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Civil society groups denounce approval for GM wheat in Nigeria

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Civil society organisations representing millions of Nigerians have denounce the permit recently granted to Trigall Genetics S.A. for importation of genetically modified wheat (HB4 Wheat)  into the country.

The coalition, in a recent statement, demands that the permits be recalled and that National Biosafety Management Agency (NBMA) ceases to act as a gateway for needless and  risky GM products in Nigeria.

The statement reads:

“In Argentina where the HB4 Wheat is produced as well as in nearby Brazil, farmers, social and environmental organisations and committed scientists are fighting hard to stop it. USA, Uruguay, Paraguay, Indonesia and South Africa have received applications for this HB4 Wheat; some as far back as 2015. The US FDA has conducted field trials on the wheat as far back as 2011; Paraguay since 2015 yet they have failed to grant approval. It is said that applications are still under evaluation.

“The NBMA received an application just in June 2022 and merely 1 month after an approval has been granted. Why the  rush?  This is unacceptable.

An independent scientific assessment of the application for the commercial release of the HB4 Wheat reveals issues of concern regarding the analysis of endogenous gene interruptions by genetic modification; the putative production of unexpected outputs; its potential risk for consumption; and the stability of the genetic modification of the transgenic IND-ØØ412-7 wheat.

“One issue of concern is that the endogenous transcription factor – HAHB4 protein that will be consumed as food / feed could not be extracted and evaluated; reason being that it is unfeasible to isolate the HAHB4 protein in the genetic plant in enough quantity and purity to be used for quantification, biochemical studies and characterization studies. Safety of this construct is not certain.”

The applicant conceded in the dossier that the use of new generation sequencing techniques revealed the presence of unintended elements (insertions in wheat IND-ØØ412-7) that were assumed to be eliminated uring the selection process due to the lack of glucuronidase activity.
The implications of these unintended elements in wheat IND-ØØ412-7 in humans, animals and environment are undisclosed/unknown.

“Nutritional analysis of the wheat IND-ØØ412-7 revealed statistically significant differences in some proteins (amino acids – serine and threonine), vitamins (Folic acid), mineral (Zinc), fatty acids (stearic, oleic and arachidic) and forage nutrients (carbohydrate, moisture and calcium) compared to the parental control line Cadenza and commercial varieties.

The application dossier failed to show that the new trait and their related features in the wheat event IND-ØØ412-7 were distinctively evaluated for human/animal health and the environment safety.
Regrettably, the Nigeria Biosafety Committee ignored these gaps in data and knowledge while making their recommendation for the authorization of the importation of IND-ØØ412-7 wheat for food, feed, and processing in Nigeria.

Nnimmo Bassey, Director of Health of Mother Earth Foundation (HOMEF), said: “Although it is claimed that the application is for commercialization and not for cultivation of the wheat, there is no guarantee that the GM event will not get into the hands of local farmers and contaminate indigenous varieties. The applicant states that ‘in the unlikely case of accidental release, risk to humans, animals and the environment are similar to the ones produced by conventional wheat’.

This doesn’t make sense as they also say that the “traits found in the GM wheat event are not available in non-GM form of the crop. The implications of the genetic modification on human health as well as on the environment are not considered”.

According to the Coordinator of the Food Sovereignty Programme at Environmental Rights Action, Africa/Nigeria,  Marian Bassey-Orovwuje, “as at the time of writing this, no risk assessment document is available on the website of NBMA. There is no telling if indeed risk assessment was conducted. The Director General of the NBMA was recently quoted thus: ‘before the official release of GMOs, it would take up to 13 years of rigorous process, to do a risk assessment on the issues of culture, environment, and human health, among thers’. Why then are approvals granted within merely a month as in the case of this HB4 Wheat? Shouldn’t we act in good faith and in the best interest of our peoples?

Ifeanyi Casmir, a molecular biologist posited: “The HB4 Wheat was engineered to tolerate glufosinate ammonium which is more toxic than glyphosate. There are thousands of cases in the USA over cancers resulting from the use of glyphosate. Residues of glufosinate in the wheat event poses a direct threat to human and animal health. In the likely event that this wheat is planted by farmers, soil and water will be contaminated from intensive use of the glufosinate chemical. Although the wheat is self-fertile, it can cross-pollinate at a rate of up to 14% meaning that the HB4 genes will spread to other wheat varieties.”

HOMEF’s Programmes Manager, Joyce Brown poses this question: “why do we need to import the GM variety of wheat modified for drought resistance and herbicide tolerance if it is only for use as food and feed and not for cultivation? Except the whole thing is an ambush?”

In Buenos Aires (Argentina’s capital city) in July 2022, a judge issued a precautionary measure that prohibits the release & use of #HB4wheat. We should uphold this measure as a country and cease flooding the nation with with various genetically modified food products which hold grave implications not just for the present but future generations as well, ” Brown said.

Akinbode Oluwafemi, Executive Director at
Corporate Accountability and Public Participation Africa (CAPPA), stressed that the government of Nigeria  should commit to long term evaluation of the safety of the GM technology as well as other emerging
technologies. “The government should ensure adequate support for our farmers and support agroecology which assures optimum productivity of healthy, and safe food while repleninshing ecosystems,” he said.