In Conversation with Dr. Ify Aniebo: The GMO issue (Part 1)

Source of image: pixabay.com

This interview is the first part of a three-part podcast interview that I conducted over Skype with Dr. Ify Aniebo, a genetics scientist and a Research Fellow @Harvard. She’s also a Fellow @AspenNewVoices and did her PhD in Clinical medicine & infectious diseases. She is the founder of @african_health, @afroscientric and @uniofoxford alumna.

This interview was conducted in August 2017 but I wasn’t able to publish it due to limited resources. However, I can assure you that the issues raised and discussed eloquently by Dr. Ify Aniebo are still very prescient, pertinent and provocative today. The interview has been slightly edited for ease of reading and comprehension but I have tried as much as possible to retain the conversational nature of the interview in the transcription. You can listen to the full podcast interview here or on mixcloud.

Please enjoy the conversation.

Part 1: The GMO issue

Part 2: Twitter as a tool for science communication

Part 3: The AfroScientric project: “Inspiring the next generation of African females into science.”

Transcript

Part 1: The GMO issue

EduSounds: Dr. Ify Aniebo is the founder of African health and the organization that caters for girls’ child education in Africa particularly in the area of science. Hi, Dr. Ify!

Dr. Ify: Hello, Kayode! lovely to meet you, there.

EduSounds: Yeah, nice meeting you.

EduSounds: So, can we get to know more about you, please?

Dr. Ify: OK. So, I’m Dr. Ify Aniebo, I’ve got a background in genetics research and I’m at the moment a malaria researcher, so, I’ve studied undergraduate years in genetics, post-graduate years in advance science degrees and I’ve also got masters in public health, and I’ve got a few degrees; of course, I’m not just going to go through all of that now but generally I’m a scientist working on malaria research and I’m passionate about science. I’m at the moment working on a project, I just actually completed my PhD project few months ago, and my research as well is focusing on malaria drugs resistance, so my background being genetics, I’ve applied genetics studies to try to understand why malaria drugs fail, basically on a melancholy level. So, yeah, that’s me.

EduSounds: I think you did your PhD at the University of Oxford, if I’m right?

Dr. Ify: Yes, I did.

EduSounds: Yeah. I think there is a professor, I’ve just forgotten his name, he is, I think he’s at Oxford and a Research Centre (Kenya) that focuses on malaria, I think.

Dr. Ify: On the score of few research groups i.e. malaria research, I think the one in Kenya is called KEMRI, Kenya MRC unit, which is, I think, a combination of the research institutions in the UK and Kenya, a few ones, and there is also KEMRI-Wellcome Trust, yeah, they are into malaria research, the institutes are good actually. But we do have researchers, for example, my research, my work, is quite multi-disciplinary, so, I wasn’t just a student of the University, I belonged to school of hygiene and tropical medicine because it’s a multi-disciplinary research. And when you are dealing with samples, that is kind of like what happens sometimes, samples in England that come all the way from Africa, so, so many people would have contributed to your research, so it’s just not going to be just seeing yourself, you are part of a big group that does real important stuff.

EduSounds: Yes, that’s brilliant. Yeah, you seem to talk a lot about genetically modulated food, GM food.

Dr. Ify: ha ha! I do, really? Ha ha! I don’t know that I talk a lot about it.

EduSounds: Yeah, I mean I constantly see you talking a lot about it on twitter, you are constantly on it, I think even one of the mainstream media, Premium times, to be precise, I think they once published your tweets about it.

Dr. Ify: Oh! Exactly.

EduSounds: Yeah, and to be honest, that was how I got to know about you on twitter.

Dr. Ify: All right, that’s great.

EduSounds: So, my question is about the Nigerian government’s bid on this GM thing?

Dr. Ify: Absolutely.

EduSounds: And you questioned it, scientifically. So what is it all about GM food, generally?

Dr. Ify: Ok, I’m not against it because normally when people say you are against genetically modified organisms or any sort of scientific advancement, they normally think that you are an anti-science which is obviously impossible in my situation because I’m a hardcore scientist, let me, like really hardcore, so passionate about science and because of that passion, I take my time to understand stuff. Now, my background, like I said earlier, is in genetics, to understand genetic aspect of most diseases. This is just, it’s just a foundation for you to understand anything.

So, …on my work in time about Bio-Technology, specifically. I work with DNA literally every day and I’ve splashed genes and I work with cloning, so, most of these techniques that are used in GMO production, I understand them, right. So, the reason I’m not very, particularly, excited about Nigeria sort of, taking on GMO is not just because of that science, it’s just that there’re some multi-faceted problems: you’ve got the economic problem there; you’ve got the social aspect of it; you’ve got food security; you’ve got sea control and there are so many problems, and I don’t understand why we tend to go ahead of ourselves in Nigeria.

