Coloniality and the Geography of Seeds and Foods

NnimmoBThe geography of food shows the peculiarities and patterns of food production and consumption across the world or in particular territories. It tells a tapestry of stories of the individuals or communities where they are found and consumed. Food is a key component and marker of any culture.

Peculiar food types are found in particular places and are promoted by persons embedded in such places. The geography of food is largely determined by the type of plants and animal species prevalent in particular areas. The spread of plants and animals across the world is largely dispersed according to the climatic realities of various territories. Available food sources determine our cuisine, support our health needs and impact economic, socio-cultural and religious activities.

Plants-based foods begin their journeys to our plates as seeds. Considering that seeds are essentially whole plants or animals covered by a seed coat, it is correct to say that seed is life. It is life to its species as well as life for those who make their foods from them. Many factors have affected the availability and prevalence of certain seeds in particular territories, nations and regions. Some of these factors include climatic changes as well as economic and political pressures. Natural disasters and wars also orchestrate a change of diet for peoples especially when the response to such situations include the philanthropic supply of seeds and foods that may also be targeted to ultimately trigger food dependence by impacted territories.

Colonialism, neocolonialism and neoliberalism are deeply implicated in the disruption of food systems and in the introduction of plants and animals that are not found in nature. We note that colonialism was a geopolitical tool utilized to ensure extraction of resources and labour from subjugated territories. In terms of agriculture, the major approaches included growing crops mainly for export to the home bases of the colonial powers. These were appropriately called cash crops. They literally shifted the control of local agriculture from the communities to distant market forces and at the same time deprecated community values. The approach of moving agriculture from meeting the needs of the producers can be seen in the manner by which a bulk of genetically modified (GM) crops are cultivated for animal feeds and for industrial purposes.

In considering the matter of seeds, foods and biosafety in Nigeria we are confronted by the display of a sophisticated lack of knowledge by highly schooled professionals who insist that whatever they say must be accepted as truth. These highly placed players pose a grave threat to Africa and not just Nigeria.

Today governments willingly sacrifice national interests in order to attract positive relationships with corporations and international financial institutions. The mindset that promotes this subservient disposition clearly ignores cultural values, our indigenous knowledge and the pressures on our people whose natural socio-ecological support systems are being eroded.

Over the years our farmers have selected, preserved and shared the best seeds. In some cultures, it is an abomination to sell seeds. Our peoples built socio-economic systems that promote human dignity and community cohesion. They built knowledge and values that respect other beings and species with the understanding of our deep interconnectedness as citizens of the Planet. Today seeds have become a global commodity and means of control.

Must we all be molecular biologists before we can reject GMOs and insist on natural seeds and foods? When can people speak up if toxic herbicides like Roundup poison non-scientists? From the grave? If a scientist tells me that cigarettes are good for my health – as they did for several years – should my response be an applause, an Amen? If an engineer or architect swears that a collapsing building is safe, should I move in and begin to decorate it? Or would painting it over with graffiti or poetry change the status of the building?

Many protagonists of the erosion of our dignity and right to life hide under the cloak of science to conceal colonial intent of control, subjugation and denial of the right of choice. The worst form of slavery happens, it is said, when the slave does not perceive that he is a slave and celebrates what he thinks is freedom within his wretched condition. It also happens when the slave master accords some powers to heads of slave gangs and watches them inflict injury of their fellow slaves. Frantz Fanon captured this situation when he stated in his book, The Wretched of the Earth, that “The national bourgeoisie will be quite content with the role of the Western bourgeoisie’s business agent, and it will play its part without any complexes in a most dignified manner… In its beginnings, the national bourgeoisie of the colonial country identifies itself with the decadence of the bourgeoisie of the West. We need not think that it is jumping ahead; it is in fact beginning at the end. It is already senile before it has come to know the petulance, the fearlessness, or the will to succeed of youth.”

In considering the matter of seeds, foods and biosafety in Nigeria we are confronted by the display of a sophisticated lack of knowledge by highly schooled professionals who insist that whatever they say must be accepted as truth. These highly placed players pose a grave threat to Africa and not just Nigeria. There was a time when our country was a bastion of support for the liberation of Africa from colonial subjugation. At a time when the struggle raged in the southern parts of Africa, Nigeria was considered a frontline state in the struggles for liberation. Today when it comes to biosafety and the protection of biodiversity, Nigeria has rapidly become the soft under belly of the continent, the gateway towards a recolonization of the continent. This state of things is celebrated by GMO promoters who have foot soldiers in the corridors of government offices, research institutes and increasingly in the media.

Is shameful when educated persons claim that because genetic engineering is a science, non-scientists must unquestioningly accept whatever product is allowed by the regulators into our environment or market shelves. They claim that those that insist on precaution when it comes to GMOs must produce “evidence-based” scientific reasons for their claims. It must be said that this is a standard biotech industry public relations response to questions from citizens who are truly concerned about the erosion of our biodiversity and the challenges to environmental and human health by these unnatural species and products derived from them.

In fact, the head of the National Biosafety Management Agency (NBMA) routinely claims that whatever they allow into Nigeria is safe. That claim of absolute certainty cannot be supported by science as humans are yet to fully comprehend the intricacies of the interdependencies of ecosystems at molecular and at other levels.

