Emerging Technologies and the Politics of Hunger

The number of persons in the world that go to bed hungry hovers around 700 million. The hungry equally fall under the same category as the malnourished besides those whose plates may be loaded with unsuitable foods.  COVID-19 is also said to have put about a third of food and farming livelihoods at risk. Interestingly small farmers, herders, and fishers who account for about 70 percent of the global food supply are also among the most vulnerable to food insecurity. There are also estimates that a shocking 3 billion people or more cannot afford a healthy diet in the world today. And such persons are found in all parts of the world.

Hunger is not a neutral phenomenon and can be triggered by a number of factors, including being used as a weapon during wars and as a political tool through hunger strikes. Generally, people are not hungry due to lack of food, but more on account of lack of access to food, poverty and violent conflicts among other factors.

The politics of food and hunger require that we examine why hunger persists in a world where about a third of available foods either go to the waste bin or get spoilt while in storage. The situation where some people are forced to eat foods that are unsuitable, inappropriate and non-aligned to their bests interests or culture needs to the interrogated.   

Hunger is a critical matter for policy making because it concerns everyone as everyone needs food for survival and as a right. Hunger can debase a person’s dignity and wilfully starving anyone is a crime, an infringement on their right to life. The spectre of a national or global population bursting the charts can raise fears of hunger and force decisions that overlook food quality but rather focus on quantity. Indeed, talks of food security sometimes appear to be a call for anything that can fill the belly in the name of food. Hunger is a powerful tool often used to subvert arguments for ecological agriculture and support of majority farmers – the small holder farmers. The fear of a projected galloping human population has literally become the vehicle for speculating on foods and for promoting technologies and practices that would otherwise be treated with a healthy dose of scepticism. 

The politics of food shortages have been shown by some analysts to be a system where food supplies are underestimated while future demand is overestimated – all based on doubtful assumptions. While projecting rapid and continuous population growth, policy makers ignore the fact that improved socio-economic conditions would naturally place brakes on such exponential growth. It can be argued that such projections are reflections of the fact that policy makers have no intention of building pro-people policies that cater for the optimal wellbeing of the people. 

It is intriguing that policy makers reject small holder farming despite research outputs showing that the best chance for the world to meet her food needs is not to be found in industrial scale, chemical-intensive agriculture, but in non-polluting agroecological production that cools the planet, does not pollute the environment and revitalizes rural communities. The fact that small holder farming feeds the world was validated by the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development’s (IAASTD) Agriculture at a Crossroads.

Emerging Technologies

Technologies and technofixes receive instant attention in today’s world. This happens in many sectors including that of agriculture and food. Wearing the cloak of being hunger killers, genetically modified organisms (GMOs), gene edited organisms, synthetic biology and intensive use of pesticides are all presented as the solution to hunger in the world. For over two decades GMOs have been touted as providing super yields and being capable of fighting off pests as they act as pesticides without creating a dent on the hunger figures. Meanwhile the system rigidly neglects those feeding the world through farming in cooperation with Nature. 

With the rise of artificial intelligence, big data and rapid technological innovations, the agricultural sector is seeing a rising population of digital networks and data merchants. The argument for the technological pathway echoes what was said of GMOs: to increase yields, slash harvest times, and ultimately reduce costs and environmental impact. This goes beyond genetic manipulation and aims at automated agriculture that would require little assistance from humans. The lure of the promise of precision agriculture where machines would take the supposed drudgery out of farming can be quite attractive to those who don’t see the wider picture of agriculture and foods.

In automated agriculture, systems are being developed that have ability to “monitor, feed, and harvest crops from seed through to sale. Automation combines the use of a wide array of sensors, computers, feeding mechanisms, and everybody’s favorite, robots. Complete automation is a nearly self-sustaining system that can handle all day-to-day activities on the farm. It all but removes the need for human staffing, which can be good or bad depending on how you look at it. One of the core resources of automation is a vast network of sensors.” 

With the ravages of COVID-19 and climate change, technofixes have become indeed so attractive that they have become highly fetishized and irresistible. We are made to believe that resilience and adaptation to the dawning future requires wholesale acceptance of crops generated in laboratories and farms run by artificial intelligence besides appetites and choices molded as we click on social media buttons. At this point we should pay attention to the points made by the ETC Group: Putting food security at the mercy of digital networks and potential data glitches worries governments and food movements alike. So does the plight of farmers (who are forced off the land into ‘smart cities’ and e-commerce villages, or reduced to digital out growers).

