© 2019 - International Centre for Investigative Reporting
Colourful cassava, maize and potato for sale in Nigeria
A NEW orange-fleshed sweet potato that looks like a carrot is now being planted and sold in Nigeria. Yellow cassava and orange maize are also available. While these new varieties of staple crops are open to question from curious Nigerians, they are not genetically modified (GM).
The new crop varieties are more nutritious than the existing ones because they have been fortified with vitamin A. But the bio-fortification of the crops was not done through a transfer of a gene from unrelated organisms to the crops. That is, the crops are not transgenic. The genes were improved but not modified.
If the genes were modified, the new crops would not have entered the market without the approval of National Biosafety Management Agency (NBMA), the agency that is responsible for regulating the use of biotechnology in agriculture. Since the passage of biosafety law in April 2015, NBMA has granted a licence for only confined field trials of GM maize and cassava.
The new variety of sweet potato, maize and cassava were bred conventionally. That is why they only passed through the Variety Release Committee at the Federal Ministry of Agriculture before finding their ways into the hands of farmers and consumers.
Jude Njoku, a principal investigator on orange-fleshed potato and researcher at the National Root Crops Research Institute Umudike, told The ICIR that the bio-fortification was done through selective breeding.
Njoku said a crop becomes genetically modified if a gene from unrelated specie is inserted into it, “like taking a gene from mango and putting it in papaw. They don’t belong to the same family. Whatever comes out it is genetically modified.”
He said the colour of the new orange-fleshed potato occurred naturally through crossbreeding of sweet potatoes. “It’s within the family of sweet potato and you transfer gene through pollen, just like the normal thing a man and woman does to get an offspring.”
He said he could crossbreed hundreds of species of sweet potato to get the desired trait. “You will see a sweet potato that is very resistant to disease and pest. Now you use the mother of that resistant sweet potato and use the father of this one that is orange in colour and transfer the colour of this one through cross-fertilization.”
Njoku said people are sceptical of GM crops because it can involve a transfer of a gene from unrelated crops. For example, “you’re looking at why this crop is resistant to disease. That crop may be cassava. You go and extract gene of cassava and put in sweet potato. You don’t know how sweet potato will react to that gene. That’s why people are afraid of GM crops.”
Through the ages, humans have been altering the genomes of plants and animals through selective breeding, otherwise known as a conventional method. However, the rise of biotechnology since the 1970s has enabled scientists to recombine DNA molecules to create new species.
This revolutionary technology, which can be used to produce crops that are resistant to diseases and pests as well as enhance the nutritional content of crops, has come with controversy. Despite scientific consensus that GM crops are safe, there are still wide-spread fears about the effect of GM crops on consumers and the environment.