Technofixes and the State of Our Biosafety

Technofixes and the State of Our Biosafety. A time like this demands and permits only sober consideration of where we are coming from, where we are and where we are heading to. The world is virtually shut down due to the ravages of a virus. This is no time for grandstanding or for anyone to claim that they have got anything under control. Interestingly, the virus is not a new organism. It has been around. It appears the consternation is over new variants that have emerged. If the virus has jumped to humans from bats, that would be a strong rebuke over the reckless ways that humans have degraded habitats of other organisms on the planet. If it has emerged from some biological weapons laboratory then it shows both the evil genius of humans and the strong warning that it is a short distance from rides on the back of a tiger and becoming dinner for the canine beast.

Addressing the issues of agricultural technofixes and the state of our biosafety gives us the template to consider the current situation in our world and the unpredictability of what could happen next. We are in precarious times. While scenario planners may have foreseen a pandemic of the scale that coronavirus has provoked, it comes as a total surprise to the average person.

We have had occasion to warn that things can go deeply wrong and out of hand if humans persist on toying with the genetic makeup of living organisms for the concentration of power in a few moguls, and for profit. Everyone knows that Nature is alive and active. She is not dormant and always responds to the manipulations of men. And so, when humans engineer crops to make them act as pesticides, Nature offers super pests or super bugs. When toxic herbicides are produced to kill all other crops except the ones genetically engineered to withstand them, Nature responds by offering super weeds. In either case, humans get trapped in needless and unwinnable battles against Nature. Today many farmers in the USA are suing Monsanto/Bayer over their exposure to one of the most notorious of these herbicides, called Roundup Ready. They are suing because they claim the glyphosate in the herbicide caused them to suffer from cancers. These herbicides are freely available for our farmers in Nigeria without any warnings.

Recently the mainstream genetic engineering has progressed to the level of editing genetic makeup of organisms and not necessarily having to engage in trans-species transfer of genetic materials. This has focussed on becoming extinction technologies – useful for killing off undesirable species and supposedly clearing the way for preferred species to thrive. This technology is the one proposed for gene drive mosquitoes to be released in Burkina Faso and possibly also in Uganda.

While modern biotechnology promoters like the National Biotechnology Development Agency (NABDA) and the regulator, National Biosafety Management Agency (NBMA), feel confident that they can handle any sort of technicalities in both the mainstream and new fields of extreme technofixes, we are deeply concerned that their grandstanding would not stop the purveyors of these technologies from weaponizing them.

The current pandemic has often been described as warfare. The subtle implication is that the virus could well be a biological weapon. Whether it is a biological weapon or just a freak occurrence in Nature, some of the countries most affected by the outbreak and governments have had to rely on the armed forces as the only institutions that can mobilize the amount of resources needed to tackle the scourge. Do we have a military that can mobilize to tackle a biological attack or accident in Nigeria?

We are in precarious times indeed. It is a time when fear and panic are freely propagating terror among populations. We see the generosity of men on display as some donate needed medical supplies and health workers expose themselves to great risk to help the sick. We hear calls of mutual support and care among nations. In the midst of all that we see the drive for self-preservation that brings out a non-cooperating side of peoples and nations. We see this through the closing of national borders and promoting national interests before any other consideration. What we are seeing seems to say that when the tyre hits the tarmac it is everyone on his or her own.

Nigeria took the wrong step by setting up a biotechnology promoting agency before setting up a biosafety agency. By the reason of the promoter midwifing the biosafety agency and consolidating this scenario by law, separating the two has become a herculean task.

For the few days that humans have been forced to be quarantined or restricted by lockdowns, Nature has begun measures of self-healing. The air is getting fresher in some cities and water bodies are getting clean again. Aquatic ecosystems are coming back to life, just because humans have been restrained to their habitats or homes. Do we have to wait until a disaster before we rethink our ways? Do we need a total breakdown of our biosafety before we wake up to the fact that when disaster unfolds propaganda will not erase the challenge?