Some of the emerging tools, technologies and systems include the following:

Gene-editing, a new technique for altering the genetic make of plants, animals and humans. It is said to be a precise science, but results have been seen already showing that there are unintended outcomes. There are serious ethical concerns about its application, and these must be considered along with the pure scientific exercises.

Synthetic biology has been defined in many different ways. According to the CBD, “the key features of synthetic biology include the “de novo” synthesis of genetic material and an engineering-based approach to develop components, organisms and products. Synthetic biology builds on modern biotechnology methodologies and techniques such as high throughput DNA technologies and bioinformatics.”  It could also involve the redesigning of organisms for desired purposes or to have new abilities it would not have in nature. Synthetic biology has applications in agriculture, medicine and manufacturing.

Nanotechnology involves the manipulation or building of structures at nano or very tiny scale.

Robots like drones which are used to autonomously plant seeds, tend the crops and harvest them. Satellite imaging, weather tracking and possibly geoengineering can come into play. 

3D Food Printing – There are ongoing research on 3D printing of foods so that you can have the food you need with a combination of specifications at the press of a button. These would offer digitalised nutrition and customised food designs.

An History and a Future

From the signing of the National Biosafety Management Agency Act in 2015, things have taken a predictable downward spiral in Nigeria. Indeed, the dangerous slide probably began with the establishment of the National Biotechnology Development Agency (NABDA) in November 2001 on the strength of a National Biotechnology Policy adopted in April 2001.  Setting up an institution such as NABDA without a regulatory agency in place meant that Nigeria was a playing field for promoters of modern agricultural biotechnology without any oversight over the processes. Probably recognizing that they could not openly pursue their mandate, the agency became a major driver concerning what sort of regulatory agency should be put in place. And when NBMA was finally birthed, NABDA, the topmost official promoter of the technology assured itself a seat on the board of the regulatory agency. It can be said that NBMA is a baby of NADBA. As expected, this agency teamed up with an infamous company to obtain the early approvals for the official entry of GMOs into Nigeria.

Whereas the mandate of NABDA is the “promotion, coordination, and deployment of cutting-edge biotechnology research & development, processes, and products for the socio-economic well-being of the nation.” Its vision shoots first at “food security” before mentioning “job/wealth creation, affordable healthcare delivery, and sustainable environment.” The major campaigns and advocacy of these twin agencies have been on modern agricultural biotechnology or promotion of GMOs which they loudly proclaim as safe as though they were professing a religious doctrine and not a science prevalent with uncertainties and guided by precaution. 

The point we are making is that NBMA was principally set up to legitimize the aspirations of NADBA. The maiden State of Biosafety in Nigeria report issued by Health of Mother Earth Foundation shows how key principles of biosafety, including the Precautionary Principle, have been downplayed. It also shows how public consultation and opinion received scant attention in this crucial sector. HOMEF’s market shelves surveys conducted annually since 2018 show that there are several products with genetically engineered ingredients in our markets for which there are no approvals from the regulatory agency. We also note that there is no clear sync between agencies regulating foods that get to our market shelves and to dining tables. 

Recall that Nigeria was once a frontline state for the liberation of Africa from vestiges of colonialism. The nation has now become the soft entry point of risky technologies, agrochemicals and manifestations of agricultural neocolonialism into the continent. The Bt. cotton variety that failed in Burkina Faso is the same variety approved for cultivation in Nigeria indicating how much thought and rigour goes into the process here.

Dangers Ahead

The modern agricultural biotechnologies we are discussing are mostly the basic varieties involving the transfer of genetic materials from one specie to another to accord certain traits such as to be herbicide tolerance or being pesticidal. Emerging food technologies such as gene editing do not require cross species manipulations but can edit genes in a particular species with the aim of forcing certain traits or even triggering extinction.  Gene editing can readily be weaponized and should be a concern for our national biosecurity.

It is mindboggling for Nigeria to expand the scope of her biosafety regulation to cover gene editing and synthetic biology when the handling of the elementary versions has generated serious doubts and worries. The NBMA Act 2015 was amended in March 2019 to open the way for gene editing and synthetic biology applications by inserting their definitions in the Act. This was followed by Gene Editing Guidelines prepared and adopted by NBMA. The guidelines offer a peculiar process that allows some gene edited products to be approved without going through the rules governing the approval of GMOs if the agency reckons that the product does not contain any recombinant DNA. Meanwhile the Act, as amended, declares that no one would engage in gene editing without the approval of the regulatory agency. We note that the determination that the product has no recombinant DNA will be made by NBMA who would then allow gene editing to proceed unregulated and unhindered. More troubling is the fact that such approvals can be given within 21 days of the application being submitted to the NBMA. This approach of the NBMA if allowed to stand will completely expose Nigeria to grave risk.

