GM Foods

  • That GM foods are injurious to health
  • That they are new, and their long-term effects are not known
  • That manufacturers do not indicate their presence on food labels
  • That world hunger can be addressed without genetic modification of foods
  • That scientists are playing “God”, tampering with nature
  • That GM crops can give rise to insect resistance super weeds and loss of biodiversity

Health Concerns associated with GM Foods

The major health concerns have to do with Antibiotic resistance, Toxicity, Allergenicity, Unnatural nutritional changes, Viral resistance and formation of new viruses. Concerns may be justified or be completely baseless. However, in modern biotechnology, once there is a concern, it has to be addressed.

  • GMO Foods in Nigeria: The Benefits & Myths

Speaker – Dr. Rose M. Gidado, Deputy Director, NABDA and Country Coordinator, OFAB, Nigeria Chapter.

A Genetically Modified Organism (GMO) is an organism/plant/animal/human whose genetic material has been altered using genetic engineering techniques. Recombinant DNA Technology uses DNA molecules from different sources in order to combine them into one molecule to create a new set of genes aimed at improving the quality or characteristics of such organism to solve a particular challenge (insect/pest infestation, nutritional enhancement, drought tolerance, herbicide tolerance, production, insulin production, etc). The ultimate aim of GE technology is to enhance food security, affordable healthcare delivery system, industrialization, sustainable environment, job/wealth creation and poverty reduction.

The first modern GMO was created in 1973. After years of testing and research, GMOs were introduced to farmers. Since the 1990s, genetically modified foods have become available in stores. Genetically modified microorganisms have found applications agriculture, and bioremediation and in industries such as food, paper, and textiles. Genetic engineering offers the advantages over traditional methods of increasing molecular diversity and improving chemical selectivity. It also offers sufficient supplies of desired products, cheaper product production, and safe handling of otherwise dangerous agents.

Genetically modified crops in Nigeria include TELA Maize, Rice, Cassava-VIRCA Plus, GM Cassava, Sorghum, HT Soya, Insect resistant cowpea and Cotton.

Importance of GMOs

  • In the Environment- it is used for the control of weeds.
  • It has increased environmental protection through the reduced use of pesticides and toxic chemicals.
  • GMOs are to decontaminate toxic waste sites-mopping up oil spilled arears and making the soil arable.
  • In Farms- Improved nutrition for people, increased quality and quantity of yields, increased farm profitability through reduced costs and new product opportunities.
  • Nitrogen fixation: producing bacteria that can fix nitrogen to increase crops production.
  • Anti-freezing bacteria (transgenic) is sprayed to the plants to prevent the ice formation e.g: tomatoes, strawberries
  • Transgenic plants: desirable improved characteristics – e.g: Pests and herbicides resistance, delay ripening, improve flavour
  • Degradation of oil spill: Gene that synthesize lipase (fat digesting enzyme) from animal is inserted into bacteria. Has helped in the control of water pollution.
  • Diagnostics for detecting genetic diseases.
  • Gene therapy (human gene transfer) e.g. ADA adenosine deaminase.
  • Vaccine development (recombinant vaccines)
  • Environmental restoration

Genetic modification is used in agriculture for genetic improvements can be more efficient and precise compared to breeding. Beneficial genes and traits found in other organisms can be transferred to crop and livestock species.

Genetic Modification as an Intervention Tool to Mitigate Covid-19 Negative Impact

The genetic engineering technology is one of the most powerful tools of the 21st century that can revolutionize the world system and solve basic problems such as hidden hunger, climate change, and the more recent coronavirus disease 2019.

The link between malnutrition and immunodeficiency has been underscored; while diet constitutes a critical determinant of immune status, immunodeficiency is caused by malnutrition worldwide. The holistic success of the Nigeria’s COVID-19 response team is depended on protecting the most vulnerable members of the society from hunger and malnutrition in addition to encouraging regular handwashing and social distancing. Therefore, the need to give maximum attention to the diet and nutritional status of all age groups in Nigeria is critical and calls for emergency.

Combatting the COVID-19 pandemic will take advances in many fronts, and plant biotechnology is required for some of the most-discussed urgent needs, including the need for foster nutritional enhancements of food crops. Though dietary supplementation with multi-vitamins, bioactive lipids, flavonoids and herbs may be a tool to support the human immune system against COVID19, such nutrient-dense foods are often not accessible by the poor and rural inhabitants due to cost and ignorance. The deployment of biotechnology tools can enable plant breeders engineer plants, most especially, staple crops such as rice, corn, cassava and others to express such vital micronutrients that are necessary to boost the immune system while also reducing cost and making it available to everyone.