In the past four years Nigeria has witnessed the influx of GMOs and products derived from these novel organisms.  The claim of safety is premised on the arguments of GMO promoters that there is no scientific evidence that such products can be harmful to humans or to the environment does not recognise the highly circumscribed nature of the tests conducted often under the control of the promoting industry. In a recently decided case in the USA where a gardener was awarded millions of dollars for having cancer after being exposed to the chemical glyphosate (once described as a carcinogen) in Bayer/Monsanto’s herbicide Roundup, industry hatchet jobbers insist that the decision made by the jury was not acceptable because none of them is a scientist!

Must we all be molecular biologists before we can reject GMOs and insist on natural seeds and foods? When can people speak up if toxic herbicides like Roundup poison non-scientists? From the grave? If a scientist tells me that cigarettes are good for my health – as they did for several years – should my response be an applause, an Amen? If an engineer or architect swears that a collapsing building is safe, should I move in and begin to decorate it? Or would painting it over with graffiti or poetry change the status of the building?

Over the past four years we have repeatedly heard highly “educated” promoters of modern agricultural biotechnology in Nigeria claim that the taking of a rib from Adam to create Eve was biotechnology. In other words, that creation was by biotechnology. This claim was repeated at the recently held public hearing at the House of Representatives on the attempt by NBMA to expand its law by inserting definitions of extreme forms of biotechnology, including synthetic biology and gene drives. The claim could be interpreted as blasphemous or as an indication that GMO promoters are playing God or that the act of genetic engineering is a form of worship. The claim that creation was by biotechnology is a shameful low that should not be heard from the lips of highly placed government officials.

We are concerned because new techniques deployed in genetic engineering have risks beyond the ones posed by first generation modern biotechnology. Gene drives have the capacity of driving species to extinction – a direct and irreversible threat to biodiversity. While the world is grappling with understanding the implications of these technologies and what governance mechanisms to adopt, our Nigerian regulators and some lawmakers are pushing to open the way for them to be tested here probably based on their unverified claims that Nigeria has the most qualified practitioners as well as the best equipped laboratories in Africa.

It is time for the Nigerian government to fund our research institutions and agencies so that they actually carry out researches that support our seeds, agriculture and food systems. We cannot continue to be a testing ground for risky technologies developed elsewhere. So far, it is doubtful if any of the permits issued in Nigeria is for a variety genetically engineered in Nigeria. They are more likely all engineered elsewhere and brought here to be tested.

We reiterate that seeds, agriculture and food systems mirror and develop our culture. Seed is life. Food is life. Although food is consumed mainly for energy, nutrition and health, its import clearly goes beyond just being things that humans ingest for these purposes.

Along with the GMO debacle in Nigeria is the quiet push to have Nigeria sign unto international seed laws that would further pressure our farmers and open the doors to corporate seed conglomerates to dominate and control our food systems. The combination of GMOs and uninterrogated seed laws will constitute grave environmental harm and will intensify hunger, poverty and social inequality in the country. We must continue to question and reject both.

10 April 2019

Cross section of participants at the Seeds, Foods and Biosafety Conference hosted by HOMEF on 10.04.19

 

 

 

A Morally Wounded People

ponderingThere are things that we now take for granted that were totally unimaginable a few decades ago. While we are not wishing for a return to the so-called “good old days,” it does appear appropriate for us to remind ourselves that we have gone so far down the wrong path that we can sigh and declare that indeed “There was a Country,” to borrow the title of Chinua Achebe’s book. We can even step that down and say, “There were Communities”.

The list of oddities that have become accepted as expected or normal in Nigeria include kidnappings, murders, armed robbery, blatant corruption, unmitigated pollution, rapes, diverse fraudulent activities, heightened nepotism, clannishness and related divisiveness. These were always present in subdued forms, but now they have come of age and walk the streets in broad daylight. We are not by this suggestion saying that morality and goodness have disappeared from our country. No. Nigerians are basically good and caring people. But our sense of morality is getting eroded rapidly. Recognizing this slide is a step towards recovery.

Public office holders such as presidents and governors are conferred with immunity and can get away with acts of impunity while in office. Thus, crimes go unpunished. These wounds run deep in our systems.

There was a time when armed robbery and other violent crimes were rather exotic and the criminals were regarded as exotic or deviant personalities. In the days of military dictatorship, executions by firing squad were common forms of public entertainment. Some of the top-notch criminals like Oyenusi, in Lagos, when tied to the stake, with sand-filled drums behind him to stop the projectiles, faced the bullets with a smile. Another notorious criminal, Anini, was helped up to be tied to the stake because one of his legs had been shattered during the encounter with the police that led to his arrest. Anini’s ruthless colleague, Monday Osunbor, muttered, “e be like say I wan mental,” to Abdul Oroh, and other journalists that covered the event, just before the bullets eliminated the possibility of his ever going “mental”. Or, maybe he did go “mental” for a few moments?

Public executions were spectacles that drew crowds, including of people who went there to steal while watching the gory events. It turned out that while satisfying the underlying drive for revenge, the public executions did not stop armed robbery. Soft or “slap on the wrist” penalties for corrupt practices, on the other hand, have not stemmed corruption either. Fraudsters steal hundreds of millions of Naira, get fined a few millions which they readily pay from their back pockets and walk away to enjoy their loot. Meanwhile, if a poor fellow steals a pair of slippers he gets to languish in jail for years. These aberrations injure us deeply.

