Nigerian Biotech Experts Met

Biosafety Act reviewWhen Nigerian Biotech Experts Met. If anyone needs sensitisation in Nigeria about GMOs, it is the biotech promoters. They need to be sensitised that Nigerians don’t want GMOs and certainly do not want to be ambushed into eating what they do not want to eat. We have a right to choose what we eat. No one should have anything forced down his or her throat. There are other areas that modern biotechnology can focus on without having to tamper with our food systems in a process that would also introduce toxic chemicals that accompany their herbicide tolerant monocultures.

Three Nigerian ministries had top level representation at the Biotechnology and Biosafety Experts Meeting at Sheraton Hotel, Abuja on 15 August 2016. The Minister and Minister of State for Environment were present. So were the Ministers of Agriculture and Rural Development, as well as the Minister of Science. Interestingly, rather than the Minister of Science making remarks at the opening session of this meeting, he ceded the space to the Director General (DG) of the Nigerian Biotechnology Development Agency (NABDA).

In his remarks, Chief Audu Ogbeh, the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, asked, ‘Who will educate the politicians?’ That quote, he informed the gathering, was from a one-time president of the USA, Richard Nixon.  He then went on to say that genetic engineering is about science but that it had a cloud of fear, doubts, sentiments and political agitation hanging over it. He pointedly stated that at the end of the day ‘science will prevail.’ Probably because his comments were brief, he did not expatiate on what he meant by that statement. He, however, said that the truth lay somewhere between the fears and the facts.

When the Minister of Environment, Amina Mohammed, took the floor she emphasised that the meeting was a starting point from where further conversations would be held and the larger public would have the opportunity to weigh in. She stressed the need to invest in knowledge and to strengthen the nation’s biosafety policy. She also touched on the communication gap between the scientists and the public. According to her, the wide store of indigenous knowledge must not be ignored in the building of broader understanding of the issues at stake. She generally called for healthy debates on the issues.

time-goldenrice-228x300

GMOs Prime poster: 2000 Time Magazine cover

The progress of golden rice is not hampered by Greenpeace but by its failure to deliver on its promoters’ promises.

The outcome of the meeting has been presented to the public as being a plan by the Federal Government to sensitise Nigerians on the benefit of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). To some of us that were at that meeting we would not endorse such a summation. Why do we say so?

The meeting, although jointly called by the three ministries mentioned above, was driven by Open Forum for Agricultural Biotechnology in Africa (OFAB), a biotech industry (non governmental?) organisation headed by an assistant director in NABDA and deeply embedded in NABDA. Indeed, before the meeting started, a continuous stream of video clips were used to serenade participants with the success stories of GMOs and the wonderful process that gave birth to Nigeria’s National Biosafety Management Act 2015 and the National Biosafety management Agency (NBMA). When the Minister of Science gave way to the Director General of NABDA, she took the stage to sell GMOs to the crowd of mostly converts to the technology. Those of us with strong doubts and who reject modern biotechnology as the panacea for Nigeria food issues were a token sprinkle you could count on the fingers of one hand.

The Director General stated that GMOs started from the time of Adam and Eve in the Biblical Garden of Eden. Imagine modern biotechnology as old as Adam and Eve. She further on cited the roundly discredited letter signed by 109 Nobel Prize laureates that claimed that Greenpeace was hampering the adoption of the so-called Golden or GMO rice engineered for enhanced levels of vitamin A. The truth is that the rice in question is yet a failed project and is not hampered by anyone other than its failure to deliver on its promoters’ promises. The Institute of Science in Society and the Third World Network had this to say of the Golden Rice: The ‘golden rice’ – a GM rice engineered to produce pro-Vitamin A – is being offered to the Third World as cure for widespread vitamin A deficiency.[Our] audit uncovers fundamental deficiencies in all aspects, from the scientific/social rationale well as financially bankrupt agricultural biotech industry. The scientific/social rationalization for the project exposes a reductionist self-serving scientific paradigm that fails to see the world beyond its own narrow confines. The ‘golden rice’ is a useless application. Some 70 patents have already been filed on the GM genes and constructs used in making the ‘golden rice’. It is a drain on public resources and a major obstruction to the implementation of sustainable agriculture that can provide the real solutions to world hunger and malnutrition.