These are some of the questions we need to ask ourselves. Nigeria took the wrong step by setting up a biotechnology promoting agency before setting up a biosafety agency. By the reason of the promoter midwifing the biosafety agency and consolidating this scenario by law, separating the two has become a herculean task. The truth is that this situation will only be resolved through legislation and through having a biosafety agency that is neutral, regards the opinion of citizens and accepts the basic biosafety plan of precautionary principle.

In the global north, one of the platforms on which GMOs have been permitted to be allowed into the markets has been that they must be labelled. We have painstakingly explained that because of our socio-cultural setup it is impossible to effectively label GMOs in Nigeria. Genetically engineered beans have been released into the environment and we all know that no one will label and give citizens a choice between eating akara or moi moi made from this variety of beans. Genetically modified cotton has already been introduced into the environment. Our people will eat cotton seed cakes and oils without the slightest inkling that they are consuming GMOs. Where is the choice? We have surveyed the markets for imported GMO products, and several have been found, proudly displaying NAFDAC approval numbers. Did these products pass through the approval processes before they were sold to our people?

Our regulators require to accept that they are not infallible and that they need help. Even the Supreme Courts do meet sometimes to review themselves. Biological weapons facilities are sometimes forced to shut down for decontamination exercises when accidents occur before they dare to reopen.  We cannot keep running blind-eyed to technologies that portend so much danger and for which there are viable and proven alternatives.

 


Welcome words by Nnimmo Bassey, Director Health of Mother Earth Foundation (HOMEF), at the Stakeholders Conference on Biosafety hosted by HOMEF and holding on 23 March 2020 in Abuja

I see the Invisible (Staying Closer Apart)

I see the invisible

I see the invisible 

I hear the inaudible

And I feel the intangible

I’m everywhere in no time

Floating on memories of strained futures

Aloft on lofty hopes

Sliding on rugged dreams in truncated nights

 I see the invisible 

I hear the inaudible

And I feel the intangible

Ears on the ground we tremble

At the departing footsteps of

Departed elders at marketplaces

 I see the invisible 

I hear the inaudible

And I feel the intangible

Eyes on the past we see the future

Cluttered by discarded viruses and their angry relatives

Hands glued to our sides social distances narrow to a kilometer apart

I see the invisible 

I hear the inaudible

And I feel the intangible

We have never been closer now we are apart

Finally, nature’s tiny beings shake sleep away

We are relatives and can have a good day

If we don’t scoff and cough in each other’s face

 

NB at RallyNnimmo Bassey

19 March 2020

Facing Coronavirus

Coronavirus-1The world is in the grip of a virus that could change many things. Coronavirus, that tiny, invisible organism, has reminded humans that there are things that are simply not under our control. The virus has attacked the rich and the poor, the powerful and the weak. It has largely taught us what equality could mean in an age when humility is not a common commodity. Now it has been formally declared a pandemic we must do our best to avoid any pandemonium even as towns and large swaths of nations have been locked down and large gatherings are avoided literally like there was a plague. At a time when it is normal for huge crowds besiege stadia to watch football matches, suddenly empty stadia are becoming the norm. Premier League matches are being postponed! Before Coronavirus it would have been crazy just to imagine that possibility. One can only wonder what this means for the economy of the world of soccer where players are happy to be traded like pawns on a board game.

Projections on the possible spread of the virus are ominous. At the time of this writing, over 115,000 cases and over 4200 deaths have been recorded worldwide. The USA has chalked up to 1000 cases and their president has had to address the nation and outlining actions that may lead to cancellation of travels between Europe and the USA. He had earlier suggested that the virus would possibly simply disappear just as it had appeared. The picture is now grimmer. The governor of the State of Michigan even declared a state of emergency following the identification of 92 possible positive cases. Out of that number 70 of the suspects were said to have attended a conference hosted by a big biotechnology company.

The Chancellor of Germany says that 60-70 per cent of citizens of that country could end up having the Coronavirus encounter. Spooky. Italy has been a huge hotspot in Europe. Schools have been closed, public events put on hold and travel checks intensified for all citizens. While the outbreak and most deaths happened in China, the number of new cases in that country is on the downward slide while the reverse is the case elsewhere in the world.