I don’t want to talk about other African countries because I’m a Nigerian as well. We are talking about having issues with agriculture; we haven’t even mechanized farming, like we don’t even have a proper mechanized system, we don’t even have a proper transportation, free transportation networks, we’ve got bad roads, so, by the time someone, say in the north of Nigeria, put all the tomatoes and they are trying to get the tomatoes, say for example from Kano, Kaduna or wherever down to Lagos, it’s perishable, right. We don’t have good food storage system, we don’t even have the basic stuff, right, and then, we are going to GMO. The issue about GMO is this, we need to understand that people need to understand how the processes work.

Firstly, my problem with it is this, we’re not even the ones sowing these GMOs, you are a Nigerian, ask the organizations or the institutions in Nigeria that are responsible for bringing GMO to the country, they themselves don’t even understand what it is, that’s just the truth. They don’t even have proper lab techniques to identify GM. Are we doing free trial in Nigeria so that we can introduce it to the market? And we don’t even know what it is. The problem is this, GMOs basically are foods that have been altered genetically. Say, for example, you can take DNA from bacteria and put that into a corn, right. Because you want it to be resistant to say pests, it works, so if you get pests to the corn, if you have a GM corn and the pests get introduced, it wouldn’t really eat it, it dies.

So, that way, it’s making the corn to survive and then the pests die and then the farmer can then take his corn to the market and sell for a very good price, but the problem is that we are creating, it’s insecticide that we are introducing in to the corn, so, human beings eat that corn that already has insecticide gene in it, and so many studies have shown that – we have done a lot of studies on rat, a lot of studies on rat have been done and I have read tons and tons of papers on the subject – there are so many negative factors associated with this. For example, people’s gut system stores become pesticide factory, you are making pesticide in your gut and what happens is that the good bacteria in your stomach that is important breaking down of food start to die and you know everyone needs good bacteria for digestion in the gut system.

Another problem is they promise that when you use GM food, you don’t use a lot of pesticides. First of all, we shouldn’t even really have pesticides in our food system to start with. But then we have it, OK so, how do we move forward from that? In England and so many other advanced countries, there is a limit to how much pesticides that can be applied; the problem is when you get to Nigeria, people just pour. It’s unregulated, so people pour a lot of pesticides in food, and so, people are literally consuming pesticides. I mean just last year, the EU banned Nigerian beans because it had about 340 times the amount of pesticides that are allowed in any sort of foods, so, it means the Nigerians in Nigeria have been consuming 340 times the amount of pesticides that is actually in any food product, that’s madness, right?

This is one of the things that cause cancer and so, but then, so, based on top of that, the GMO product actually promises that you wouldn’t use so much pesticides because already the product, e.g. the corn acts as a pesticide but the problem with it is that it’s not really the truth because in places like Burkina Faso where they’ve tried out the GM cotton, they’ve literally, it failed, they’re going back to the normal cotton of varieties. They did actually adopt cotton and they realized they weren’t getting yields so basically more products, you are going to get less pests eating your products, it’s…it doesn’t happen because sometimes resistance happens when you get superbugs, so pesticides resistant happens when you expose a parasite that eats normal corn, you expose to a particular pesticide, next time, it’s going to know what it is. These things are really smart, and so they become resistant to it, when they become resistant to it, they start to eat your corn and then you start to pour more pesticides on this corn that is already GM corn and the company that sells these sorts of GM technology also sells you the pesticides, it is called herbicides actually, that you are meant to spray on it.

So, it’s like the organizations literally find their ways to sell their herbicides. They are chemical companies like most of these companies that do GM food are chemical companies and for me I just wonder how is anyone not thinking – why is a chemical company making food? You know, it’s a problem, I’m thinking about that because they want to sell their chemical produce. So they’ve gone in to the agricultural market, that’s not a problem, it’s just to like herbicides like genetics modified food had been…… i.e. it causes cancer and this is not even like people talking about a propaganda, no, the world organizations actually released it… other than that, there are so many papers that have shown that people have fertility issues. It causes cancer, it causes cancer in female rat as well, it causes kidney issues, and liver issues, liver failure… there are so many, so many to teach on it.

The health aspect, I’m against GMO, the economic aspect, I’m against GMO because African countries are really, obviously, still developing and Nigeria too; you are a Nigerian and you know the reality in Nigeria. We hardly have regulation that works effectively, systems and institutions just don’t work the way we expect them to. You have a situation when you have a big agriculture company based in the US coming into Nigeria and trying to invest in Nigeria, in agriculture, they pay quite a lot of money to do these things and they get their ways, they are very aggressive with their strategies and marketing or whatever it is and they get in to this system.

