Wednesday, April 24, 2024

Nigeria approves GMO Corn for planting

Amidst concerns over the adoption of Genetically Modified Crops in Nigeria, the federal government, in January, approved the commercial release of four “Tela maize” varieties for commercial planting in the country.

The move placed Nigeria second in the list of African countries that have adopted and commercialised the “T maize” varieties after South Africa, a report published in February, by the United States Department of Agriculture and the Global Agricultural Information Network (GAIN) noted.

“In addition to South Africa, Nigeria has become the second country in Africa to approve the commercialization of genetically engineered corn,” the report said.

Tela maize is a maize variety that has been genetically engineered for improved insect resistance and drought tolerance, to boost farmers’ yield per hectare and also complement existing demand gaps.

GMO debate in Nigeria

Over the past decade, the adoption of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs), commonly referred to as GM seeds by crop farmers has been a subject of intense debate among scientists, environmentalists and even food activists in Nigeria and globally.

The question of what role, if any, GMOs should play in helping to address a range of agriculture, nutrition, and climatic challenges in developing countries like Nigeria has been at the centre of discussions.

Also, concerns have emerged over the environmental and health impacts of GMOs, their impact on traditional farming methods, and issues around seed patents.

Governments in developing nations are responding to those concerns in a variety of ways with some banning GMOs outright, some embracing the technology, and others attempting to find a balance between the concerns and needs of all sides.

According to the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA), at least 33 major food crops have been genetically modified globally. Of these, four (maize, cowpea, cotton and soybean) have been officially approved for commercialisation by the Nigerian authorities, with Nigeria listed among the six African countries leading in biotech crop adoption across the continent.

Tela maize is the latest GM variety approved for commercial planting in Nigeria.

Some experts have argued that planting GM seeds will help to produce enough food for the global population, hence achieving food security at a fast pace. Others have also argued that food productivity can be improved through natural methods.

A PREMIUM TIMES investigation in 2022 revealed that, while promoters of GMOs are working to counter criticisms and ensure safety, concerns are not the only challenge hindering the adoption of GMOs in Nigeria. It was discovered that across several communities in Nigeria, farmers growing GM crop varieties know too little to make informed decisions.

Tela maize potentials

According to the report by the USDA, in the marketing year 2022/2023, Nigeria produced an estimated 12.7 million metric tons (MMT) of corn, with an average yield of 2.2 tons per hectare. However, it noted that the adoption of the new maize varieties could increase the country’s production capacity significantly.

According to the African Agriculture Technology Foundation (AATF), yields of Tela maize could reach up to 10 tons per hectare if grown under good agronomic practices, the report said.

Reports indicated that the Nigerian authorities officially commercialised Tela maize varieties on 11 January, following an announcement by the Nigeria National Committee on Naming, Registration and Release of Crop Varieties, Livestock Breeds/Fisheries.

At the time, the group approved twenty-three new GM varieties for commercial planting, including four biotech Tela maize varieties. This implies that seed companies can license rights to produce and commercialise the new Tela maize hybrids under their private brand from AATF.

The AATF also noted that the approved varieties are owned by the respective institutions that developed them including the national government research organisations, and that they will be licensed to local seed companies royalty-free through the AATF.


According to the report, the Tela Maize Project was originally known as the Water Efficient Maize for Africa Project. Nigeria first joined the Tela Maize Project in 2019.

The project is perceived to have been driven by the move to develop a high-yielding maize variety that would be drought tolerant amidst lingering climate change effects, and at the same time be resistant to the highly virulent Fall ArmyWorm pest (FAW) that ravaged several corn fields across the country in 2016.

Some studies have posited that FAW can reduce corn production in affected areas by 20 to 50 per cent if not properly controlled, eventually leading to higher production costs through increased labour and pesticide applications.

However, the process towards the adoption of Tela maize in Nigeria began in 2021 after the National Biosafety Management Agency (NBMA) approved the environmental release and field trials of the maize varieties categorised as SAMMAZ 72T, SAMMAZ 73T, SAMMAZ 74T, and SAMMAZ 75T.

Nigeria’s Institute for Agricultural Research carried out national performance trials of the four varieties across ten states with varied agroecological conditions.

According to reports, the trials showed average yields achieving 3 tons per hectare.


The adoption of Tela maize generated controversies among anti-GMO groups in Nigeria, particularly the environmental think-tank Health of Mother Earth Foundation ( HOMEF) and several other groups, who issued a joint statement at the time condemning GMO adoption in the country.

While commending the intention of the Nigerian authorities to address food insufficiency in the country, HOMEF expressed disappointment over the release of the genetically modified varieties.

The group noted that there is no evidence of a risk assessment conducted before the release of the Tela maize on either the website of the National Biosafety Management Agency (NBMA), the agency saddled with the responsibility of regulating the uses of GMOs or the Biosafety Clearing House of the United Nations Convention on Biodiversity, where parties are expected to upload updates on their decisions/use of GMOs/LMOs.

In his reaction, HOMEF’s Executive Director, Nnimmo Bassey, said, “It is totally unacceptable that in the name of food sufficiency, the country is exposing its citizens to products of risky technologies without adequate, independent and/or long-term assessment on their impacts on human and environmental health.”

The environmentalist said there are many challenges associated with genetic modification crops that cannot be denied.

So far, he claimed that GMOs have been linked to cancers, diseases, allergies, and all sorts of health challenges due to environmental implications because of their dependency on toxic pesticides and the destruction of biodiversity and nutritional diversity.