There were three panels, all of which had a paper presenter followed by panel discussions. The first panel was on the Socio-Economic Effects of GMOs and the lead presenter was Prof Ishyaku Mohammed, a key player in the development of GMO beans in Nigeria. The second panel was on Strengthening Biosafety Institutional Framework with Jeremy T. Ouedraogo – Head of NEPAD West African Biosafety Network Regional Office of the African Biosafety Network of Expertise. The third panel looked at Strategies for Effective Education and Communication. The lead presenter here was Prof. Diran Makinde, Senior Adviser, African Biosafety Network of Expertise (ABNE).

Some of us do not accept that nutrition and food security must be manufactured in science laboratories. And we should never forget that Nature is the ultimate scientist. The wise person works with Nature because fights against Nature are not only often futile but could become fatal.

The good thing about this meeting was that there were some voices on the panels speaking up on the known socio-economic, health and environmental dangers of GMOs and citing examples of countries that have banned agricultural/food applications of the technology. The biotech promoters used the platform to characterise food sovereignty campaigners as acting out scripts of supposed funders in exchange for a life of luxury in air-conditioned officers, cars and what not. The response to that was that this was cheap blackmail that would not deter opposition to risky technologies.

In the panel on strengthening biosafety institutional framework, the lead speaker mentioned two errors that National Biosafety laws could fall into were either being too permissive or being too restrictive. A close look at the National Biosafety Management Act 2015 shows that it is highly permissive and was couched for easy entrance of GMOs and related products in Nigeria. We gave examples. First is the fact that the Governing Board of NBMA is populated by biotech promoters, besides the statutory membership of federal ministries. The only slot for NGOs is conditioned on the representative being from a conservation NGO. Membership of the Board includes NABDA, an agency set up to promote GMOs in Nigeria. This agency teamed up with Monsanto Agriculture Nigeria Limited to apply and receive permission to conduct confined field trials of two GMO maize events in Nigeria. This shows a clear case of conflict of interest and we duly called for the removal of NABDA from the board of the Biosafety Agency. If NABDA partners with Monsanto we need to be convinced that they are depending solely on funds from the Ministry of Science for the discharge of their duties and that they are working under undue external influences.

Neither farmers nor consumers are represented on the NBMA board. Indeed, the Biosafety Board as presently constituted by the Act can be seen as an old boys’ club. If, as was agreed at this meeting that, the Biosafety Act is basically not to stop GMO, we need to know if it is NBMA’s duty to promote GMOs.

We also stressed that there should be a board that would consider recommendations of the Biosafety Agency before permits for GMOs are granted or rejected. At present decisions by the leadership of the Biosafety Agency with regard to applications are not subject to any form of oversight in the Act. This must be redressed. Recommendations should be subjected to consideration by either the Agency’s Board or preferably by an inter-ministerial committee. It is too risky and utterly dangerous to place the food safety and future of Nigeria into the hands of one person. The GMO approvals given to Monsanto and their partner NABDA, were approved within a few months of the filing of the applications – a record of Olympian proportions.

The present Act allows for the display and receipt of comments on GMO applications to be made within only 21 days. In the case of the approval for Monsanto’s GMO cotton, the application was displayed only at Zaria and Abuja. There was no public hearing or consultation before the approval was given. The Agency was acting as empowered by the clearly deficient Act. This must be rectified to ensure that sufficient time is given for submission of objections/comments and that there are public hearings before decisions are made. Such applications must also be displayed at accessible locations across the nation and where possible in language that the public can understand.

Health of Mother Earth Foundation’s review and comments of the Nigerian Biosafety Act identifies many loopholes that raise red flags about the Act and thus demand action.  http://www.homef.org/sites/default/files/pubs/national-biosafety-act-homef-review.pdf That is the Act that one of the lead presenters declared is so robust it requires no review!