Election into public office appears to have turned into a contest over who has the higher capacity or best opportunities to rig and subvert the will of the people. Some citizens willingly sell their votes for a meal or snack and others expectantly await election cycles to snatch ballot boxes in exchange for a meal or two. Once returned as elected, folks who knew that they rigged their ways into office gladly answer Honourable, Right Honourable or Excellency as the case may be. And we celebrate them with the red carpets, chieftaincy titles and an assortment of honours. We have been deeply wounded.

We celebrate wealth and do not ask questions about how such wealth was acquired. The creed of competition and accumulation drives individuals and institutions to promote and operate in economic constructs that care less about the common good. Privatisation of public goods and finance are some of the manifestations of this disposition. Add to that the fact that public office holders such as presidents and governors are conferred with immunity and can get away with acts of impunity while in office. Thus, crimes go unpunished. These wounds run deep in our systems.

The drive for investment, especially of the foreign type, makes governments buy into the externally driven concepts such as structural adjustments and the much-trumpeted ease of doing business mantra promoted by the World Bank – the originator, together with the International Monetary Fund, of the structural adjustment programme that crippled our economies in the 1980s and 90s. While ease of doing business can be seen as good for local medium sized companies, it can also be seized upon by bigger entities that already have inordinate influences over our governments. Who would argue against the removal of bottlenecks and bureaucratic constraints to doing business if it all adds up to service delivery and social benefits? The truth is that the dearth of basic infrastructure, including steady power supply, does not promote any ease of doing business.

Export Processing Zones and Free Trade Zones present another concept that ought to be critically interrogated rather than being swallowed line, hook and sinker. It is not surprising that these fenced economic enclaves or colonies are mostly set up in less developed countries as hubs for production of goods for export. They offer tax incentives and enjoy special regulatory measures that those outside the zones do not enjoy. It is important to note that the bulk of the revenue generated in these zones do not stay in the country where they are located. This is salt added to our open wounds.

We are the walking wounded. Our exposure to extreme, unexpected and shocking experiences can make us hop on the aberrant train with our sense of morality numb or injured. We have become cynical of public officials and institutions. Already, the average individual does not expect much from governments, besides basic infrastructure such as paved roads, potable water and electricity – all of which are chronically in short supply. Understandably, some public officials do not careto meet those needs and do not have any sense of accountability because their election was not based on the will of the people. That is how far we have gone down the wounded highway.

Our traditional culture of good neighbourliness, for example, is greatly challenged by the prevailing insecurity and suspicions in our communities. The high fences we erect around our homes insulate us from possible help that could come from neighbours in times of distress. However, all is not lost.

Some actions that will assist to put us on the way to recovery from the moral injury that we have suffered will necessarily include a wide-ranging systemic change that covers environmental, political, socio-economic and other aspects of our national life. It will require the building of inclusive governments where participation is not based on sharing lucrative positions. It will require the building of a diversified economy shifted away from extractivism. We need to elevate the dignity of labour, build trust and promote transparency in our relationships. Of course, we need to pause, think and repent of our transgressions.

 

 

“Evolving” Extinction GMOs

gene drives“Evolving” Extinction GMOs have no place in Nigeria. While the world was debating the future of new and extreme genetic engineering, proponents of the technology in Nigeria were busy proposing amendments to the National Biosafety Management Act, 2015, with a view to opening the door for the very risky experimentations in Nigeria. The contentious issue of extreme modern biotechnology, especially of the variant known as gene drives, was one of the topical matters deliberated upon at the 14thConference of Parties (COP14) of the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), held in November 2018 in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt. Civil society groups and other African participants at COP14 did not feel represented by the official African delegates led by Nigeria and South Africa as spokespersons due to slack corporate positions they championed during the negotiations.

Parties to the CBD had to decide between two texts that framed as follows: “Apply the precautionary principle (with regards) to gene drives,” or “apply the precautionary principle (and refrain from) releasing gene drive organisms.” The Africans opposed refraining from releasing gene drive organisms, contrary to the strong positions that informed the drafting of an African Model Law on biosafety by the African Union – then known as the Organisation for African Unity, OAU.

On November 2018, the CBD made a landmark decision calling on governments to conduct strict risk assessments and to seek indigenous and local peoples’ consent before proceeding with the potential release of the “exterminator” technology. In the words of the outcome document, the COP “Notes the conclusions of the Ad Hoc Technical Expert Group on Synthetic Biology that, given the current uncertainties regarding engineered gene drives, the free, prior and informed consent of indigenous peoples and local communities might be warranted when considering the possible release of organisms containing engineered gene drives that may impact their traditional knowledge, innovation, practices, livelihood and use of land and water.”

This is an open door for all sorts of synthetic organisms to be released or experimented on in Nigeria provided they have a trait that can be found in Nature. Virtually everything will pass such a porous test. We should be concerned because Synthetic Biology applications have direct implications for local livelihoods as they lead to replacement of natural products with synthetic ones.

