Understanding Tela Maize benefits, future prospects

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The Federal Government’s recent launch of TELA maize varieties has sparked mixed reactions. In this special report, NICHOLAS KALU and JULIANA AGBO provide an in-depth analysis on the introduction and implications of genetically modified TELA maize in Nigeria, covering controversies, benefits, regulatory frameworks, and addressing concerns over food security, health impacts and socio-economic implications.


The announcement that the Federal Government had launched the transgenic TELA maize varieties in the country raised concerns in some quarters. The TELA maize variety belongs to a category known as Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs). These crops have been genetically modified to be more resistant to pests and to yield more produce. The concerns raised by some GMO opponents prompted the House of Representatives to call for a halt to GMO crops in Nigeria pending an investigation by its committee.

 

In an attempt to address these concerns, the Federal Government stated that the launch of the TELA maize variety aims to close the national maize production deficit, estimated at six million tons annually. This effort is part of a broader agenda to ensure food security. To allay fears, the Minister of Health and Social Welfare, Dr. Ali Pate, emphasised that the ministry is committed to the formulation, implementation, and support of health-related policies and programmes. Regarding genetically modified crops, the ministry is guided by the National Biosafety Management Agency (NBMA), which operates under the Federal Ministry of Environment. The NBMA is responsible for ensuring that modern biotechnology and its products do not harm human health or the environment.

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The TELA maize initiative is led by the African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF), funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and other partners, and developed by the Institute for Agricultural Research (IAR) at Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, Kaduna State. This genetically modified maize is designed to be tolerant to drought and resistant to fall armyworm, a pest that farmers report can destroy nearly 100 per cent of maize in the field.

The Minister of State for Agriculture and Food Security, Senator Aliyu Sabi Abdullahi, stated at the launch that the TELA maize variety will address the national deficiency in maize production, which is estimated at six million tons annually. Abdullahi added that this deficit will be closed within the next three years if 1.5 million hectares of Nigeria’s six million hectares of farmland are used to plant the TELA variety. He explained that this would result in an average additional increase of 10.5 million metric tons, bringing national production to over 20 million metric tons.

This increase, he said, will not only make Nigeria self-sufficient in maize production but also enable the country to export around two million metric tons annually. According to Abdullahi, the positive impact of TELA maize will be felt across various sectors of the economy. He added that increased maize production will stimulate growth in related industries, create jobs, and drive rural development.

 

However, the Minister’s assurances have done little to quell the concerns of many people, which contributed to the resolution of the House of Representatives. The primary fear is that the TELA maize variety, being laboratory-made rather than naturally occurring, is part of a Western agenda led by Bill Gates. Critics argue that this agenda goes beyond economic exploitation and control, aiming at a more sinister goal: population reduction. These skeptics claim that the genetically modified varieties are not just insect-resistant but are injected with toxins intended to cause sterility and diseases, leading to death and reducing the population. They believe that the nutrients humans need have been removed from the crops and replaced with harmful substances.

According to these theories, past attempts to reduce the population through Ebola, HIV and COVID-19 failed because Africans relied on organic food. Now, the fear is that GMOs are the latest attempt to undermine the immune systems of Africans by replacing organic food with genetically modified alternatives. Some even believe this is part of a broader plot to replace humans with artificial intelligence. Additionally, there is concern that GMO seeds, including TELA maize, cannot be replanted, forcing farmers to buy new seeds every season, which can be modified at will.

 

Proponents of the TELA maize feel the government is not doing enough to enlighten the public and bridge the gaps that breed mistrust. Responding to queries on GMOs and TELA maize, Dr. Sylvester Oikeh, the TELA Maize Project Manager at the African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF), stated that there was no cause for alarm, dismissing the concerns as baseless. Addressing the safety of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), Dr. Oikeh emphasised the importance of establishing their safety. He noted that GM foods that have passed regulatory scrutiny and been approved are considered safe to eat. This assessment is supported by various organisations, including the World Health Organisation (WHO), the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), Nigeria’s National Biosafety Management Agency (NBMA), and numerous Academies of Sciences around the world.