Can Biofortification boost immunity to diseases?

Yes! Biofortification of cassava could help to increase immunity to diseases, reduce chances of infection, and reduce dietary deficiency especially for families who rely on cassava as staples. Biofortified staple crops such as cassava, rice, maize and wheat harboring essential micronutrients to benefit the world’s poor are under development as well as new varieties of crops which have the ability to combat chronic diseases.

Highlights of Summary

Numerous scientists have examined GM foods in numerous studies over the past three decades and have concluded that it is safe. GM technology does not increase the likelihood of food allergies or create new toxins.

A wide range of biotech products have shown that biotechnology has been highly profitable for farmers and the society especially in the fields of agriculture and medicine. Biotechnology applications offer opportunities to make substantial advances in our knowledge of the diversity of some of the most important crops.

Together with the traditional techniques, these applications lead us to more impact in plant genetic resources and biodiversity in general and in return meet the needs of the massively growing population and sustain life under rapidly changing climate.

Consumers have been eating GM foods since 1996; no evidence so far of any harm from GM. International organizations such as World Health Organization (WHO), Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), have examined the evidence of safety and have indicated that GM foods are not less safe.

Speakers’ Concluding Notes

End point of the assessment process is to conclude that GM foods are as safe as the conventional counterparts.

To the consumers— At best, the absence of harm (when used under anticipated conditions) can be demonstrated. Government should invest in Research and Development in this area for sustainable solutions. R & D is the bedrock and foundation of every economy. Nigeria should take a cue from Brazil and learn from their model, especially the EMBRAPA which is an equivalent of our Agricultural Research Council of Nigeria (ARCN). But we need to know that Absolute safety is a function of many factors whether GMO or not!

There should be therefore be an upgrade of research facilities in all research institutions and Universities for meeting the requirements of need-driven research. Government must work hand in hand with research institutions/Universities and Industries for the objectives to be met especially for higher productivity in this continent

Key Recommendations

There is no doubt that the subject of GMOs has become a significant debate across different continents. While adoption has been widely embraced by the USA, the Europeans continue to have a particularly cautious attitude to the adoption. This has had a major effect on the reluctance of Nigeria and many other developing countries in the adoption of this technology to boost agricultural production over the years.

The consequence is that whilst countries like the USA can boast of over 10mt/ha of maize for example, Nigeria today is still at about 1.5mt/ha in terms of yield. Yet through GM techniques, which are targeted at drought tolerance and pest resistance, significant yield increases can be easily achieved.

There is also the need for nutritionists to educate their communities, the medical community, and the public on the potentials of GM crops when possible and provide educational materials correcting the misconceptions people have. This is why the National Biotechnology Development Agency based in Abuja, a parastatal of the Federal Ministry of Science and Technology, has a huge task in trying to change the perceptions in an environment where even some sections of the Press have become extremely sensitive and unreceptive to GMO foods for many years.

In many countries, the independent scientific community gathers case studies potentially related to GM food consumption and health effects, begins epidemiological research to investigate the role of GM foods on human health, and conducts identifies safe methods of determining the effects of GM foods on human health.

For a moratorium on GM food, implementation of immediate long-term independent safety testing, labeling of GM foods, which is necessary for the health and safety of consumers.

In all, there is a need for a need to strengthen the regulatory framework, which is already in place with the approval of the Biosafety Bill since 2015 in Nigeria. Now, concerted efforts are required to expand public outreach and advocacy – every stakeholder requires education for proper and safe use of such products. But the benefits are huge; and if we can find 2kg apples on the shelves in Dallas, Texas and we can consume all manner of fresh apple juices from these products from all over the world, why would we deny ourselves the benefits of this modern technology? It is time to transform our productivity, with more money to the farmer and enable us feed ourselves in the developing world.

This is the reason why the study of Biotechnology at undergraduate and postgraduate levels, has become widely established in the last decade in many Universities in the country. Many of our local and International Research Institutes are utilizing the benefits of this genetic modification to enhance agricultural productivity and address nutrition concerns especially in the Bio-fortification of our staple crops such as cassava, sweet potatoes, cowpeas and rice.

Consumer Advocacy for Food Safety and Nutrition Initiative, CAFSANI

info@cafsani.org

30th October 2020