GMOs: The contending forces

By Etta Michael Bisong

May 14, 2018

The current opposition to the adoption of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) globally is best understood using the example of the history of electronic communications.

The idea of integrating technology with communication was challenged during its early days because people perceived communication as a natural process and technology as something artificial. The pessimists assumed that the marriage between the two would create an abnormal setting and distort the natural flow of communication.

The debate around this matrimony laid a foundation for the postulation of many mass media theories in an effort to defend and prove the safety of this application.

The “Global Village,” a theory propounded by Marshall McLuhan, a renowned media scholar and Canadian-born professor, dominated global dialogue during this era.

The oracle coined the metaphoric term and popularized it in his 1962 book, “The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man,” to describe the relationship between humans and high-speed technologies. It also highlights how electronic technology was serving to shrink the globe down to the size of a village.

The same fear that gripped those concerned with McLuhan’s global village has resurfaced — though now with more vigor, as it seeks to thwart the concept of biotechnology in society. This panic, while not scientifically verifiable, has occupied the center stage of the debate. It’s not unlike the ridicule that greeted McLuhan’s prophesies, which were jettisoned outright and later stereotyped — McLuhanism is now used to reference an extremist imagination that only exists in the mind of the originator.

But today we are all witnesses to the reality of the digital age, which has allowed people to reach out and transcend their neighborhood. Humans are now involved in a community of networks stretching across cities, nations, oceans, governments and even religions, creating a true global village. The merging of technology and communication has created new social status, connecting and transforming lives in ways that couldn’t have been possible previously because of their geographic location.

The above story reveals that the hindrances bedeviling modern biotechnology development are more emotional rather than factual. It is now common sense to argue that the issue lies not in the concept of the technology, but with a phenomenon known as technophobia that is normally associated with humans and new technologies. It connotes fear and dislike for technological innovations, mostly among those who do not really understand scientific principles.

Biotechnology is simply any technique that uses living organisms or substances from other organisms to make or modify a product, such as to improve plants and animals or to develop microorganisms. It is an easy application of natural processes that scientists have studied and are able to apply to enhance human activities. Its origin predated 4,000 BC, when the Egyptians mastered the art of wine making. Together with the Sumerians in 2,000 BC, they went further to learn brewing and cheese making.

The crisis now is that hunger, poverty, malnutrition, and sustainable agricultural growth disproportionately impact Less Developed Countries (LDCs). And solutions like biotechnology are often inaccessible where they are most solely needed. Biotechnology is at the heart of this discussion, inciting a debate fuelled by misinformation and dominated by anti-GMO activists. Meanwhile, those whose lives would be impacted by advances in biotechnology are left out of the global conversation.

At the turn of this century, biotechnology emerged as a powerful tool that has contributed immensely to socioeconomic activities. In agriculture, for example, it has contributed to increased productivity in many countries. Since 1996, biotech crops have been commercially planted by millions of farmers across the world.

Many protagonists, mostly in the Third World, believe that biotechnology is offering another opportunity to recapture the Green Revolution. They argue that it has the capacity to overhaul agriculture for the better. The Green Revolution was centered on crops that were specifically created to give better yields in shorter times. Biotechnology would provide higher yield and resist diseases, while also delivering crops with improved nutrient levels.

It is necessary to mention at this point that the Green Revolution improvements were premised on the application of all sorts of chemicals, such as fertilizers, insecticides and herbicides, to encourage these crops to grow as expected. Most Third World farmers didn’t have the capacity to adopt these practices. So they didn’t benefit from the Green Revolution, and are still plagued by famine, hunger, poverty and all that accompany them.

Though biotechnology holds promise to help address those woes, a new wave of technophobia is emerging in the form of anti-GM campaigners, many of whom believe it was consciously developed to control and even eliminate mankind.

In my country of Nigeria, for instance, different interest groups have staged opposition since the National Biotechnology Development Agency (NABDA) was established in 2001 to promote the development of this technology and the National Biosafety Management Agency (NBMA) was created in 2015 to regulate its safe practice.

These groups want the government to repeal the NBMA Act , which took nearly 14 years to become law due to the intensity of anti-GM activism. The groups, which include environmentalists and civil society organizations, brutally protested and expressed their grievances against the introduction of this technology into Nigeria’s environment.

They have raised diverse issues, most of which focus on hypothetical risks and questions related to value, safety and impact (agronomic, economic and environmental). They also questioned the competency of the NBMA to regulate a technology that they consider too sophisticated for humanity.

But the federal government totally differs with this viewpoint. Its realization of the importance of this cutting-edge technology led it to establish the regulatory framework for ensuring environmental and health safety in developing modern biotechnology development.

Two major forces have appeared since the establishment of these agencies — the agro-chemical industries that are supplying the pesticides that would be needed less with pest-resistant GM crops, and those who feel the advent of biotechnology would deprive them of their livelihood sources.

Dr. Rufus Ebegba, director general and chief executive officer of the NBMA, said the technology is controversial because of its special position in fostering socio-economic activities.

“I can tell you that there are those that have made up their minds never to trust the agency because they have ulterior motives and their livelihood is centered on what they are doing. Once people’s livelihoods are touched they could become very violent and do anything,” he said.

Going forward, Nigeria needs to focus less on the concerns raised by technophobes and more on the modernization of its biotechnology resources as it strives to enhance the standard of living of millions of Nigerians through the application of this new agricultural tool.

Etta Michael Bisong is a science and environment journalist with Blueprint newspaper in Nigeria, and coordinator of the Journalists for Social Development Initiative.