 

He said, “For one reason or another, some countries chose to import GMO foods and not grow them. Examples are most countries in Europe while most countries chose to produce for local consumption and export surplus for income. Examples are USA, Argentina, Brazil, South Africa, to mention a few. Nigeria has joined such countries.”

 

Addressing concerns that China, which initiated GMO crops, and many other countries have banned them, Dr. Oikeh pointed out that China imports a significant quantity of GM soybeans and corn (maize) for both human and livestock feed. “In 2024, China approved 27 GM corn seed varieties and three GM soybean varieties for cultivation to bolster domestic production and reduce its reliance on imports. Other GM crops approved in China to be grown for commercial purposes, include corn, cotton, and papaya. The Federal Government of Nigeria also recognises the potential for some GM crops to be produced locally to bridge the productivity gap and reduce reliance on imports to save the huge foreign exchange on food imports for the country,” he said.

 

Addressing concerns that GMO crops will lead to loss of original and natural seeds planted over the years by farmers, he said, “There is no evidence that the introduction of GM crops will displace existing seed systems. Farmers have always decided what they want to plant. GM crop varieties are just one additional tool in the farmer’s toolbox to address the twin pressing needs of pest pressure and climate variability. Farmers are free to save their grains and use them for subsequent planting as ‘seeds.’ Regarding concerns that GMO crops will lead to increased and severe hunger because the seeds cannot be replanted, Dr. Oikeh clarified that farmers can choose to replant saved GMO grains as seeds, but the yield will drastically reduce. He said, “So, it is possible to save and replant grains as ‘seeds’ but the crop won’t be uniform on the field, and it loses a unique characteristic that scientists call hybrid vigour. It is a vigour because the genes from the original parents in the saved grains as ‘seeds’ start segregating, thus reducing the potential of the seeds.”

 

Dr. Oikeh also addressed concerns that farmers and traders are not adequately informed about GMO crops to make informed choices about whether to plant them. He explained that research and development for GM crops in Nigeria have been ongoing for more than 10 years at various research centers. Multiple confined field trials and national performance or variety certification trials have been conducted with farmers in different states. He noted that during these trials, information campaigns were undertaken to educate farmers and the public. For example, with PBR cowpea, farmers in cowpea-producing states have been sensitized and educated on the benefits and safety of the beans.

 

Reacting to the House of Representatives’ order to halt GMO crops in Nigeria pending an investigation, Dr. Oikeh emphasised that approvals for GM crops are granted by the Federal Government through its mandated agency, the National Biosafety Management Agency (NBMA), along with other supporting institutions. These competent agencies closely examined and cleared TELA maize as safe for cultivation and consumption by the Nigerian public. Dr. Oikeh reassured the public of the health safety of TELA maize.

 

On fears about the health implications of consuming GMO seeds and taking substances alien to the body. Dr. Oikeh explained that GMO crops undergo rigorous health and safety research under the supervision of the NBMA to ensure they are safe for humans, livestock, and the environment.

According to him, Nigerian authorities adhere to the most rigorous global standards when approving crops for food and feed. Addressing accusations that the AATF and the Federal Government have a hidden agenda regarding GMOs, which is why they are being forced on the people, he emphasised that the government is the principal custodian of the health and safety of its citizens and would not authorise unsafe food or practices. He added that food security is a primary agenda for all countries worldwide, and Nigeria is keen to leverage the benefits of modern agricultural technology to transform the economy and reduce dependence on large food imports, which are often GM foods. The Principal Investigator of TELA Maize, Professor Rabiu Adamu, who led the team of scientists to develop the new crop varieties at the IAR, Zaria, highlighted the health benefits of adopting the hybrid maize varieties. According to Adamu, the widespread and intensive cultivation of TELA maize will have public health benefits, such as reducing grain damage, which predisposes the grains to mycotoxins. It will also decrease the usage of pesticides and reduce farmers’ exposure to pesticide hazards.

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