BY Adanna Mgbojikwe
Speaking to a room of women recently I asked, do you know what GMOs are? The first person who replied said, enthusiastically, “Yes, they are those big fruits you see in Shoprite, like tomatoes and oranges that are so big, that’s why I don’t buy them”. Most of the occupants of the room agreed with her and my next question was, how did you come to that knowledge? Someone else said, casually “Well, it is common knowledge, you hear it around”
It wouldn’t not be a stretch to assume that a large number of Nigerians believe what these women do with the truth being a complete opposite of their assumptions.
GMOs are very popular, although circumvented by some, Hybrids on the other hand may be largely unknown but are widely consumed and at times incorrectly assumed to be GMOs because of their size. So what are hybrids?
A hybrid, which can be plant or animal, is the result of cross pollinating two different breeds, varieties, species or genera and growing the seed or animal that the cross produces. The plant or animal that grows from that seed is considered a hybrid and the process is called hybridization.
Many plant species that we see today are the result of hybridization between two different species leading to a new species, reproductively different from the parent species. Examples are many important crops such as wheat, rice, maize, oranges, paw paw, mango, avocado and many more. Cows and Chickens have also been hybridised in Nigeria. Offspring produced by hybridization may be fertile, partially fertile, or sterile.
You may be wondering what the reason for hybridisation is, well, commercial cross planting is done to get some type of valued attribute of each parent variety into the offspring. Hybrids might be developed for disease resistance, size of plant, flower, or fruit, increased flowering, color, taste, improved productivity, better appearance, faster growth, seedlessness (e.g. watermelon), or any reason a plant might be considered special. The reasons are vast and unending.
Hybridization began with early human farmers who selected food plants with particular desirable characteristics and used these as a seed source for subsequent generations, resulting in an accumulation of characteristics over time. In time however, experiments began with deliberate hybridization, the science and understanding of which was greatly enhanced by the work of Gregor Mendel.
It is important here to correct the common misconception that any animal or plant considered to be outside the realm of our reference for “natural” is a GMO.
The technology producing GMOs is an advancement of hybridization. Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are plants or micro-organisms that have been altered using genetic engineering methods. The key steps involved in genetic engineering are identifying a trait of interest, isolating that trait, inserting that trait into a desired organism, and then growing that organism. Methods for genetic manipulation have rapidly improved over the last century from simple selective breeding, to inserting genes from one organism into another, to more recent methods of directly editing the genome.
Under this definition, GMOs do not include plants or animals made by selective breeding, or animals modified by being given hormone supplements or antibiotics. The main goal of the majority of genetic engineering performed on food is to increase crop yield, to improve the nutrient value and/or increase resistance to pests, pesticides or herbicides. No genetically engineered crops have been modified to be unusually large, those crops are hybrids.
Genetic engineering is widely used in biological research. Bacteria are engineered to produce medications such as insulin, and crops are engineered for agriculture.
Crops which have been genetically modified around the world are few compared to hybridized crops and specifically modified to solve problems which the particular crop faces such as pest attacks which causes low yield or low amounts of a particular nutrient. The list below are all the genetically modified crops found anywhere in the world: Alfalfa, Apple, Beans, Canola, Carnation, Chicory, Cotton, Creeping Bentgrass, Eggplant, Eucalyptus, Flax, Maize, Melon, Papaya, Petunia, Plum, Poplar, Potato, Rice, Rose, Safflower, Soybean, Squash, Sugar Beet, Sugarcane, Sweet pepper, Tobacco, Tomato and
Of all these crops, the ones available in Nigeria as approved by the National Biosafety Management Agency (the federal government agency which regulates GMOs) are Maize, Soybean and Cotton. Rice and Beans are still under trial in some of our Nigerian research institutes.
The genetically modified beans (called Bt. Cowpea) which may be released for nation wide cultivation this year, has been modified for resistance to the Maruca Vitrata Pest which damages the beans on the field and forces our farmers to resort to using sniper as a way to solve the pest problem. This genetically modified beans which has been under-going research in Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria for a few years has the potential to drastically reduce the amount of chemicals which farmers would use during cultivation of our Beans
In the consumption of either hybrids or GMOs, one must keep in mind that these crops are produced with the intention to make them better for both the farmer to plant and the consumer to eat. Most ‘activists’ who actively fight against GMOs have sponsors who will lose a lot of money if genetically modified crops are accepted and so they work hard to spread lies against a harmless technology.
As a personal exercise read what certified bodies, such as the World Health Organization (WHO), Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), have to say on GMOs and hybrids and then make a choice on whether to consume them or not as none of this is a do-or-die affair.