Schools are being shut down while, in some nations, schooling continues online. Employers are coming to terms with having workers work from home. Self-isolation or voluntary quarantines are being reported and accepted. Even large religious gatherings are being curtailed. Oil prices are hit and mono-product economies like Nigeria may be in for turbulent times.

Within the last one month, I have journeyed to Asia, Europe and the USA. There was a profusion of face masks at both the airport and the cities that I visited in Asia. One could say that face masks have become routine part of dressing in some Asian nations due to reasons other than this notorious virus. Visits to Europe and the USA showed a much lax attitude towards the possibility of coronavirus infections. No face masks, no sanitizers except in some washrooms. It appeared very few expect the virus to emerge anywhere near them.

The preparedness of Nigeria to ward off the virus is impressive, although comical in some places. Completing the proactive health-check forms before landing in the country is commendable. On arrival, we must agree that the state of the facilities in the washrooms, the quality and sanitary state of railings in the immigration hall leave much to be desired. And, arriving a regional airport to be welcomed by a sanitizer wielding official was the height of it all. But that was better than the bucket of water they were said to have welcomed travellers with a few days earlier.

The point that must be made is that humans can change. The change can be planned, or it can be forced. Coronavirus, as tiny as it is, drives that message powerfully. There certainly may be some things in your life that you have held tenaciously to. Some of those things were held on to because it was fashionable to do so, or because they accorded you some level of social standing. Some of us may stubbornly have rejected the advice from our doctors demanding that we embark on lifestyle changes in order to enhance our health. Some persons invest more in maintaining their cars and other properties without caring a hoot about maintaining a healthy lifestyle.

Coronavirus forces us all to consider staying at home as much as is possible and to avoid unnecessary travels and hanging out in large crowds. Good for families! But how do you avoid crowded places in Lagos or anywhere else in Nigeria? The markets are crowded. The buses are crowded.

The virus is also bringing out the bad side of humans. How can people justify denying a place for the infected simply because they wish to be safe? Imagine turning back a shipload of persons suspected to be infected or the banning of flights from certain nations. If this could happen at a time when the infection has not been officially declared a pandemic, what will happen when the alarm is blown?

A few more thoughts before we end this. If humans have responded to climate change the way we see responses to the virus, would the world be on a saner pathway with regard to temperature increases and the implications? How about if the natural defences in humans are breached or lowered by the genetic engineering of species promoted for profit by corporations and then a virus attack? What if dangerous viruses engineered by humans escape confinement and there are no immediate cures, or such possible cures are held back by those who would prefer to wipe out a chunk of humanity?

Coronavirus has shown that a tiny, invisible creature can change our lives, our systems and relationships. While the world is busy contending with this blight, politicians are still jostling to entrench or elevate their dictatorial might; pushing others off their seats and even sending them into exile. When will they learn that every physical thing is transient?

Petroleum’s Fatal Seduction

PollutionThe world has been fatally seduced by petroleum. Multiple oil spills continue unabated in the oilfields of the Niger Delta. While the oil companies claim that they have bettered their sense of responsibility by detecting and remediating oil spill sites, these largely remain tales for the gullible. For communities whose soil, water and air have been assaulted for decades, hopes of having a safe environment, as suggested in the Objectives of State in Chapter 2 of Nigeria’s 1999 Constitution, or as clearly stipulated in Article 24 of the African Charter for People and Human rights, remain but pipedreams.

It has often been said that provisions of Chapter 2 of the Nigerian Constitution 1999 – whether amended or non-amended versions are not justiciable. The cavalier treatment of the environment in the constitution underscores the lack of consideration of the fact that the state of the environment directly impacts on the quality of life of our peoples. One would expect that in a society where the majority of citizens live on and derive their livelihoods directly from the environment, environmental rights would be expressly justiciable.