Now, what happens is Nigeria doesn’t create GM corn or GM food or GM cowpea or whatever GM you are thinking about, it comes in to the countries from outside. So wherever it is they’ve done this genetic modification it’s an external lab, it’s a foreign lab so what they do is they just give you the seed and tell you to plant it in maybe IITA which I think is in Ibadan or Ife, I can’t remember but specialize on agriculture, ok Ibadan. So, they plant these things in our agricultural institutions but we are not the one doing the actual genetic modification, why? Because we do not have the technical skills to do so. You are a Nigerian, you would hardly see a lab that functions, it’s difficult, it’s something that really is troubling. Again we are like, there is a sort of, I don’t want to use the word churl anion, but it’s like we are not even ready. If we decide to say we want to go in to genetic modification route then, we need to do it properly.

Why do we need to depend on a foreign company, institution, whatever to actually do the work? And then all you are doing is you are surrogate, you are planting it to see and then they put people in positions. Monsanto for example is one of the companies that does GMO, the Monsanto Nigeria Limited registered in Nigeria and they are using our ministers and our leaders to actually push this agenda. I personally have been involved in a lot of debates concerning GMO. We’ve tried to talk to some of the leaders in the ministry, the Ministry of Environment and they are not, it’s not really happening, you know like, it’s hard to, as a young person trying to tell people, look, this is the evidence and we don’t think that this is actually how we should go, they are not listening to us.

So many other societies, groups have also been against GMO, so many religious groups as well and some young people, some older women, there are so many groups that have been pressuring the government, not just us and they are not listening. So, the thing is they are going to create this dependent situation to say every time farmers want to plant the GM seed, they have to go back to the company that sold them the seed. You’re only allowed to plant it once, you can’t keep the seed, you can’t keep it every year, you can’t escape it every year to plant like normal conventional seeds, no, you plant it one time, next year when you want to plant again, you go back to the company that sold it to you. That means for you to eat, you are going to go back to these people to sell you seeds, that’s ridiculous, that’s ridiculous. It means that you don’t even, I mean a man who controls your food controls you.

Dr. Ify: So, the thing is they are going to create this dependent to say every time a farmer want to plant the GM seed, they have to go back to the company that sold them the seed. You’re only allowed to plant it once, you can’t keep the seed, you can’t keep it every year, you can’t escape it every year to plant like normal conventional seeds, no, you plant it one time, next year when you want to plant again, you go back to the company that sold it to you. That means for you to eat, you are going to go back to these people to sell you seeds, that’s ridiculous, that’s ridiculous. It means that you don’t even, I mean a man who controls your food controls you.

EduSounds: Yes

Dr. Ify: It’s that simple. Hmm-hmm!

EduSounds: Yes, from what I could get, the sense I could get out of it, the government is presenting it as a kind of panacea, you know, it’s a solution to the economic situation of the country…

Dr. Ify: It’s not a solution, it’s not a solution.

EduSounds: to food production, they are not talking about all the other…

Dr. Ify: that’s ridiculous, they are not talking about storage? How is that a solution? How is that a solution? They are not even talking about food processing, right. How many food processing companies do you know that we have in Nigeria, processing mills? We don’t even have proper roads that can transport things, we don’t have proper storage systems. The people make so much tomatoes in the north that get rotten before it even gets to where it’s going to, right?

EduSounds: Yes.

Dr. Ify:  We don’t have that, ok, so what about creating, getting loans to farmers, small holdings farmers, providing loans. Central Bank can do that a lot…that’s a solution, right. There are so many solutions we can do: mechanized farming, why don’t we just put so much money in to developing the agriculture sector? They are not doing that and then you’re jumping to GMO, it’s such a lazy, such a lazy approach to a problem and it’s a lazy approach because we are not the one thinking about it, someone outside Nigeria has come and said to us, you need to do this because your children are starving, your children are unnourished, your children are poor but that’s not the solution. If you still give them GMO they are still going to be poor.

Now that they’re doing things like putting vitamin A in cassava, cassava is a major staple food in Africa, many Africans eat cassava and so, they are tampering with our staple food. What that means is when they tamper with your staple food you have nowhere to go because you eat that every day. They said they are going to put vitamin C in it because we don’t have. There so many ways to get vitamin C in cassava and if you are eating cassava, imagine if you are eating Eba. For example, you can eat that with vegetable soup, vegetable soup’s got all the vitamin minerals that you need, so, the reason people are unnourished is because people don’t have access to food not because there is no food at all, they don’t have money to access the food, they are poor, it’s not because of the lack of food.

