Eating Genetically Engineered Pesticides. All through the ages, in the development of agriculture, humans have selected and cultivated crops and animals that thrive in their environments and are good for their health. Some of the factors that determine what we love as food are highly sensory and include the texture, taste, colour and their smell. Taste, for example, can drive people to eat things they know are not good for their health. Besides, people may tilt to a food product due to the power of suggestion through advertisement on the mass media.
Food can be an instrument of control and power. Weather variations and extreme weather events can bring communities and nations to their knees. Violent conflicts and wars can also render people hungry and expose them to the need to receive or purchase food aid. Yes, some food aids are paid for and are not exactly humanitarian. One nation that stood her grounds and insisted on what sort of food aid was acceptable is Zambia. They rejected the genetically engineered grains that were extended to them as food aid in 2002. And although much political pressure was piled on the nation, they did not starve but transited to bountiful harvest the following year. In the case of Nigeria, after the devastation of agriculture of the Northeast, we have received tones of seeds without verifying if they were genetically modified or not. That is how much food aid can trump caution.
What do consumers look for when they go shopping for groceries? Research has shown that consumers that care to read the labels on the food products prefer to buy those that are pesticide free and are not genetically modified. Generally, buyers prefer fresh, clean and natural products.
Unfortunately, many of our foods in Nigeria are sold in measures using cups and basins. Foods such as beans, garri, corn, amala, and the likes are often neither packaged nor labelled. You simply have to trust your eyes to tell you whether what you are buying is wholesome or not. And, our people hardly read the labels on the packaged products on the market shelves. They may read the brand names and pay less attention to the contents. Agencies saddled with policing our borders against entry of unauthorised foods, such as the ones that are made of genetically engineered materials, appear overwhelmed by the influx of these products. Products are imported without much filtering with the assumption that whatever is presented as food is safe. It is as if it is assumed that because a thing was made in the United States of America, for instance, then it must be good for our consumption. We simply do not know what we are eating. However, we should care to know as our health depends on that knowledge and our choice.
Regulators and promoters of genetically engineered crops and foods in Nigeria accuse those that question the technology of being fear mongers or anti-science. This may be dismissed as a hollow accusation, but when they make such arguments frequently, the real fear is that they may believe themselves. Besides, they also believe that they are running the best biosafety system in Africa and that other countries such as Burkina Faso who junked genetically engineered cotton, cannot be compared to the supposed high skills and facilities Nigeria boasts of. This arrogant posturing is extremely dangerous.
When scientists produce genetically engineered beans (cow pea), do they consider the fact that the insecticidal beans could also kill non-target organisms and that even the target pests could develop resistance? When crops are genetically engineered to withstand herbicides, do they consider that they kill other plants and not merely weeds? And what about the soil microorganisms they kill thereby disrupting the webs of life in the ecosystems?
Working beneath the supervisory radar, the promoters of these technologies are set to erode our biodiversity and set the stage for ecological harm. Nigeria has quickly become the testing ground for novel and risky technologies, exposing citizens to next levels of danger. With regards to the recently approved genetically engineered beans, we note that this beans variety with the transgene Cry1Ab used in its transformation, has not been approved anywhere else in the world. The International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) may have concluded field trials for a cassava variety that has never been planted anywhere else in the world. That cassava was engineered to produce starch that would last longer than normal before degrading.
All these genetically engineered events are prepared overseas and brought for testing in Nigeria and yet we boast that we are so equipped and innovative in the sector.
If anyone tells you that the producers of genetically engineered crops (and foods) are cocksure of their products, ask them why they fight against nations having strict liability clauses in their Biosafety laws. Uganda just inserted such a clause in their genetic engineering regulatory law, ensuring that makers of GMOs will be held liable for any harm that may come from cultivation or consumption of their products at any time, even if such effects come years down the road. Since that law was enacted, scientists have branded President Museveni and the Ugandan parliament as being anti-science. In other words, good genetic engineering science must leave room for doubt and when harms manifests, the producers should not be held strictly liable. That posture puts the Precautionary Principle on its head. That principle is the bedrock of Biosafety regulation. It simply means that where there is doubt, we should be cautious. The speed with which Nigeria is permitting GMOs is highly suspicious and offers no assurance that the government is concerned about food safety and the preservation of our biodiversity.
Nigerians must be mindful of what we buy, cultivate or eat. We can bet that no one will knowingly eat an insecticide. But that is what we do if we eat any crop genetically engineered to be insecticidal.