Catholic doctors in Nigeria are calling on the national government to regulate the use of Genetically Modified Organisms, or GMOs.

The Association of Catholic Medical Practitioners of Nigeria (ACMPN) said their concern was the protection of lives in the country, including the unborn.

The issue of GMOs was discussed during the 12th scientific conference and annual meeting of the Catholic Institute of West Africa (CIWA) from July 6-8 in Port Harcourt.

Genetically modified crops are grown in nearly 30 nations around the world, but are banned in about the same number. In 2015, most of the members of the European Union decided to outlaw new GMOs, and Russia banned them entirely.

Such crops are common in the United States (where they were introduced in 1996), Canada, Brazil, Argentina, and India, and no health problems have been linked definitively to their use.

However, advocacy groups such as Friends of the Earth, Genewatch, ActionAid and GM have urged countries not to commercialize GM crops, claiming it would mortgage their agricultural sector to large multinational agri-businesses, harm biodiversity, undermine small farmers and expose their populations to the potential health hazards of consuming GM food.

Jason Tutu – the head of communication for Food Sovereignty Ghana – claimed, “GMO products carry known health risks such as organ damage, sterility, infant mortality, birth defects, low sperm quality and increase risk of cancer.”

Isaac Ongu, a Uganda-based Agriculturist with the Genetic Literacy Project has said, “It is fashionable in Africa to blame every strange or inexplicable health condition on genetic engineered food or ingredients.”

So far in Africa, only South Africa has planted more than a million acres of genetically modified crops.

According to the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD), Africa spends $40 billion every year on food imports. Without a sharp rise in food production, the situation could be much worse by 2050, when Africa’s population is expected to climb from 1.2 billion to 2.4 billion people.

Those facts have made GMOs an attractive option to many governments.

While recognizing that nutrition falls within the realm of the “basic needs of humans” and therefore improved food production and distribution techniques remain critical to human survival, the ACMPN cautioned that “the application of a technology without adequate assurance of safety is immoral.”

The medical professionals raised concerns that GMOs could come with enormous health consequences, and have the potential to damage the environment, leading to the loss of biodiversity.

The medical organization said the regulation of GMOs were skewed “in favor of the international promoters and merchants of GMOs who wield strong financial influences. Thus, without substantially exploiting the existing safe and natural technologies neither of agricultural advancements nor of our vast land and water resources (including the new pro-biotic microbial technology), dabbling into the controversial GMO technology is overtly precarious.”

The Bishops’ Conference of Nigeria has also preached caution in the adoption of GMOs. The bishops argued that there are better ways to handle the problem of hunger in Nigeria and Africa than adopting technology that could threaten human lives. They said Nigeria has enough arable land to grow the food it needs through natural means.

“People talk about GMO food, we have land… Why can’t we develop our land and plant food in the normal way, until when maybe we don’t have land and we have very little space?” asked Bishop Anselm Umoren, an auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Abuja.

But not everyone agrees. The National Biotechnology Management Agency of Nigeria sees the adoption of GMOs as a safety net against dwindling crop yields and the specter of hunger in Nigeria and across the continent.

“It’s time to introduce this GM seeds because people are suffering from emerging pests, insects and diseases that are affecting their plants and crops which has made the majority of farmers to remain in subsistent farming,” said the deputy Director General of the agency, Rose Gidad.

In neighboring Cameroon, scientists have said GMOs will help boost food production and ward-off hunger.

“Genetically modified organisms will help Cameroon solve many problems which researchers of the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development have not been able to solve using conventional selection and cross breeding. It will definitely guarantee food security and safety,” said Dr. David Akuroh Mbah, Chief Research Officer at the Cameroon Academy of Sciences.

A 2014 report by the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications, (ISAAA), shows Nigeria is among seven African countries (Cameroon, Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya, Uganda, Malawi and Egypt) engaged in testing the cultivation of GMOs.

Still, religious leaders in Nigeria remain skeptical.

A Committee on Review of GMO Foods was recently constituted by the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Nigeria and the Nigerian Supreme Council of Islamic Affairs.

A member of the Committee, Professor Philip Njemanze, said there is evidence GMOs affect brain development. He said the committee had determined “most cases of autism are linked to the consumption of GMO foods.”

Njemanze said the traditional rice in Nigeria is also “more nutritious than the hybrid rice they are bringing in.”