Time to Retrace Steps

It is not too late for Nigeria to get out of the biotech hole before it turns into a bottomless pit. The so-called guidelines for gene-editing and extreme GMOs are dangerous and needless – just as the permission of GMOs has always been in Nigeria. We are at a time in this nation when simple mechanical equipment are not maintained; where refineries refine zero barrel of crude oil while guzzling humongous amounts of money; where for a nation of so many millions we barely manage to generate 4000 megawatts of electricity. We are in a nation where research and educational institutions are crying for basic equipment and receive scant attention. We are unfortunately in a nation wracked by corruption and insecurity. The flagship biotech laboratory in the country is in a temporary cabin. We do not need to add risky technologies that clearly pose a security threat to our peoples and environment.

As we have said elsewhere, the purpose of introducing the so-called definitions into the Biosafety Act was to create a crack in the door so as to open Nigeria to vested interest promoting the easy-to-weaponize and extinction-driving gene editing technology. NBMA has again shown itself to be determined to lead Nigeria and Nigerians on a path of no-return. This agency should be called to order. At no time should Nigerians be used as guinea pigs or laboratory rats.

Who is feeding the world? Who is feeding Nigerians? Who will feed us into the future? It is time for us to recognize the facts of our best interests and support agroecology, small holder farmers and provide their basic needs including infrastructure, storage/processing facilities and extension services. It is time to halt and completely overhaul the biosafety architecture in Nigeria and invest resources towards ensuring that our farmers get out of poverty and hunger and do what they have always done and struggle to continue to do.


Presentation at HOMEF’s Biosafety Conference held on 13 April 2021 in Abuja, Nigeria

Ecocide and Carbon Crimes

The environment has been subjected to so much flagrant damage basically because there is no law against such acts. Ruinous exploitation of Nature for the extraction of capital has been permitted as a necessary, or good, evil. This state of affairs has allowed subsidiaries of transnational corporations to commit environmental atrocities in countries far off their home bases. 

Extensive damage to the environment often amounts to literally killing the environment. Such harms impact the soil, the air and water of such the affected areas in more or less irreversible ways. A word that aptly describes crimes of this nature is ecocide.

The International Criminal Court (ICC), established to end impunity of the most serious crimes of concern to the international community is governed by legislations under the Rome Statute. The ICC has 123 member states and four crimes have been internationally recognised under the Rome Statute. These crimes are:

  1. War crimes, 
  2. Genocide, 
  3. Crimes against humanity and 
  4. Crime of aggression. 

While war crimes include severe and long-lasting damage to the natural environment, there are currently no provisions for the protection of the environment from such harms during peacetime. We have heard of some military examining the specious idea of how they can wage war without harming the environment. War harms the environment and impacts can last far longer than the time of conflict. These include pollutions from military hardware and biological weapons and other chemicals used directly against the environment and peoples.

It is intriguing that widespread damage to the environment from mining, including oil and gas extraction, has so far been overlooked in international criminal law when such harms clearly offend the right to life of peoples.  

Why Should Ecocide be a Crime?

Stop Ecocide defines ecocide succinctly as “mass damage and destruction of ecosystems – harm to nature which is widespread, severe or systematic.”  This definition hits the roots of the problem. The problem is both widespread and systematic. 

Examples of ecocide can be found in the massive excavations of the earth through mining in ways that do not allow for the erasure of the scars and do not permit adequate restoration due to the sheer extent of the damage. Others are the impacts of deep-sea mining, large oil spills and routine gas flares. The oil field communities of Nigeria and Ecuador, the tar sand mines of Canada, the coal mines of South Africa, the gold mines of Ghana, South Africa, etc., the industrial farms and polluting industries of the USA and Europe are clear examples of irreversible harm to Nature. Examples can be found all over the world.

We can also count deforestation that translates to huge habitat losses and drives species to extinction. Industrial fishing through deep sea bottom trawling, for example, is highly destructive.  Industrial and colonial agricultural monocultures destroy complex ecosystems and create green deserts. Factories located on coastlines often use the ocean as waste dumps and simply pump their effluents directly out into the sea.

As earlier stated, due to the notion that these harmful activities are supposedly needed to ensure high living standards and inordinate consumption, they are taken as normal, as acceptable. 