Knowing the trend in development of GMOs – veering towards extreme biotechnology such as gene-editing and what is termed gene drives, scientists are working to overturn nature, avoid the sharing of traits that happens in natural reproduction, and instead pass on a predetermined trait in every reproductive event, to the extent that wiping out species through having offsprings that are of same sex becomes a possibility. The danger in this trajectory is that for some organisms a release of just one engineered individual could wipe out all relatives in the environment over a short period of time. Experiments are ongoing on utilising this technology to fight rats on an island.

If the public requires sensitisation, what is needed is to inform the public about the Biosafety Act, so that Nigerians can judge for themselves whether GMOs are the solution to food shortages in Nigeria. It is also essential so that the public would know their rights or lack of rights in the biosafety administration in Nigeria.

Some of us do not accept that nutrition and food security must be manufactured in science laboratories. And we should never forget that Nature is the ultimate scientist. The wise person works with Nature because fights against Nature are not only often futile but could become fatal.

It cannot be the duty of government to sensitise Nigerians about the desirability of GMOs. Government has a duty to assure Nigerians that we have a sound and truly robust Biosafety Act that they can depend on for environmental and food safety. The biotech promoters should campaign for funding from government to carry out their experiments in their laboratories and continue to build knowledge and expertise. We are fed by smallholder farmers and experts assure that it will remain so into the future. GMOs are not silver bullets that solve all problems. Our farmers need extension services, rural infrastructure and access to markets. We must learn from the failure of GMO cotton in India, Pakistan, Burkina Faso (watch the video) and elsewhere. Having experts make excuse for a failing and risky technology cannot be said to be the best way to do science.

If anyone needs sensitisation in Nigeria about GMOs, it is the biotech promoters. They need to be sensitised that Nigerians don’t want GMOs and certainly do not want to be ambushed into eating what they do not want to eat. We have a right to choose what we eat. No one should have anything forced down his or her throat. There are other areas that modern biotechnology can focus on without having to tamper with our food systems in a process that would also introduce toxic chemicals that accompany their herbicide tolerant monocultures.

 

 

 

Wicked Genes

gene drivesWicked Genes

Have you considered the many techie graveyards littered with DDT, Agent Orange and all?

Peddler of wicked genes, will you slide on gene drives?

Knocking out, annihilating traits and yellowing all fruit flies?

Have you considered the many techie graveyards littered with DDT, Agent Orange and all?

Malaria will not be an excuse for you to unleash wahala on our already broken backs

You create a poison and sell the antidote

You create a virus and market anti-virus

Don’t crush my cultural webs, ecosystems and bio diversities

Just because you can spit in Mother Earth’s face

Trample on Genesis

And flaunt genetically modified technocrats

HIV-AIDS, Ebola, Zika…

Scratch your pouch and unleash some more

We see through your shady genetic scissors, errors and terrors

Your hypothetical benefits drowned in oceans of unquestionable risks

Time it is to break your addiction to crooked technofixes cause our DNA is not for sale,

Nor are we guinea pigs for your gene driven exterminator technologies

Will Ogoni Breathe Fresh Air Again?

todayFive Years after UNEP Report – Will Ogoni Breathe Again?

As the water gushed the smell of petroleum products filled the air. Indeed, one would be right to wonder if he was pumping up petrol. We asked to know what they use the water for. All sanitary needs. Plus, drinking at times. Mind boggling.

August 4, 2016 marks the 5th anniversary of the submission of the report of the assessment of the environment of Ogoniland to former President Jonathan by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). The report etched for Nigeria and the world, the damning levels of hydrocarbon and other toxic pollutions in Ogoniland. The report more or less indicated that a state of environmental emergency should have been declared in Ogoniland. Nothing much happened, and each passing year, since the submission of the report, has witnessed more groaning and sighing by the people that have no option but to live in the horrendously polluted environment.