Someone who has money, a middle class Nigerian, clearly is more nourished because he has access to food. So poor people do not have access to food and that’s what poverty is. It’s not the lack of food, it’s the lack of access to it. Why can’t the government or whoever it is that come in to the country and say they care about Nigerians and Africans provide a more sustainable solution? Why can’t you create a more sustainable solution? why can’t you think about poverty alleviation programs?

You know, like in Brazil, there is something called Bolsa Familia which is a cash transfers program. You can give families who are really poor cash transfers every month or whatever condition that you want them to abide to and then they can obviously take care of themselves because you don’t give people, you need to learn and teach people how to catch fish, you don’t give them fish, because it’s more sustainable. You need to teach them how to fish, you know, so I just think that it’s a lazy solution because they haven’t actually thought about it themselves.

Secondly, they are listening to foreigners which is fine, some foreigners have well grounded ideas but I just really feel that Nigerians should really apply themselves more and think about solutions because we are the ones in the country so we are the ones to understand what the problems are so we should be the ones to actually like looking for the solutions and at the moment GMO is like we are trying to fly before we even crawl, it’s ridiculous, that’s what I think. From all aspects, the food sovereignty, health and economic aspects.

What if the company decides – you know what – I’m just going to increase the price every year, what are you going to do? You can’t plant your seed, you have to go back to them, it’s just like a food control system going on and unfortunately our leaders aren’t seeing this because unfortunately I think our leaders are really short termed in their thinking, unfortunately and they can’t really, either that or they don’t really care. So, I speak up against this because essentially I am a young Nigerian and I, perhaps, would be in a situation where I am going to be alive, by the Grace of God, to actually see the next impact of these things and these people passing these laws are going to be long dead by then so, we are the ones, our generations are going to be the ones suffering from laws that our leaders are making and so it’s important for people to speak up, just the way I speak up against stuff like this.

EduSounds: Yes, do you think it doesn’t sound like a bit of professionalism?

Dr. Ify: No, it’s not about that, there are so many things that I feel that we can’t do ourselves. So many things that we can’t do ourselves, if we can’t do it ourselves then we get the help of others. I mean Chinese are all over Africa, they have expertise that we don’t have, right?

EduSounds: Yes.

Dr. Ify: They are helping us build infrastructure, It’s the fact, it’s not about that. It’s just you realizing where you, what you are lacking and try to see where someone else can come in but don’t let them take over your thinking, don’t outsource your thinking, don’t outsource solutions to your own problem. It’s not about that, it’s just the fact that it’s not the way it should go. So, because we are not doing that now, we get in to situations where things can be misconceived, where people can get scared about stuff that they shouldn’t really be scared about and in terms of GMO, I think that the organizations and NABDA, National Biotechnology Development Agency, they are the only ones who are responsible, they claim to be scientists, they are the ones who supposed to be educating Nigerians and letting Nigerians know. Look this is why Nigeria want to come and go, this is how we’re actually thinking about going, what do you guys think about it, let’s educate you on this. They are the ones making decisions about us, they are not consulting the public, they are not educating the public, they make decisions without…

EduSounds: I think, sorry for cutting in, I think there was a time they were talking about Fanta issues or Coca-cola in Nigeria, and one of the things that I discovered because I interviewed a Nigerian pharmacologist at the University of Huddersfield, Dr Mayokun.

Dr. Ify: OK.

EduSounds: And one of the things I discovered about the whole thing was like even NAFDAC sometimes use the laboratory for these multinationals to carry out their research or their test on all these products. So, it’s like these bodies are not well funded to even do the basics.

Dr. Ify: It’s not even just about not being funded, people are obviously getting salaries every month, I would like to assume, right?

EduSounds: Exactly.

Dr. Ify: Yes, people are getting salary every month, but obviously there is a general funding problem with Nigeria’s budget Look at the last Nigeria’s budget (2016), there is no, I personally didn’t, there is no sufficient funding in science and technology or research. It’s just that our country, our leaders have been taught that science and technology research is important, it’ kind of …me because I’ve being to other countries, I do go all the time to research on diseases and stuff like that, it’s just to say we are waiting for someone else to come and solve our problems, they will not care about you, they would just get tired of it.