Stop Ecocide and supporters believe that the Rome Statue should be amended, and ecocide added as a crime alongside the crimes against humanity, war crimes and the others. One of the steps being taken is the commissioning of a panel of international criminal and environmental lawyers to draft a legal definition of ecocide. The panel is being co-chaired by Philippe Sands, a French/British lawyer and professor, and Dior Fall Sow a Senegalese jurist and legal scholar.

The notion of ecocide is not new. But it has only started to gain traction in recent years. It was on the table when the other international crimes were debated, but somehow fell between the cracks until Polly Higgins picked it up as a lifetime commitment and promoted it as the key means of halting large scale ecological crimes. Higgins believed that 

“The rules of our world are laws, and they can be changed. Laws can restrict or they can enable. What matters is what they serve. Many of the laws in our world serve property – they are based on ownership. But imagine a law that has a higher moral authority… a law that puts people and planet first. Imagine a law that starts from first do no harm, that stops this dangerous game and takes us to a place of safety….” Together with Jojo Mehta, Higgins founded the Stop Ecocide Foundation, pursuing the Stop Ecocide campaign.

In 2010, Polly Higgins submitted this definition of ecocide to the United Nations Law Commission: “Ecocide is the extensive damage to, destruction of or loss of ecosystem(s) of a given territory, whether by human agency or by other causes, to such an extent that peaceful enjoyment by the inhabitants of that territory has been or will be severely diminished.”

It is now 75 years since Crimes Against Humanity and Genocide were coined at Nuremberg. It is hoped that a legal definition of ecocide will pave the way for its being added as a fifth international crime against peace — not just as a crime against humans but also as a crime against Mother Earth or the natural world.

So far eight ICC member states, the Pope and the European Union, have openly expressed interest in the possibility of amending the Rome Statute. The eight countries are Vanuatu, Maldives, France, Belgium, Finland, Spain, Canada, and Luxembourg. Parliamentarians from a further 10 states Sweden, the Netherlands, Ireland, Germany, Portugal, the UK, Philippines, Australia, Cyprus and Brazil are interested to consider that definition.

Will Ecocide be Retroactive?

In conversations on this topic there have been issues raised about what threshold of destruction can be set before it can be said that a crime of ecocide has been committed. There is also the issue of the law not being retroactive. Going by standard law, a person is not charged with an offence committed at a time when there was no law against such an action. This must be a huge dampener for those who hope that once the crime of ecocide is adopted, they would simply file cases for obvious crimes committed before such adoption. The point is that we do not necessarily have to sue retroactively based on claims of what happened at the time the crime started to be committed. The fact is that these ecological crimes continue to grow, to expand, and starting at any point in time, there are sufficient grounds to hold ecological criminals accountable. Moreover, the law would create incentives for eco destroyers to check their reckless acts going forward, knowing that they would be held to account for such harms.

Recent court rulings in the home countries of transnational corporations over crimes committed by their subsidiaries in Zambia and Nigeria are pointers to things to come. They show that ecological crimes will no longer be easily hidden. On 10 April 2019, the Supreme Court in the United Kingdom ruled against Vedanta Resources PLC, insisting that Zambian victims of their polluting activities can sue the company in UK courts. The case was filed by almost 2,000 Zambian villagers against Konkola Copper Mines and its parent company Vedanta Resources PLC. The case was a long shot, a David versus Goliath match, considering that Konkola Copper Mines, the company that was polluting the water of the four farming communities with sulphuric acid and other toxic chemicals, is a subsidiary of the giant copper conglomerate, Vedanta Resources PLC.  The Zambian plaintiffs can now seek redress in the UK courts and ensure that the polluter is held to account.

In February 2021, the same Supreme Court ruled in the same vein against Royal Dutch Shell in the case of Okpabi vs Shell. This ruling was a landmark victory for a group of about 50,000 victims of Shell’s polluting actions in Ogoniland, Nigeria. The court ruled that the UK Appeal Court was not right in holding that Shell could not be held accountable for offences committed by its Nigerian subsidiary, Shell Petroleum Development Company (SPDC). The plaintiffs from Ogale and Bille communities are demanding clean-up and compensation from Shell for years of harmful activities in their communities that has harmed them by, among other things, polluting their drinking water. They can now sue Shell in the UK.

The oil giant suffered the same fate in the cases brought against it in the court in The Netherlands by four farmers for pollutions in Oruma in Bayelsa State and Goi in Ogoni, Rivers State. The judges ruled that Shell would have to compensate the fishers and farmers for the harm inflicted on them by Shell’s oil spills. The judges declared that they needed more evidence before making a ruling on the case brought by the plaintiff from Ikot Ada Udo in Akwa Ibom State.