This global decision on the governance of the high-risk “evolving” genetic engineering, gene drives, may not have been foreseen by the Nigerian and other pro-GMO African delegates at COP14. And so, on 11 December 2018, less than two weeks after COP14, the Nigerian House of Representatives had the first reading of the Bill for an Act to Amend the NBMA Act, 2015 “to enlarge the scope of the Application and include other evolving aspects of the applications of Modern Biotechnology in Nigeria with a view to preventing any adverse effect on Human Health and the Environment; and for Related Matters (HB1578)” as proposed by representative Obinna Chidoka. Not deterred by the outcome of COP14, a second reading of this Bill took place on 17 January 2019.

Enlarging the scope of the NBMA Act 2015 to include “other evolving aspects of the applications of Modern Biotechnology in Nigeria” is an extremely dangerous proposition that would lead to risks that will compound the ones already being posed by first generation modern biotechnology governed by the existing law. Since that Act came into force, over thirty applications have been approved by the agency in a manner suggesting they are mostly after the revenue derivable from the application fees.

In the proposed review Synthetic Biology is thus: “Synthetic biology approach in genetic engineering involves the use of re-designed existing principles of engineering molecular biology, physics, chemistry and computer science to generate a new organism with traits which does not exist in nature.”

This is an open door for all sorts of synthetic organisms to be released or experimented on in Nigeria provided they have a trait that can be found in Nature. Virtually everything will pass such a porous test. We should be concerned because synthetic biology applications have direct implications for local livelihoods as they lead to replacement of natural products with synthetic ones.

The review refers to CRISPR/CAS 9 wrongly as CRISPR/cast9 and talks of ZFM instead of ZFN.These basic missteps suggest that the promoters of these extreme technologies may not be in full grasp of what they are pushing, adding another reason for caution.

There are huge gaps in the NBMA Act 2015 – including a lack of strict liability clauses to immediate and future negative impacts of genetic engineering, as well as conflict of interests. The existing law also virtually confers discretion on public consultation on the regulatory body, a situation which is contradictory to the spirit of the COP14 decision. From our experience, NBMA pays scant attention to expert rejection of the applications it has been receiving and grants rapid-fire approvals. It is hard to imagine that the National Biosafety Management Agency (NBMA) would accept to go through a thorough and painstaking process of free, prior, full informed consent as required by the COP14 decision. No doubt, the NBMA Act, 2015, requires to be amended, but that should be  to safeguard the Nigerian people and our environment, not to place a wedge in the door for Nigerians to be used for dangerous experimentations.

Jim Thomas, co-executive director of the ETC Group explained the outcome of COP14 this way, “This important decision puts controls on gene drives using simple common-sense principles: Don’t mess with someone else’s environment, territories and rights without their consent. Gene drives are currently being pursued by powerful military and agribusiness interests and a few wealthy individuals. This UN decision puts the power back in the hands of local communities, in particular, indigenous peoples, to step on the brakes on this exterminator technology.”

A gene drive is a genetic engineering technology that aims to propagate a particular suite of genes throughout a population. With this technology a species can be engineered to produce only male offspring, thereby condemning itself to extinction. They are proposed to disrupt natural reproductive and other processes and to genetically modify specific populations and entire species. It is a technology that can drive  species to extinction. It is therefore not surprising that powerful military groups and agribusiness are the forces sponsoring this technology.

Important voices raised against these “evolving” aspects of the application of Modern Biotechnology include that of Dr. Vandana Shiva, one of the world’s best thinkers on biodiversity and biosafety,who insists that “This technology would give biotech developers an unprecedented ability to directly intervene in evolution, to dramatically modify ecosystems, or even crash a targeted species to extinction.”

Expanding the scope of the regulatory oversight of NBMA to cover “evolving” Modern Biotechnology will be a dangerous move and the National Assembly would help the Nigerian people, and indeed the African continent by not endorsing the proposal. Proponents say that Nigeria must not be left behind in the application of the new technologies, but it is essential that we question this needless aping posture or catch-up mentality. Will we aim to catch up with the gene drive or CRISPR gene-edited or designer human babies already produced in China with the aim of making them immune to HIV/AIDS?

We must not forget that given that gene drives are designed to spread through a species and across geographic regions, the environmental release of a gene drive organism has the potential to affect communities beyond the location where the release may have been authorized. The United Nations’ COP14 decision is a signal for global caution because the evolving technology has a real possibility of negatively impacting “traditional knowledge, innovation, practices, livelihood and use of land and water” of our communities.

Burkina Faso communities are currently facing the risk of having gene drive mosquitoes rained on them. Meanwhile, neigbouring communities to the target areas are not aware of what is happening next door. The movement of most living organisms are not limited by political boundaries and gene drive organisms released in Nigeria can easily migrate to neigbouring countries and beyond.

The interest of modern biotechnology merchants in Nigeria is increasing because, despite the often repeated false claims of having the best biosafety system on the continent, we are actually the weak link in the chain and the adventurers are having an easy ride through this soft underbelly towards the destruction of African agriculture and food system. It is clear to see that we may be setting ourselves up for a massive species annihilation. According to the ETC Group, “the ethical, cultural and societal implications of gene drives are as enormous as the ecological consequences.”

We call on representative Obinna Chidoka and other backers of this NBMA Amendment Bill to back off for the sake of present and future generations of Nigerians. Time will be better spent amending the NBMA Act 2015 along the lines proposed by Health of Mother Earth Foundation (HOMEF) to strengthen it and close the yawning gaps that make for wishy-washy regulation. That will be the pathway to the promised Next Level by Mr. President.