The first inkling of action by government was on the eve of the first anniversary of the UNEP report. That was on 24th July 2012 when the government hurriedly cobbled together what was known as the Hydrocarbons Pollution Restoration Project (HYPREP). The name was quite anachronistic, but it was aimed at calming nerves of locals who were getting impatient that a year was rolling by with nothing being done with the report that showed that they were living in an environment that was killing them. The first visible actions of HYPREP included the mounting of huge billboards in Port Harcourt denouncing oil theft and tampering with oil pipelines.

While this was going on, the people were drinking water that has been shown to be laced with hydrocarbon pollutants and at places with carcinogenic benzene. They are still drinking such water. On 26th July 2016, after a monitoring training of a team of Ecological Defenders of Health of Mother Earth Foundation (HOMEF) we decided to visit one of the community leaders at Ogale, Nchia-Eleme, Ogoni. Our host turned on his electricity generator and pumped water up from a borehole he had sunk. As the water gushed the smell of petroleum products filled the air. Indeed, one would be right to wonder if he was pumping up petrol. We asked to know what they use the water for. All sanitary needs. Plus, drinking at times. Mind boggling.

Another sign that the recommendations of the UNEP report have been seen by HYPREP is the ubiquitous sign posts in Ogoniland erected at polluted creeks, streams, rivers and boreholes. They all warn citizens not to drink, fish or swim in the contaminated water. Besides the water trucked in by the Rivers State government at that time, the people have largely been left to cater for themselves as best as they can, or to wallow in the toxic waters.

A meeting of rotten oil facilities, oil spills, third party interferences and oil theft give the best example of how to brew environmental disaster. Visits to Bodo, K-Dere, B-Dere, Ogale, Goi and other polluted in Ogoniland literally leaves one breathless. And angry.

Efforts to commence the clean up of Ogoniland took a more determined turn under the current leadership of the Ministry of Environment. To begin with, HYPREP was decoupled from the Ministry of Petroleum Resources, a ministry deeply complicit in the polluting of Ogoniland and the rest of the Niger Delta. The project is now domiciled in the Ministry of Environment which should provide a more credible platform for the tasks that need to be done.

The ceremonial flag off of the clean up of Ogoniland (with expected expansion to other highly polluted parts of the larger Niger Delta in mind) took place on 2nd June 2016 at the Numuu Tekuru Waterside, Bodo. Several questions have trailed the ceremonial flag off. Is the government sincere about the exercise? Is there a budget for the clean up? When would the structures to oversee the clean up be set up? What roles would local people play in the exercise? Will this be another avenue for dispensing political patronage?

One of the best responses to the situation has come by way of a briefing prepared by Social Action, titled Cleaning in a Vacuum: Framework Gaps in the Implementation of the UNEP report on Ogoniland (July 2016). The Briefing pointed out among other things that HYPREP did not receive the approval of community and civil society groups because what UNEP recommended was the creation of an Ogoniland Environmental Restoration Authority whereas HYPREP had a mandate that covered the entire Niger Delta. The embedding of HYPREP in the Ministry of Petroleum Resources did also not gone well with many. Same with the lack of transparency in the operations of HYPREP. Social Action believes that HYPREP would face serious hiccups unless it has an enabling legislation establishing it, especially because the clean up will be a long drawn process transcending many administrations. The group, and other stakeholders, would also like to see a clear roadmap for the planned clean-up.

Some of the issues flagged by Social Action also emerged at the HOMEF training of 26th July 2016 and we quote:

  • There is need for a comprehensive health impact assessment which should detail the health impacts of pollution on people who reside in pollution impacted sites.
  • The process of consultation and sensitization should be intensified and carried on throughout the stages of the clean-up implementation process to ensure that communities understand what each stage entails and what is expected in order to avoid possible confusion and misunderstanding which could result in conflict.
  • Inclusion of all segments of the society, including consideration for women, youths and people living with disabilities in the clean up processes.
  • Clear and verifiable milestones should be established to ensure an active and healthy feedback cycle with all stakeholders.
  • The training of community members to act in different capacities in the clean-up, must be instituted as a critical means of community inclusion.

As yet another anniversary comes, we note that the much vexed issues of reviewing the structure of HYPREP and the setting up of the structures for the clean up have been done. We hope that Ogoni will one day breathe fresh air again.