So, you have all these institutions that are supposed to be doing all the tasks, they are not doing it, they are outsourcing it, right. They don’t know, some of those people don’t even know, I’m telling you the lady, who is the head of NAFDAC, I’ve heard her talk about GMO, she doesn’t know what she’s saying, she absolutely has no clue and some of them just don’t know, I’m just like OK why? They are promoting GMO, they supposed to understand what they are promoting. They’re the ones pushing it, pushing for it, they are educating the Journalists to go the other way to say oh GMO is ok. You know, Nigeria is a very interesting place, so we don’t need to do things the way we should, we don’t actually.

There is no key process in the country that affects the whole sectors, not just that, the unfortunate thing – food it’s your life, right, it’s your life. I mean look at the health system in Nigeria, literally nonexistent, just last week, I read a newspaper article that said that a lot of doctors are leaving Nigeria, a lot of them are going to Rwanda, you understand, Rwanda, Rwanda had a civil war in the 90s, you know that civil war actually caused destabilization to health system, what does that mean? It means that Rwanda’s managed to build a proper health system that is better than Nigeria’s, a health system that is way better than what we have in Nigeria, where is the excuse for that? Where is the excuse?

EduSounds: Rwanda is getting a lot of things right, I think.

Dr. Ify: Yes, think about it and so a lot of adults are moving to Rwanda to work as doctors, just what I’m saying, so it’s not just about like, you know, there are so many smart Nigerians all over the world, when the Nigerians leave Nigeria, they start to excel. Nigerians are smart people but unfortunately the system isn’t just working, it’s not working in Nigeria. Institutions have failed, we don’t have institutions, we don’t have accesses. We are not long term in our thinking and it’s really affecting us, unfortunately.

EduSounds: Yeah, so, I mean we’ve got to have some solutions, we’ve got to have some ideas, I mean that’s the ideas behind these podcasts I make. Some people have accused me of raising the issues that are, you know, maybe not working due to the condition of the country but then I think they are essential to talk about.

Dr. Ify: hmm-hmm!

EduSounds: I think the easiest way in this kind of scenario is, at least, find a means to educate the public first.

Dr. Ify: Absolutely, I agree, which is why I do it.

EduSounds: Yeah, so it seems we need more efforts from the Nigerians scientists in general. Maybe in the Diaspora and home, more collaborations, more links with the press, media; reaching out to them.

Dr. Ify: I agree, I agree.

EduSounds: Yes, because I think the Nigerian journalism general has not really evolved.

Dr. Ify: No, it hasn’t.

EduSounds: if you look at the UK you would see journalism talking about social issues, they’ve got journalists that are specialists in that areas, they’ve got specialists…

Dr Ify: Absolutely.

EduSounds: …that would focus on health, science, technology, so, in Nigeria…

Dr. Ify: Absolutely.

EduSounds: …we are not that robust…

Dr. Ify: No, we are not.

EduSounds: …and I think it’s not necessarily cost issue because we’ve got the population and labour is not that expensive relatively in Nigeria compared to the UK, US or wherever. It’s more about being more robust in one’s approach and seeing things, you know, from multifaceted, you know….

Dr. Ify: I don’t think people are interested in that, I don’t think, because you are interested in education you’re taking time out of your busy schedule to make this happen, right, you know, you go by interviewing people you podcast it, it’s so easy you just call on Skype, it’s straight forward. So because you are interested in that, a lot of people aren’t interested in that, you know some people just have this selfish way of going about things.

You know I could say you know what don’t worry about it I’m in England I don’t really care because I’m a Nigerian I’m going to be living my life but I don’t think that, you know, I think that it is literally like we are owing, we need to be our brother’s keeper, we need to not care about ourselves alone, we need to care about every other person, when everyone cares then we would do things the way we expect. Nigeria is such a hard place to live in, you can’t even blame people who don’t care, they’re just trying to get by every day.

EduSounds: sure

Dr. Ify: it’s tough, it’s really tough living in Nigeria, so I mean it’s just that I’m over words but what can I say?

EduSounds: Yeah, you know sometimes I wonder if you’re a scientist or an activist because right now I’m on your Twitter page…

Dr Ify: Really?

EduSounds: Yeah, exactly.

Dr Ify: Are you actually on it or is it because of this podcast or did you just go on my Twitter page?

EduSounds: Of course I’m on your Twitter page.

Dr Ify: Oh my God, you are so funny.

In this conversation, we discuss many issues, amongst which are:

  • The introduction of GM Foods in Nigeria
  • The AfroScientric project: “Inspiring the next generation of African females into science.”
  • Using Twitter as a tool for science communication

Enjoy!

  • Listen to this episode on Mixcloud
  • You can listen to the previous episode here

You can click on “Part 2: Twitter as a tool for science communication” and “Part 3: The AfroScientric project: “Inspiring the next generation of African females into science.”” to read the concluding parts of the interview.

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