Genetically Modified Organism (GMO) foods according to a school of thought can cause cancers and other diseases in humans, but to others, it is simply a way of solving specific agricultural problems. What then is the true position and risks involved in its consumption?
The genetic attribute that makes sugarcane sweet, if a person can discover it, such a gene can be taken and inserted in bitter leaf to make it as sweet as sugarcane, provided the procedure is successful. At this point, that bitter leaf can be said to have been genetically modified, narrated Rufus Ebegba, director general, National Biosafety Management Agency (NBMA), during a recent interactive session with agriculture journalists in Lagos.
His analogy was given to describe what a typical genetic modification objective could be, and as he stressed, “people tend to believe the agency is promoting GMO, but we don’t promote GMOs neither are we against them.”
“Our role is to make sure they are safe for human use, consumption, and to the environment,” he said.
Considering the fact that genetic engineering is a very powerful tool, if it is not regulated, it can be abused and result in organisms that are harmful either to the environment or human beings.
Ebegba identified known concerns about GMO as follows;
Production of super organisms such as super weeds in the case of herbicide tolerance species could occur.
The GM crop can also become suddenly invasive. Maybe the maize with herbicide tolerance goes beyond what is expected, it could become so strong as to destroy all other crops, perhaps because it has the ability to tap more nutrients and other crops can no longer survive.
GM crops should not target insects unduly. A GM crop may have been bred to resist a particular insect but it should not affect any other one as this could make it affect biodiversity. It must be specific. If GM beans is to target weevil as a pest, it should not kill butterfly for instance, which is a pollinator and should be protected.
It must not cause toxins. For instance if beans is genetically modified, people should not consume it and start falling sick.
It must also not cause allergies. Some people may eat groundnut and have rashes and if it is GM groundnut, it must have not higher allergic impact more than its natural counterpart.
Cultural values and norms have to be respected in genetic modification. For instance, the Muslim community does not consume pork. Therefore, inserting pork gene into sorghum meant for consumption will be unacceptable. Even if such insertion will be done, the product must be clearly labelled. When this labelling is done, it then becomes consumer choice, and this labelling is already made mandatory by law.
The part that is perhaps of more concern to most people; can GMO cause cancer?
“Cancer has been in existence even before the advent of GMOs. Therefore, there are no verifiable evidences linking GMO and cancer,” said Ebegba. According to him, the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO), World Health Organisation (WHO), and Codex Alimentarius Commission have so far not found any linkages between GMO, cancer or any other diseases in human.
According to him, Nigeria has “a very good laboratory where we can detect any genetically modified organism. We can detect the smallest, minute aspect of it in the laboratory”.
As at the time of publishing this article, there is no known scientific evidence linking GMO foods and diseases such as cancers in humans.