“We are also concerned that there is no way to label or inform our farmers that they are planting GMO maize. To deny Nigerians the right of choice is highly objectionable and wicked,” Mr Bassey noted.

He said it is expedient that the government conduct independent long-term feeding tests and environmental/biodiversity assessments before any GM crop is approved for use and not merely testing to confirm productivity or performance.

Mr Bassey charged the Nigerian government to understand the difficulties of recalling genetically modified living organisms and to quickly withdraw the Tela maize.

Meanwhile, according to a statement issued by the NBMA last week, the Director-general of the agency, Agnes Asagbra, claimed that Tela maize has not been launched in the country.

“It’s crucial to note that though it has been commercialised, Tela maize has not yet been launched; it is not available in the market. This demonstrates our commitment to thorough scrutiny and due diligence,” she said in a statement shared with PREMIUM TIMES.

Mrs Asagbra described Tela maize as a variety that has been rigorously evaluated through risk assessments and regulatory processes before its approval.

She noted that the GM crops that have been approved were critically evaluated by Nigerian scientists who are professionals with vast experience and expertise in their fields.

“Their assessments are meticulous, ensuring that only safe and beneficial technologies reach our farmers and consumers,” she said.

She emphasised that the country’s biosafety law is critical in the quest for Nigeria to achieve food security.

“Biosafety is not just a policy; it’s a commitment to safeguarding our nation’s health, biodiversity, and environment. In regulating the activities of modern biotechnology, biosafety ensures that any technological advancements, particularly in agriculture, are beneficial and pose no harm to our people or our land, “ the agency said.

Mrs Asagbra urged Nigerians to embrace the advancements in safe modern biotechnology with an informed perspective.

“Let us trust in the rigorous processes that have been established to protect us all. Together, we can move towards a future where food security, environmental sustainability, and economic growth go hand in hand,” she said.

Experts react

In his reaction, the Executive Director of Nigerian Stored Products Research Institute (NSPRI), Lateef Sanni, said Nigeria is blessed with land and water resources to produce a wide range of agricultural products with high yield if research is taken seriously.

Mr Sanni, a Professor of Food Science and Technology, emphasised that Nigeria cannot continue to rely on breeders from other parts of the world for hybrid seeds.

He argued that the food situation in the country, the global acceptance of genetically modified foods, and the need for environmental sustainability, suggest that Nigerian farmers should accept Tela Maize for planting.

However, Mr Sanni said, this should not be taken as a permanent solution to getting the right breed of maize with good yield for farmers.

“Our breeders need to wake up to the task, and they need the support of government, private sectors, and farmers to be able to come up with quality seeds that will guarantee bountiful harvest,” he noted.

On his part, Qrisstuberg Amua, Executive Director, Centre for Food Safety and Agricultural Research, noted that citizens have every reason to be worried about Tela maize adoption in the country.

“Not only citizens, our political and economic leaders also have a lot to be worried about this development,” he told PREMIUM TIMES in an interview on Monday.

He said citizens should be worried about the new maize varieties for reasons ranging from its health implications and lack of sufficient details about the maize, adding that the health implications of GMOs are motley and that they are negative, coming in the forms of cancers resulting from hormonal or endocrine and immune system disruptions.

Mr Amua listed other possible health implications of GMOs to include fertility sterilisations, metabolic derangements, cardiovascular health disruptions, children obesity and attendant issues thereto, autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorders in children, mental health derangements and early memory decay (dementia) in individuals above 40 years of age and so much more.

He emphasised that the adverse health implications could emanate from both the genetic modifications of the organism which often involve recombinant splicing or stitching of DNA either through manipulations of specialised proteins that make the Messenger RNA (MRNA) or through what looks more like cut and join using the CRISPR (an acronym for clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats) technology.

Also, Mr Amua said from the many pesticides like glyphosate (the primary active ingredient in the commercially ubiquitous ‘Roundup’) and irks, that are used in the biotechnological engineering that ensures these GMOs are pest resistant, the varieties can tolerate the application of higher concentrations of phytotoxic pesticides as herbicides.

Based on this, the professor of bioinorganic chemistry said some of the GMOs are labelled as “Roundup Ready’ or RR” such as the RR Corn or RR Soy.

“Also, there are adverse health implications to the environment due to unregulated applications of these carcinogenic, mutagenic and teratogenic arrays of pesticides, as a result of higher tolerance of these GMOs to pesticides, generally,” Mr Amua said.

These environmental toxins, he said, tend to persist in the environment and weave their way up the food chain and ultimately into humans through menu choices.

“This is one other reason for the burgeoning cases of otherwise not so rampant non-communicable diseases (NCDs) like diabetes, cancer, hypertension, dyslipidemia, arthritis, etc. nowadays even in younger populations of our communities,” he said.

He stressed that the adoption of GMOs has adverse implications for the food production system and biodiversity, as their promotion encourages monocropping and eventual extermination of rather organic and even indigenous seed types.

“Lastly, they pose adverse economic implications and even strategic food and general security implications; as when a foreign multinational controls your food supply system (as these GMOs are patented products of non-national conglomerates), your economy and even strategic security can easily be compromised from outside of your shores,” he said.

He urged the Nigerians to reject all GMOs and also engage in various levels of personal and community education, sensitisation, and advocacy to demand the withdrawal/repeal of policies and legislation that allow licensing and indeed permit the cultivation, distribution and public consumption of GMOs.

“We should also rethink our consumption patterns to return to wholesome organic and indigenous foods that are not genetically modified,” he said.

By Abdulkareem Mojeed, Premium Times 

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