 

 

Between Truth and Falsehood

Fabulous Fake Music (or When Fake is Real).

The need to deepen the interrogation of the current tensions between truth and falsehood cannot be overemphasised. With the rise of fake news and alternative facts, reality has come to be doubted. What is real could turn out to be fake and what is true could turn out to be false. This was the thematic focus of a recent Elevate Festival held in Graz, Austria, that this writer participated in.

Strands of conversation covered music, arts and political discourse. It was at this event that I got to hear of, and experience, fake music for the first time. In the performance at the opening session of the festival, the music was jarring, arresting and unforgettable. Was this music or was it a clash of sounds, light and vocal gymnastics? This was the sort of creativity that creeps on you and leaves you wondering what you just experienced. In other sessions, participants were immersed in a clash of words, more words, concepts and yet more words. Interestingly, they were also concrete.

According to the organisers, “Elevate’ is an annual interdisciplinary festival…With its unique combination of critical political discourse and contemporary music and art, the ‘Elevate Festival’ stands out of the ‘usual’ festival circus. Amongst the guests are human rights experts, climate researchers and activists from all over the world, who gather in Graz once a year with musicians and artists, illuminating pertinent issues of our future.”

One of the highlights of my participation was a visit to a chocolate factory, Zotter Schokoladen Manufaktur, which is more than just a place for making and eating the delicious stuff. With a hands-on leadership provided by its founder, Josef Zotter, the establishment produces up to 500 varieties of chocolates and admits 270,000 visitors a year. Among the attractions on the sprawling grounds of the establishment is an Edible Zoo, restaurant and a Choco Shop Theatre. What is an edible zoo? If you are curious about this, you definitely have company. The ‘zoo’ provides the meat served in the onsite restaurant. Yes, the meat comes from the animals that roam the farm here. When visitors that visit here see the connection, they either get drawn into eating more meat or they may decide against meat.

The cocoa beans used in making chocolates here are sourced mostly from cooperatives in Ecuador, Belize and other Latin American countries. A fraction of the cocoa beans is sourced from Africa. These come from Congo DR and Madagascar. Not one cocoa bean from Nigeria. The company uses only organic cocoa beans and is strictly concerned about fair trade, good quality beans and the working conditions of the farmers and harvesters.

Back at the festival, there were important discussions on topics such as climate truth/climate lies; conspiracy theories and conspiracy facts; echo chambers and bubble breakers. Two of the conversations that grabbed my attention were the ones on the intersection or lack of it of civil society activism and politics. The second conversation was on climate refugees.

The exchange of views in the session on civil society and politics was framed around the questions: “How does progressive or ecological politics actually come about? Is it political parties and parliamentarians who have prevailed here? Or are NGOs and civil societies the ones that provide the necessary pressure? And how does the cooperation look like? Is it necessary or should too much proximity among NGOs, grassroots movements and politics be avoided?”

The lead conversation was between yours truly and Thomas Waitz, member of the Green Party of Austria and member of the European Parliament. Waitz is an organic farmer, activist and politician all rolled into one. He makes politics look so good. His positions drive home the truth that politics remains a dirty game when those that can help transform it stand aside rather than step into the fray.

While politicians tend to seek to maintain the status quo and their grip on power levers, activists tend to be more disposed to be disruptive in response to broken or iniquitous systems. The undue influence exerted by corporations force some politicians to support the pursuit of competition and exploitation rather than the building of cooperation and the common good. This has given rise to right wing politics and dominant relationships in which nations exploit other nations, then seek to wall and insulate themselves from the exploited and wounded nations.

On the other hand, civil society groups sometimes run fragmented programmes that are tailored to meet targets favoured by donors. We also see undue pressure on the youth to be apolitical, imbibe entrepreneurial spirit and expect little or nothing from the state. Self-employment and individualism are taught as the ultimate virtue. Public institutions are often encouraged to be self-financing, build watered down ethics and open themselves to privatisation. When we understand that being political is not the same as being partisan, it becomes clear why being apolitical is not an option.

The commercialisation of science is one obvious outcome of pressure of vested interests in universities around the world. This situation has sometimes pushed scientists to work for commercial or even political interests. This explains why some persons speak and act the way they do. The revolving doors between corporations, governments and research institutions continue to complicate our search for safe and just societies.

The ‘Elevate Festival’ was a space to make dreams come to life. It was a space for confrontation of ideas and the questioning of what truth and falsehood are in a world where the lines are getting increasingly blurred. One truth that stood out in my heart is that colonialism is alive and well, but often wears different clothes and bears different names.

We must understand the times

We must understand the times. It has been said that the only thing that is permanent in life is change. Understandably, humans are perpetually engaged in the struggle to make change happen. Sometimes, in a hurry to effect change, little thought is given to the direction of that change. The obstacles to be overcome may be so daunting that an opportunity to instigate a change is seized without delay and without reflection.

There are instances where the challenges are so complex that people go numb or simply become indifferent. You could call that the frog-in-the-pan syndrome – although no frog has actually remained in a pan with boiling water without leapfrogging out of the pan!

