Food and nutrition are key to human health. We strive to ensure that we have nutritious foods and that the seeds from which we produce these foods are free from contamination and do not pose a threat to our biodiversity. It is a fact that biodiversity is key to food sovereignty as we work to ensure food security. Food Sovereignty is achieved when we have the freedom to maintain our seeds/foods and cultivate and consume them in ways that are culturally appropriate and safe.
In a recent Right Livelihood lecture (hosted by the University of Port Harcourt), Prof Hans Herren stressed that African farmers could nourish the continent if certain basic conditions are met. The production of nutritious is based assured through the cultivation of crops in methods that are in harmony with nature. This means using biological means of protecting crops and using organic fertilizers rather than toxic pesticides and chemical fertilizers. Healthy foods are more likely going to be produced when the farmers are not only concerned with profit maximization but aim to get nutritious foods to the market. Herren also stressed that were there is a healthy relationship between farmers and consumers, the dietary choices of consumers tend to shape farmers’ choices. In such a situation the best pathway is agroecology – an agricultural system that is both socio-culturally appropriate and ecologically healthy.
In considering nutrition and food safety, we cannot afford to ignore the smallholder farmers who are those feeding us and the entire world today. We often tend to look down subsistence farming because it is not wedded to the agribusiness web. This notion is indefensible if we accept the fact that 70 percent of the for that we eat comes from these farmers using a mere 30 percent of the resources available in the sector. An understanding of the key role these farmers play and that most of our people make a living from smallholder farming requires investment of resources to shore up the efforts our farmers.
Smallholder farming needs to be integrated into our farming system to achieve sustainable agriculture and food security. This farming system protects the three dimensions of sustainability – the ecology, society, and economy of people. To achieve this, there is a need to preserve the diversity of crops and varieties that provide the nutrition that we need for good health. This requires the protection of farmer saved seeds and protection of varieties that local farmers have selected and developed over the centuries. The implication of this is that the whittling down of varieties due to commercial and related narrow interests must be rejected.
The point is that there are over 3000 crops that can be farmed in Africa, but farmers have been pushed into farming just a few varieties to the detriment of our peoples. Today we see increasing pressures for the adoption of genetically modified crops in Africa. These crops are mostly genetically engineered to withstand dangerous herbicides which kill other varieties except the engineered ones. The basic facts here is that the crops serve the interests of the chemical companies who concentrate their power of control over the sector and expose farmers and consumers to harm. Other crops are genetically engineered to act as pesticides and kill identified pests that would otherwise attack the crop or seeds. Examples include Bt Cotton and Bt Cowpea or beans. The implication of eating a seed engineered to kill a pest if that you are eating a pesticide.
There are other cosmetic reasons for genetically engineering crops, fish, and animals, but those are not our focus today. We wish to stress the failure of genetically engineered crops to pass the sustainability test and emphasize the fact that they derogate our right to safe and wholesome food. Crops that pass the sustainability test, should protect soils and biodiversity as well as the quality of life of farmers, consumers, and society at large.
Thousands of lawsuits have been instituted in the USA and Europe against Monsanto (and Bayer who bought up the company) over their glyphosate-based herbicides. Glyphosate, an active ingredient in the herbicides used on several herbicide tolerant crops have been classified as a probable human carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer(IARC). It is also reported that animal studies have shown such herbicides to be genotoxic, meaning they damage the DNA. They are also known to be endocrine disruptors.
Glyphosate based herbicide applications are also known to alter soil microbe populations, and this may contribute to the proliferation of plant and animal pathogens, and negatively impact plant growth and productivity. These chemicals are harmful to soils beyond the plants that farmers may consider to be weeds. A recent report also showed that aquatic creatures exposed to glyphosate-based herbicides have suffered deformities and had oxidative stress in the brain and affected behaviour of the fish.
One point that must be noted is that genetic engineering in agriculture ignores the fact of the interdependence of species in the webs of life. While they aim to protect one crop, for instance, they end up destroying several others and destroy soil organisms as well. A similar situation occurs with pesticidal crops. They kill both target and non-target varieties. The practice of chemical-based agriculture has led to the decimation of butterflies, bees, and other pollinators, thus posing a serious threat to future food supply and the health of our ecosystems.
Responsible use of technology in agriculture requires that we keep careful watch on their effect on human and environmental health. We also need to consider the fact that technologies that promote monoculture and erodes our biodiversity is not sustainable and must be avoided in a world that is almost at the brink of ecological collapse. We cannot afford to make a fetish of techno fixes or consider them to be silver bullets.
The arguments used in the promotion of genetically engineered crops do not hold water. The argument that we need GMOs to be able to produce enough food for a growing global population is a myth. GMOs have not led to an increase of food production since their introduction over twenty years ago. In any case, about 30 percent of the food currently produced in the world today goes to waste. In Nigeria, a high percentage of harvests do not make it to the market or to dining tables due to a dearth of storage or processing facilities, and due to poor state of infrastructure. When we throw insecurity into the mix of adverse factors it becomes even clearer that we open a space for manipulations that can complicate our security concerns simply because we are yielding to commercial myths.