Sadly, in instances where officials have thought of taking actions to improve on the quality of the environment, the attention has been on the draconian locking down of states from 7 to 10 am on the last Saturdays of every month. That so-called Environmental Sanitation is a relic of the dark days of military rule when the State could easily avoid its duty and foists the burden on hapless citizens.

The cavalier treatment of environmental concerns has seen the dramatic trashing of the Nigerian environment and the related destitution of the people. The filth around us is so pervasive it takes wilful blindness for anyone to avoid seeing them. Plastics dumped everywhere. Trash thrown out of windows of exotic cars. Makes you cringe.

The state of the creeks and swamps has been emblematised by the Ogoni environment. However, that in fact is like more than half the story not being told. Reports emerging from Bayelsa State are very worrisome. One case is the gas/condensate leakage that is suspected to have happened due to third party interference on a pipeline operated by the Nigerian Agip Oil Company (NAOC) on 28th July 2019 in the Taylor Creek at Kalaba Community in Yenagoa Local Government. A field report by Alagoa Morris and Akpotu Ziworitin of Environmental Rights Action informs that the spill has remained unattended for 7 incredible months after the fact of the pollution. The spill persists unattended as we write this.

Overall, the petroleum civilisation has seduced humanity to think that there are no viable alternatives to crude oil and its many derivatives. Feeding this myth means accommodating unconscionable ecological degradation, including climate change, as a minor price to pay. 

The report quotes an official of the community as saying, “The situation is posing threat to lives, as people pass through that area to their farms and lakes. We are urging Agip to come and do something; by clamping and clear the environment of crude oil so that our lives and livelihood would be protected. Right now, they are not protected. The leadership of the community has reported to several authorities concerning the spill. But even at that, there has been no communication so far in respect of this spill. I don’t know the intentions of Agip; whether to crucify us through this process or to suffer us through this process.”

Obviously, extreme pollution is not limited to Nigeria. Oil fields and locations of toxic industrial installations are more or less crime scenes. Crimes against Nature and against communities and individuals. They are locations of environmental racism as well as other forms of irresponsible exploitation. It is time that nations pay attention to how the South African Environmental Protection Agency captured the essence of environmental justice in these words – “no group of people should bear a disproportionate share of the negative environmental consequences resulting from industrial, governmental and commercial operations or policies.”

The Environmental Protection Agency of the USA defines environmental justice as “the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations and policies.” Citizens have to collectively push for the operationalization of these and similar policies. At present we see that in many countries these declarations are little more than mere platitudes.

One country that can be said to have impacts comparable to Nigeria in intensity of pollution, if not size, is South Sudan. According to reports, the country currently produces about 166,000 barrels of crude oil per day compared to the production level of about 350,000 barrels per day in 2013 – before civil war broke out. Although the country has just signed another peace agreement, the pollution continues, just like it did in Nigeria after our government declared amnesty for militant agitators in the Niger Delta.

Politicians are addicted to extractivism. They do anything to keep oil and gas flowing through pipelines. It matters little what happens to the environment or to the people as long as sufficient quantity of hydrocarbon courses through the pipes to draw in the quantum of petrodollars required for their political projects. If it were not for this attitude, an environmental emergency would have long been declared over the incredible pollution and decimation of the Niger Delta.

The oil flows when the Earth bleeds. Those words from a poem I penned tells half the story of pain. The oil flows as the people bleed. Polluted creeks, swamps and lands are accepted as normal. Birth defects, cancers, premature death and all kinds of anomalies reign in the fields from where oil companies and their cohorts drill billions of petrodollars.

Overall, the petroleum civilisation has seduced humanity to think that there are no viable alternatives to crude oil and its many derivatives. Feeding this myth means accommodating unconscionable ecological degradation, including climate change, as a minor price to pay. However, all is not lost. The petroleum civilisation will have an end. And that end is near. It is for humans to decide if we want an orderly transition or a haphazard and cataclysmic one. The end is inevitable. Like any other addiction, the first step out is to make a decision to quit and to see the horrors in the oil fields as well as the impacts of global warming as challenges that need to be tackled head on.