We can identify the future by looking at the past. The arts have been excellent consciences of societies. Through paintings, sculpture, poetry, fiction, prose, movies, music and others, we receive impulses for action and warnings in times of inaction. Remember songs such as Redemption Song, War and Africa Unite by Bob Marley. And how about the one by The Mandators who asked Where are the prophets? We may throw stones at artistes, disagree with them and even kill them, but their ideas and messages remain and demand to be explored.

These are interesting and challenging times. However, as in all epochs, the key to finding resolutions lies in being able to identify the critical issues of the time. In other words, understanding the time is a key challenge that must not be underrated. However, having a common understanding of what constitute these challenges is understandably difficult in complex societies such as Nigeria. This is one reason why our political terrain is so slippery and treacherous.

The ongoing electoral process in Nigeria has revealed so much that most thought had become a thing of the past in the nation. The stern warning by the president that ballot box snatching would be the last unlawful act of anyone that tried it evoked much debate, but evidently did not deter those determined to subvert the popular will. We saw and read of blatant ballot box snatching, ballot paper burning, arson, kidnappings, underage voting, thump printing and outright violence.

The announcement of election results is an interesting exercise. Taking the job of being the chief returning officer in an election in Nigeria must be like walking wide-eyed into a nightmare. And so, we must pity Professor Mahmud and all the electoral umpires. Some of us were astonished to hear that INEC officials at the collation centre in Abuja were seeing the results for the first time at the same time that citizens saw or heard of them on television. The manual transmission of results leaves much to be desired and reduces voters’ confidence in the process. This should not happen in 2023.

The fortunes of the newer parties at the polls did not come as a surprise because most of them started rather late and apparently did not have the resources to navigate the tedious and cumbersome Nigerian electoral terrain. 2019 served to bring up some new faces. It will be a shame if they go to sleep and wait to wake up in the next campaign season. This is the time for the parties to reexamine their platforms and see if they can forge alliances or merge to build greater momentum than they can build separately.

While the newer parties have a lot of reengineering to do in order to reposition themselves as forces to be reckoned with, the dominant parties equally have to seriously reexamine their platforms and modus operandi. The ruling party’s efforts at providing support for the unemployed as well as small scale entrepreneurs has been routinely criticized as avenues for waste or vote-buying. One way of understanding the criticisms is to see them as being based historical mistrust built on perceptions and the generally opaque nature of governance in the nation. Thus, the efforts would meet the same criticisms whether operated by the All Progressives Congress (APC) or by the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP). The two parties will have to campaign on clean or at least new slates at the 2023 election because they will be forced to campaign on ideas and not on personalities.

The morning is the best time to test ideals that may initially be uncommon or unpopular. Such ideals may become the norm by noon and get celebrated by evening.

How should the parties, new or old, generate the ideas and platform for the next seasons? First, let us reiterate that they must understand the times. Being devious in a crooked system may no longer work in the coming years. Nigeria has travailed for decades and  the time for the birth of a new nation is on the horizon.

Political parties and entities must have clear and distinct organizing ideas. Such ideas must have socio-economic and ecological justice at the core. The building blocks around the core would necessarily have to be on building solidarity and collective action to empower the grassroots and to disempower the oppressors. Our youths have served as the fodder for murderous conflicts and this scenario can be tackled by building them into a vanguard for transformative and collective undertakings.

Political parties will have to construct and rebuild internal democracy, develop long term visions and halt the pattern of prostituting between platforms. Indeed, one way to weed out fickle and corrupt fellows is to build a map of their shifts from one party platform to another. A person that cannot be known for particular ideals will turn out a traitor and should not be trusted. It is true that politicians thrive on short term opportunistic visions, but that cannot build enduring legacies.

If the land, waters and the air support life, citizens will enjoy enhanced health and be better positioned to carry out economically productive activities. It is time to go to work. Staying quiet is no option.

As soon as the ballots are cast, results announced and irrespective of who gets elected or not, we must pick up the pieces and rebuild the nation. There are no options here. The revealed fissures should serve as specific targets for repair or for dramatic surgical actions. The morning is the best time to test ideals that may initially be uncommon or unpopular. Such ideals may become the norm by noon and get celebrated by evening.

With Nigerians being innately enterprising and hardworking, a party could build its manifesto on protecting the integrity of our environment. If the land, waters and the air support life, citizens will enjoy enhanced health and be better positioned to carry out economically productive activities. It is time to go to work. Staying quiet is no option. Politicians never rest and citizens should be encouraged to sign up to parties, demand clear policies and aim to influence the spaces. Unengaged systems either breed autocracy or make the accommodation of mediocrity inescapable.

Eat Today, Eat Tomorrow

Eating TomorrowEat Today, Eat Tomorrow. Many of us have been advised not to talk while eating, but eating without talking is hardly ever an option. We often muse over many issues as we munch. Meal time offers a time to appreciate the culinary skills of the cook and the generosity of the person providing the meal. It can also be a time to reflect on the source of the ingredients used in preparing the meal, their modes of production and distribution. Tracing the route from the seed to the bowl can be extremely informative and often helps the eater to better appreciate the roles of the farmer in the process. While some have the luxury of ruminating on the art of food, almost a billion persons on earth go to bed hungry and are simply happy to have a meal when they can find or afford one.

