BY TIMI OLUBIYI, PhD
Timi Olubiyi, an entrepreneurship & business management expert with a PhD in Business Administration from Babcock University Nigeria, is a Chartered member of the Chartered Institute for Securities & Investment (CISI), and a Securities & Exchange Commission (SEC) registered capital market operator. He can be reached on the Twitter handle @drtimiolubiyi and via email: email@example.com
The common social concerns in the country are high mortality rate, poverty and malnutrition. But for the concerns that bother on health, the advice is usually to reduce fats, cholesterols and sugar intake, improve on nutrition and good diet, do not smoke and so on, to avoid health issues. However, the fact is that food is about health and healthy living, but less is heard about the need to promote organic food eating, in a world where innovation is now widespread in agric-business and farming, with the genetically engineering of crops and foods.
Genetically Modified (GM) foods are foods that are produced from genetically modified organisms (GMO) that have had their DNA altered through genetic engineering. Genetic modification, also known as genetic engineering, simply means having the DNA of crops and foodstuffs altered using genes from other plants or animals to achieve specific aims. So, with this in mind, the natural ways of growing crops and even mating by animals can be bypassed for commercial and business gains. This concept is quite different from the conventional gestation period and natural farm harvest time.
Scientists take the gene or seed for a desired trait (colour, flavour, texture, early maturation, greater yield and bigger output) in one plant or animal, and they insert that gene into a cell of another plant or animal to produce the specific and desired results. I am made to understand that the benefits of this innovation in agriculture include better taste, a longer shelf life, better nutrition and quality; increased profit for growers; virus and insect resistance; herbicide tolerance, and increased food yield to alleviate hunger. Furthermore, the key benefit of this trend is mainly for multiple productions of food, though many fish or chicken can mature more quickly with this innovation as well, with the hope of lowering costs, with fewer environmental resources (such as water and fertiliser). The big question and concern is who regulates this process in the country? A place where shortcuts, dumping, profiteering at every cost are the order of the day, this should be a cause for concern. I have seen first-generation products such as oranges without seeds, corn with less harvesting period, plastic-looking tomatoes, bananas and plantains looking like toys, chicken ready for consumption in three months and a host of others, mainly due to commercialization. The main motive is for profitability of the businesses that are involved in the enhanced food production.
Enhanced food production through genetic modification of the foods may be everywhere considering the economic woes, shrinking disposable income and the poor affordability of many. But are there any quality checks or controls on all these genetically modified foods that are freely available in the markets? Who monitors the health implications, if any? Businesses may just be feeding the poor, the hungry with this process without any scientific checks. In fact, many consuming these foods may not necessarily be aware of the makeup of the foods or be aware that they are actually consuming genetically modified foods.
A quick survey to understand the viewpoints of consumers on genetically modified foods indicated that many were unaware of the concept in agriculture or farming. In fact, a large number, close to 90 percent, of those surveyed have no idea what the concept means. The answer from most of them was, “I am just hearing about it for the first time.” This is the key reason for this piece, to bring awareness to the growing trend of foods that are genetically modified, and the need to provide guidelines, improve food safety, to avoid potential harm and cases of unknown illnesses in the world, and indeed Nigeria. Though the concept could make food available commercially and could make for better yield compared to traditional breeding, the important thing is the quality control and the need to certify it fit for consumption before production on commercial scale. Because, like all new technologies, such foods may also pose some risks, both known and/or unknown.
In a country where many shun moral and ethical values much is expected from the research institutes, National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control, (NAFDAC), Consumer Protection Council and other sister agencies to regulate, control and set standards for genetically modified foods. Although there has been no evidence of detrimental or toxic effects from the use of genetically modified foods in the country, the truth is that no one can predict all its consequences. Currently, the public knowledge is weak and farmers, food retailers, restaurants and caterers rarely inform customers or consumers of the foods, crops or ingredients they deal with, or that it contains genetically modified organisms or not, because currently, no law compels them to do so.
Even though the production of genetically modified foods involves tampering with nature, the entrepreneurs, businesses and farmers involved in such production claim that these foods are safe and have no side effects. Conversely, in my opinion, genetically modified foods represent a significant innovation and commercial breakthrough in agric-business, therefore to a high degree, abundant harvests and profitability may just be the key drive, so there is need to regulate.
So, effective regulations, standard guidelines and the need to have genetically modified food regulations in the country is expedient. I am just concerned and I think many too should be, over the safety of the food we consume and the health implications because the majority are poor and what is affordable might not be right for consumption. Nevertheless, genetically modified foods have entered our food basket largely via imports or due to cultivation of genetically modified food crops, it is still right for the apex food regulators in the country to carry out safety assessment because this is central in ruling out fear, uncertainty, and doubt (often shortened to FUD) in consumers and citizenry going forward.
In conclusion, the government and the regulators must set up a system for regulating both domestically produced and imported genetically modified food products, because Australia, Brazil, the European Union and others do regulate genetically modified food; Nigeria needs to do so too without any exceptions. Good luck!