LEGISLATION / POLITICS

Effects of GMO in Argentina: a case study for Nigeria

by Ify Aniebo

There is ongoing debate about the introduction of GMO in Nigeria and why the signing of the bio-safety bill will be detrimental to Nigerians. One of the recurring statements of pro-GMO activist and lobbyist is that there is no known health effect in humans linked to GMO.

Argentina is one of the countries where GMO has been used for up to 15 years. It has also carried out epidemiological and clinical surveillance of the effects GMO has had on their people who live close to farms where these crops are planted.

Argentinian children were consuming so much genetically engineered soy that they began developing breasts from the estrogenic effects, before authorities stepped in with warnings.

Studies also strongly suggest that the glyphosate that these crops are doused with can cause cancer and birth deformities; both of which are occurring at increasing rates in areas where spraying is done.

Sterility and miscarriages are also increasing. Experts warn that in 10 to 15 years, rates of cancer, infertility and endocrine dysfunction could reach catastrophic levels in Argentina.

For nearly 10 years, residents of rural and periurban areas where agricultural activities are carried out have been reaching out to the political authorities and the courts of justice because their health and environment is being destroyed.

Some of the complaints were included in the ‘declaration of Caroya.’ A declaration made by a large number of organisations, made up of self-organised neighbours and environmental NGOs, from the Capital City of Cordoba and 12 other cities in Argentina.

Below is an excerpt from the declaration:

‘That the processes of soyization, monoculture, direct sowing, intense farming … have affected our natural co-existence in the following order: Health: Reduction in the average age and height in crop-sprayed towns due to malnutrition, and a decrease of the body’s natural defences.

Birth defects, mutagenesis, miscarriages, depression and suicide, disorders of the central nervous system and other neurological pathologies; disabilities, spina bifida, lupus, leukaemia and other types of cancers; chloracne and other skin problems; asthma, allergies, and other respiratory and lung-related problems; male sterility and impotence; hormonal disruption and other hormonal disorders; diminished childhood development; prolonged febrile syndrome without focus; children’s increased vulnerability to pollutants; anaemia, multiple sclerosis, cerebral ischemia, death.’

Presentations and stories of the participants matched the clinical observations of a range of diseases and health conditions on people subject to sprayings.

While manifestations of acute poisoning are the daily demands of these patients, what alarms physicians the most in crop-sprayed towns are two main observations: Firstly, more newborns suffer from birth defects and there are more miscarriages than those usually occurring in their population of patients.

Secondly, there is an increased detection of cancers in children and adults, and serious illnesses, such as toxic liver disease, and neurological disorders.

The physicians stressed that for over 25 years, what they found in recent years was quite unusual and strictly linked to systemic sprayings of pesticides.

Birth Defects

It is now officially recognised that activity with agro-chemicals or its residential exposure (by vicinity) is linked to reproductive problems, repeated miscarriages and serious birth defects, such as the series of birth defect cases where mothers have a history of direct exposure to pesticides.

There is a four times increase in birth defects from a time when there was less agro-chemical activity to a time when agro-chemical activity was very much present.

In the area where soybean planting had been implemented, there’s been an increase in the incidence of child cancer which was strongly linked to high-level exposure to glyphosate.

The rate of babies born with severe congenital birth defects increased over time. High Genetic Damage Rate It was found that exposure to pesticides (occupational and residential) caused a higher rate of genetic damage compared to those not exposed.

Individuals with higher genetic damage rate have less ability to eliminate genetic mutations and therefore have more possibilities of developing cancer under this exposure.

Similarly, exposed pregnant women in high vulnerability time windows will undergo spontaneous abortions or give birth to newborns with birth defects.

Genotoxicity of Gyphosate

The studies consistently showed an increase in risk for defects at birth due to exposure to pesticides in mothers.The specific defects included were limb reduction, urogenital anomalies, CNS defects, orofacial clefts, heart conditions, and ocular defects. Together with the increase in cancer and birth defect cases in the mentioned areas, the use of pesticides also increased exponentially since the introduction of transgenic crops. This type of crop requires the use of more and more pesticides. In 1990, 35 million litres were used during the crop year. In 1996, the introduction of transgenic biotechnology accelerated the use of pesticides to the extent that 98 million litres were used, and in 2000, it increased to 145 million litres. Last year 292 million litres were used, and this year, the fields will be sprayed with over 300 million litres of herbicides, insecticides, acaricides, defoliants and other poisonous substances.

Each year, the amount of Glyphosate per hectare repeatedly sprayed on the same plot of land has increased. This is because weeds have become resistant.

Twelve million Argentineans are directly sprayed. This means that a sufficient amount of those 300 million litres of agro-toxics are sprayed on houses, schools, parks, water sources, sports fields, and work areas.This population is treated by physicians working in the crop-sprayed towns, where they’ve noticed an alarming increase of cancer, birth defects and reproductive disorders, which cannot be concealed anymore.

Nigeria will be faced with similar health problems if genetically modified foods are adopted. The country is already faced with a triple burden of disease which we clearly are struggling to manage so why should we create more health problems that we do not have the technical skills or medical facilities to treat? Before a policy is approved, it should be properly assessed for all potential consequences that could arise.

If all the required assessments are not done, then any negative consequences that arise would be deemed as intentional. It is a terrible idea to pass an agriculture policy that would be detrimental to the health of Nigerians and future health of a generation unborn.

Aniebo is a molecular geneticist from Oxford University, with a master’s in public health . She is a Bill and Melinda Gates scholar and most recently an Exxon Mobil scholar. winner of the future awards Africa young person of the year award and best use of science award. She was also recognized by former Nigeria’s President Goodluck Jonathan during the centenary celebrations as an inventor and innovator. She writes from Oxford.

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