The saying that we are what we eat underscores our responsibility to ensure that we eat healthy. We cannot wish to eat healthy if we do not devote time to examine the political economics of food, including ownership of seeds and access to land. We cannot ignore the players behind the processes by which seeds are cultivated in particular communities, nations or regions and the related farming inputs that go with such seeds and farming methods.

A book that should be a required read for public policy makers related to seeds, farming and food as well as farmers and consumers has just been published. That book is titled Eating Tomorrow: Agribusiness, Family Farmers, and the Battle for the Future of Food. It was released on February 5, 2019 and is written by Timothy A. Wise. The author, Wise is a senior researcher at the Small Planet Institute, where he directs the Land and Food Rights Programme. Wise is a senior research fellow at Tufts University’s Global Development and Environment Institute.

Eating Tomorrow is a book with three major sections. The first part speaks of Africa and the new Colonialism while the second part deals with what the author calls The Roots of Our Problems. The third section looks at trade regimes and how our Right to Food is being traded away. Reading the book has been quite a journey for me. The book is highly accessible and drips with wisdom and high-quality information. Raj Patel’s foreword to the book does not leave any reader in doubt about the seriousness of the matter under consideration. He states plainly in his opening lines, “More people are hungry today than yesterday. For the first time in a generation, global hunger is increasing. It’s not just the absolute number of malnourished people on the rise. The percentage of humans facing food shortages is climbing too.”

Patel goes on to add, “Industrial agriculture is an engine for the exploitation of humans and the web of life.” He also added, “If you want to invent pandemic disease, you couldn’t imagine a better laboratory than the hells of concentrated animal feeding operations, in which the constant drip of antibiotics creates a perfect breeding ground for the next deadly swine or bird flu. Along the food production line, workers in the food chain are treated as brutally as the product they butcher. And a complex web of social and ecological subsidies allows the system to produce food that appears as a bargain but is increasingly likely to contribute to chronic disease and ecological destruction.”

Wise and Patel underscore the fact that policy should be people driven. A person’s stand with regard to the health of the planet and people greatly influences the manner of interpretation and analyses of complex situations. And here we should say that those promoting modern biotechnology are welcome to promote their pet projects, but characterizing those opposed to these risky experimentations as “enemies of the state” is nothing but hate speech and is highly unbecoming of anyone wearing the toga of a scientist. Autocratic force-feeding of citizens with genetically modified foods just because the outcome of laboratory experiments validates a hypothesis is actually opposite to patriotism.

Wise is not shy of taking clear positions on the food and farming debate. Writing from research experience from the field, he quotes small scale farmers referring to “Climate-Smart Agriculture” as “Climate-Stupid Agriculture”. The fact presented is that farmers have developed climate adaptation strategies including intercropping, soil improvements and drought resistant varieties. Getting farmers to abandon the seeds that ensure diversity and soil building for chemical and artificial inputs, open the farmers to vagaries of often manipulated market forces. He notes that the high use of insecticides and herbicides end up literally leaving soils lifeless.

Besides examples from Asia, Latin America and North America, much of the book focuses on Africa and provides plenty of food for thought for our governments. He reminds us that the food crisis of 2008 was triggered by the massive diversion of food and land into biofuel production and the surge of speculative capital rather than on scarcity. In Nigeria, indeed in Africa as a whole, we are constantly being fed with the neo-Malthusian fear of humungous rise in population and fears of scarcity – the very hooks used by predatory agribusiness and supporting governments to dispossess poor farmers of their lands and force them into becoming farmhands or sharecroppers.

Wise gives examples of massive land grabs on the continent that failed either due to popular resistance or due to the wrong headedness of the schemes. Examples include the ProSavana project driven by Brazilian and Japanese investors, that sought to grab up to 10 million hectares of fertile lands in Mozambique and the spectacular failure of jatropha as a miracle biofuel crop in Africa.

African governments accepted the notion that jatropha and other crops were needed to build a green OPEC in Africa as proposed in 2006 by then president of Senegal, Abdoulaye Wade. It was said to grow on marginal lands and since the fruits or seeds were not edible they would not compete with food crops. But jatropha planted on marginal soils only yielded marginal returns. Proponents of jatropha ended up grabbing massive land areas and this was accompanied by degradation of agricultural lands, in Swaziland, Mozambique and Tanzania. After the failure of the experiments, we hardly hear of jatropha being touted as the miracle biofuel crop. Silently, the crop has returned to its veritable use as a hedge crop and as a marker of the graves of those who died far from home as is the case with the nomadic Nyaburu people of Tanzania.

Eating Tomorrow reveals how government policies are often based on pressure from transnational seed and inputs companies as well as politically powerful nations bent on dumping surpluses from their own farming outputs. We also read about the place of Bill Gates and Rockefeller funded Alliance for a Green revolution in Africa (AGRA) and the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition launched in 2012. The architecture of the Alliance is that “Donors would provide aid; private companies like Cargill, Yara, Monsanto, and DuPont would make a non-binding promise to invest and participating African governments would commit to reforming their national laws and regulatory systems to ‘enable the business of agriculture.’”

Wise reports on the resilience of indigenous crop varieties in Malawi, Zambia, and Mozambique and how externally driven policies have been very harmful to farmers and farming, forcing poor farmers to buy seeds each year and only benefiting international agribusinesses and other speculators. Monoculture cropping, in the words of Wise “produces monoculture diet deficient in many basic nutrients.”