The judgements against Shell must be a strong signal to the other polluting fossil fuel companies that they cannot continue to get away with murder. 

Carbon Crimes

Carbon crimes may also be called climate crimes considering the catastrophic changes portended by the increased stock of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. These are crimes at a planetary scale, beyond anything previously seen on planet Earth. Climate crimes are sharp examples of ecocide. In this sense we refer to the two ends of the fossil fuel pipelines – the demand and supply ends. We also bear in the mind the false solutions being proposed by corporations and politicians looking for ways to avoid or delay climate action as long as it gives them time for raking in profits. Some of these false solutions pertain to actions such as geoengineering that can only be taken on planetary scales and which would have massive intended and unintended consequences. The focus on carbon molecules without accounting for the ones in the ground also helps to obfuscate the searchlight on the way out of the climate mess.

The current stock of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere are already creating desperate problems for vulnerable communities, including Small Island States and increasingly threatened South Eastern seaboard of Africa that has suffered heavy battering by cyclones Idai (2019), Kenneth (2019) and Eloise (2021) in recent years. Cyclone Idai killed more than 1000 persons, affected 3 million others and caused about $2 billion worth of damage. Territories are already beginning to go under the sea. The crime is growing.

Destructive Development 

Some development projects are destructive to the environment and to communities in which they are sited. Projects in this category would include big dams, superhighways and coal fired plants. Big dams such as the INGA dams in the Democratic Republic of Congo pose serious threats to the Congo Basin. The dams are planned to be the biggest hydropower dam in the world is built as planned. Whereas 91% of the people in DRC do not have access to electricity, this dam is planned to provide electricity for extractive industries and for export. 

International Rivers notes that “diverting the flow of the Congo river to create a reservoir would flood the Bundi Valley, affecting local agricultural lands and natural environments, and may cause huge methane emissions that would contribute to global warming. The effect of a reduced flow in the Congo River may cause loss of biodiversity and a shift in the dominant species. The flooded area may also create an environment that is conducive for the breeding of water-borne vectors such as the malanquin mosquito.”

A coal power plant that was proposed for Ghana was successfully fought off by environmentalists. The coal power plant proposed at Lamu, Kenya, is being resisted by the people who see the plant as a threat to their pristine environment, pollute the ocean, freshwater systems and hugely increase Kenya’s greenhouse gas emissions by 700 percent. The coal dust would also literally suffocate the lush mangroves in the area. 

The case of a proposed superhighway that was to pass through the Cross River National Forest in Nigeria was a huge threat. The highway was conceived with 10 kilometres right of way on either side and would have swallowed up swathes of primary rain forests, destroying communities, farms, habitats and cultural heritage of the people. The highway was realigned away from the forest due to concerted grassroots resistance. The government lost interest in the project probably because the aim was to harvest the timber and devastate one of the last standing primary forests in the region.

Tearing the Corporate and Nationalist Veils

Corporate ecological crimes have been condoned because all companies have had to do is pay fines or find ways of prolonging cases until the plaintiffs die off. This impersonal relationship with individuals and communities in which corporations extract value for their boards and shareholders has permitted gross misbehaviours in ways that may not occur if the directors of the corporations and responsible public officers are held personally liable for ordering or condoning the crimes in the same way politicians or war lords are personally held to account for war crimes, genocide or crimes against humanity. 

While we await the acceptance of Ecocide, the question remains as to whether the ICC can bite in a just manner. Some African countries have complained that the court operates as though it was set to watch over Africa while some countries simply ignore the court. The challenge is to ensure that powerful nations do not shield their citizens, corporations and corporate leaders from accountability for ecological crimes. This is not impossible to achieve as the global crises caused by reckless abuse of the environment and Nature generally is moving citizens to rebelling and demanding action in order to give humans and other species a breathing space, a space to recover from centuries of abuse. 

Ecocide is a law whose time has come, even if almost late. It will be a key tool for fighting for environmental justice. It will be a tool for ensuring that humans understand the duty of stewardship over Natures gifts that we merely borrow from our grandchildren. Ecocide will tear the corporate veil and should eliminate nationalist shields.

We demand that nations make the crime of ecocide a part of national laws now! There is no time to waste. The era of merely treating the environment as a passing concern in our statute books must end. 

To destroy the Earth is simply idiotic. “There is no beauty in mass damage and destruction. A beauty born of deep care, however, is a beauty that comes from the heart — not simply an adjunct, added on as a veneer.” We cannot escape the fact that ecocide is a crime both morally and ethically.