A Knife to the Throat. Think before you dance to the GMO beat. A popular saying has it that the person that pays the drummer dictates the tune. That saying may not hold true at all times because the drummer may on occasion allow her innate artistic flair to take over. The saying, however, finds a wide parallel in situations where governments do not fund their research institutions and agencies, thereby pushing them into the embrace of funding agencies with motives that may not be in sync with that of the governments.
A case in point has to do with the way we are handling issues of biosafety. We do not appear to worry that the surveyors of genetically modified (GM) crops and products, apart from their pretentious messianic posturing are mostly concerned with making profit out of our miseries. We do not worry that our staple crops are targeted and that these marketers are the ones declaring our vitamin or mineral deficiencies and presenting GM crops and foods as silver bullets to solve all our problems.
We are happy when we are assured that GM foods and products will be labelled and that we will definitely have a choice with regard to whether or not we wish to eat them. We do not consider the fact that most of our staples are sold in ways that do not permit labelling. We do ourselves harm when we gloss over this issue. We do know that in the global north you can know the origin of the bananas, oranges and other fruits you buy from the labels stuck on them.
We have said several times that our socio-cultural context does not allow for labelling in our informal marketing and sharing systems. The African Agricultural Technology Foundation (ATF) announces that GM beans will be planted in Nigeria in 2020. We must not lose sight of the fact that we are in breach of the law if any GMO is released into our environment and to our markets if it is not, and cannot, be labelled. Without the right of choice, we are forced to eat GM foods with a knife to our throats.
Back to the payer and the drummer. Sometimes the drummer may go into a flourish, but that often happens when the payer starts what may look like limitless spraying of currency notes. If the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation or Monsanto sprays you with seeds, or a laboratory, the dancer can go into a frenzy.
The fervour with which we are open to being used as testing fields of hypotheses dreamt by speculators, and even by students in foreign laboratories, should capture our attention. We recall when the great work IITA did in developing natural cassava varieties and methods for controlling the dreaded cassava leaf mosaic disease. These days they appear more bent to working on GM cassava for the increase of starch content in the tubers, not for foods for humans, but probably for industrial purposes. One such GM cassava was developed in a student project in a laboratory in Switzerland and brought to Ibadan, Nigeria, for testing. The so-called confined field trials have since been concluded but information on the outcome is not in the public sphere.
The routine response of the agency when asked for information on the basis of which they issue permits is to refer the enquirer to their website. When told that the information is not on their website, their response is to again reiterate their blanket reference to their website.
The same laboratory from Switzerland recently sent another GM cassava for a willing Nigerian institute, the Nigerian Root Crops Research Institute (NRCRI) located at Umudike, to obtain a permit and carry out confined field testing of a cassava variety engineered to contain high levels of iron and zinc. Despite very detailed comments sent to show why approval should not be granted for its field testing, the approval was granted by mid-July 2019.
Expert comments sent to show why certain applications should not be approved are treated with contempt and brushed aside. The agency is averse to giving a response as to why they reject the contrary points raised by concerned citizens and groups. The arrogance and hostility towards those who do not dance to the GM beats keeps increasing by the day. This has to stop.
The NRCI got the permit to carry out a confined field trial of the GM cassava on a plot measuring not more than 200 square metres. That is small, right? However, NRCI is to ensure a buffer or exclusion zone of 1.5 kilometres in which there must not be any non-GM cassava planted or growing wild. Is that possible in Abia State, or anywhere in Southern Nigeria? 1.5 kilometres without a cassava plant? Another requirement is that the place in which the GM cassava is to be planted must have security personnel keeping watch on a 24 hours basis. Really?
The immediate area of the trial zone is to be surrounded by a pollen trap to prevent the spread of pollen grains from the GM cassava. The trap is not something mechanical, like a mouse trap. It is rather a planted area where the crops planted there must flower at the same time as the GM cassava in the confined trial area. If that is not preposterous enough, consider who would ensure that the area is decontaminated after the field trial. That task will be done by “persons trained by the permit holder.” It is doubtful if such a person can be trusted to be objective in carrying out the task. It is obvious that entire scheme is a wild, needless gamble.
Some of us are wondering if the biosafety regulatory agency in Nigeria should bother to advertise applications for introduction of GM crops and call for comments when they already have their minds set on being little besides a permitting agency. Expert comments sent to show why certain applications should not be approved are treated with contempt and brushed aside. The agency is averse to giving a response as to why they reject the contrary points raised by concerned citizens and groups. The arrogance and hostility towards those who do not dance to the GM beats keeps increasing by the day. This has to stop.