The scope of this column does not allow us do a comprehensive review of this all-important book, and we will probably return to it in the future. Eating Tomorrow is a book that goes beyond diagnosing problems and offers real solutions. It fittingly closes by stressing that we all have the right to eat safe and healthy food and that we should not be content with only eating today but also work to ensure that we eat tomorrow. This is the crux of the struggle for food sovereignty and against the wholesale adoption of policies and practices built around aid, philanthropy or trade relations.

 

In Pursuit of Our Collective Wellbeing

Transparent green ballot box, vote for the Earth

credit: future pics

Voting for Our Collective Wellbeing . As the polls open tomorrow, Nigerians are faced with hard choices. These challenges include deciding whether to vote on the basis of political party affiliations, or to vote on the basis of the perceived standing of individual contestants. We watched the signing of the peace agreement with interest. The pledges made imply readiness to ensure decent voting and acceptance of results of the polls without recourse to violence. It was interesting to see the number of presidential candidates that stood up and moved to the podium when they were called up. The moderator of the event had to keep announcing that only candidates were called up to sign the agreement and not their aides. The crowd of dozens of candidates would make you think that party members were climbing a campaign platform.

This unfolding election cycle indicates that it is time for more new contestants to step up for the highest offices in the land. At present, most of the candidates and parties could not be distinguished from one another on the basis of differences in political programmes and leadership ideas as only a few brought up ideas that are outside the dominant and hugely discredited neo-liberal mould. By the time the polls are over and victories and defeats are accepted by the candidates, the issue will be whether the generality of people will be happy with the choices they made and if they would continue to endure the recycling of failed promises and the politics of personal charisma instead of one set around organising ideas with potential to build a viable and alternative socio-economy system.

Each election season provides the nation with an opportunity to choose the pathway to a preferred future. If the choices made are not based on a vision for tomorrow, then the exercise becomes a wasted opportunity. This is truer for the youths than for those in the twilight of their days as it is the youths that would have to live in the evolving future. Happily, the young ones are stepping up.

At the global level, we see children and youths stepping forward to denounce the way politicians are toying with their future. This is clearly illustrated by the Climate Strikeinspired by the young Swedish climate activist, Greta Thunberg. The call for climate action has found support from many quarters including from 224 academics who issued a statementstating “We the undersigned academics, stand in solidarity with the children going on school climate strike on 15 February, and with all those taking a stand for the future of the planet.”

Most of the candidates presenting themselves at the polls in this election season have paid little attention to climate change or other environmental concerns, even though these pose dire existential threats to the peoples. Promises of employment cannot be realised in a dead environment. As labour unions insist, there are no jobs in a dead planet. At the community level, we see clearly that there is neither life nor livelihoods in dead environments. And, no votes, except imagined and concocted ones.

Promises of privatisations and the increase of ease of doing business largely translate to preparing the grounds for intensified trashing of the environment and roughshod over the interests of the people. Touting a rising Gross Domestic Product (GDP) as a sign of economic health ignores the fact that the GDP does not measure the wellbeing of the people or nation, but probably is a measure of a nation’s Gross Domestic Problemas Lorenzo Fioramonti – the academic turned politician – referred to it  in his outstanding book of that title. The GDP as an economic measure has had its day and should duly be retired.

As Nigerians go to the polls we cannot avoid reflecting on the future of the nation and ask questions as to what we must fundamentally change to take us to a future that affirms that “the labour of our heroes past shall not be in vain.” How have we arrived at where we are today and where are we headed?

We need to begin to build systems that recognise the interconnectedness of local as well as global conditions which threaten our common humanity while consciously working towards overturning such conditions. Irrespective of whether the young or old guards get elected at the current polls, the process to make this happen should be the concern of the youths in preparation for the 2023 polls. There is not a moment to waste. The deconstruction of an undesirable present and the construction of a preferred future must begin now.

Youths have  unique tools and abilities to organise and these must be turned into political advantage. And, when brilliant politically engaged youths speak, any characterisation of the enunciation of their ideas as motivational speeches must be confronted and denounced. In fact, being motivational should be a virtue and not something to be denigrated. Nigeria needs leaders that can motivate the people for positive action rather than getting sucked into a cycle of immoral political behaviour.

The starting blocks towards effective political engagement will require the building of solid political communities that recognise the vital necessity of collective decisions and actions as means of bringing about the needed socio-ecological transformation. It is such a transformation, evolved through practice, that would build a wellbeing economy in contrast to the current system of competition and incomprehensible accumulation of resources for personal rather than for the common good.

world map shaped smoke rise form factory chimneyWe need a system in which the state of our nation is measured by indicators that reflect the reality and quality of life of our peoples; one that recognises the root causes of the poverty in the midst of plenty, and that is willing to challenge and work to eliminate such conditions. By her geopolitical position, Nigeria owes Africa a duty of providing thoughtful leadership. It will be a missed opportunity if by the next election season, the brilliance of the youths is obscured or placed under the table and the ideas that would challenge the continued marginalisation of our people through ecological degradation and social disruptions are not taken up and pursued. The youths hold the key in this pursuit.