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

What’s Wrong with our Food System?

One of the most important lessons of the COVID-19 pandemic is that life is best preserved when beings live in deference to one other. When species are not displaced from their habitats and when humans are not denied their rights to shelter, food and dignity. Lessons learned in the past one year must include that the quality of our food is key to the assurance of not just our health, but also our socio-economic wellbeing. It has been a time when those that have not touched the soil to plant a seed must be ashamed of their negligence and lack of care about where food comes from.

The restrictions and safety protocols that are part of the response to COVID-19 have included some that have hampered the productivity of our farmers. Think of farmers that could not access their farms or those that had no access to farming inputs. And do not forget the fishers who suffered from the same complications. And the herders too, except for those who camp in forests and whose jobs are only tangentially related to being cowboys. We salute our farmers for their solid adaptive capacities.

Policies with provisions guiding farming and food in our nation have generally not been the most progressive. While the colonial and immediate post-colonial era laid more emphasis on cash cropping for export, the current situation was birthed by two factors: the structural adjustment conditionalities of international financial institutions and the corruption that dependence on income from petroleum resources planted in the nation.

One would expect a nation, nay continent, that has been so dastardly exploited to demand for reparations by way of colonial, ecological or climate debt, but no, our leaders still kowtow to the same temples of exploitation, plead for more loans and sink deeper into the mire of hopeless debt.

The truth that small scale farmers are the ones feeding the world and cooling the planet cannot be over emphasized. The fact that the future of food (for humankind) lies in their hands was a key outcome of a multilateral study titled Agriculture at a Crossroads issued by the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development

(IAASTD). Today, nations under the pressure of big agribusiness keep a wilfully blind eye to this fact and ignore our small-scale farmers to our collective detriment. The dominant official doctrine is that only industrial agriculture, another name for plantation or colonial agriculture, can feed the world. Rather than promote technologies and innovations that would support and upscale the agroecological techniques employed by our farmers public structures are busy promoting the very systems that entrust power into the hands of a handful of big agribusinesses and philanthrocapitalists. This has spawned a system where concerns about safety, sustainability and ethical implications are discarded by the preaching of a catechism that insists only safe GMOs are permitted in Nigeria without telling the people which harmful GMOs have been rejected. This has built a system where our farmers are hooked on chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides that are known to harm soils and overall biodiversity on our farms.

Concerning the support for small-scale farmers, we are impressed by the announcement by the Federal Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development that it has commenced the training of 1,110 extension agents in 36 states, including the Federal Capital Territory (FCT). The FAO gives the minimum ration of extension officers to farmers as 1:1000. Sadly, the ratio in Nigeria is about one extension officer to 10,000. Sabo Nanono, the minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, was right when he reportedly said that delivery of agricultural extension is the driver to having practical application of the products of agricultural research.

Recently the National Assembly passed the Plant Variety Protection Bill (2019) by which a Plant Variety Protection Office will be set up in the National Agricultural Seeds Council. According to reports, the Bill was promoted by actorsincluding the Agricultural Transformation in Africa (PIATA), Alliance for the Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), the Rockefeller Foundation, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and USAID.

The Bill’s explanatory memorandum states that it “seeks for the protection of Plant Varieties, to establish a Plant Variety Protection Office for the promotion of increased staple crop productivity for small holder farmers in Nigeria.” This claim is contestable seeing that the Bill actually seeks exclusive rights of investors or inventors to commercialise seeds and other propagating materials as a means of incentivising investments form national and multinational companies. Exclusive rights is another name for patenting. We are totally opposed to the patenting of life. Patenting of life forms is the turf of genetic engineering corporations and the key promoters of the law are all deeply steeped in that sector.

The point is that small scale farmers who actually feed our people are extremely disadvantaged when it comes to supports for food production by a lack of incentives and including by having an abysmal extension agent to farmer ratio. As if that was not bad enough, we now have a Plant Variety Protection bill that does not seek to protect local farmers managed seeds but places seeds firmly in the hands of speculators and promoters of varieties that may erode our biodiversity. 

We strongly believe that this is the time when government should invest massively in supports for small scale farmers by closing the ratio of available extension agents, promoting local seeds varieties, providing storage and processing facilities across the nation, supporting farmers cooperatives and providing infrastructure for ensuring that harvests get to the markets and small-scale farmers earn a decent income from their labour. These are some of the scaffolds for building a food and agricultural system that produces safe, nutritious and culturally appropriate foods for our peoples.

Welcome words by Nnimmo Bassey at HOMEF’s Dialogue with stakeholders on Food System and Food Policy on 24 March 2021 at Abuja, Nigeria

An Eye on Biosafety

The natural world is a resilient world. A major way by which this resilience is built and preserved is through diversity. Diversity raises the chances of survival of species if a part of the group is attacked or altered by some freak incidents. Diversity within species sometimes enhance multiple usage due to their colour, texture, smell and taste. For example, there are about 50 maize varieties in the world today, but the most common are the white or yellow ones. Today a number of these varieties are genetically modified to either tolerate certain herbicides or to produce toxins that kill off some pests.

The business of genetic engineering is just that: business. Promoters target staple crops or varieties with wide industrial usage in a bid to take control of markets and food systems. Since the advent of the first wave of modern agricultural biotechnology the promises of this technology have been that they would end hunger, increase yield, reduce chemical inputs and so on. More than two decades on, these claims remain myths.

What has not been mythical concerning the technology is the fact that it has been pushed relentlessly byphilanthrocapitalists and related business speculators. The narratives that keep the risky and failed technology alive is mostly fetish. People tend to think that technology can solve every problem. More importantly, the push is empowered by neocolonialism and control. Willing warrant chiefs get elevated and integrated into systems where they have ready access to beads, whiskies and gunpowder. 

Failure is wished away and risks and rejected. Two examples. First is that it was in the same year that genetically modified cotton (Bt. Cotton) failed spectacularly in Burkina Faso that Nigeria approved the same variety for release in the country. That permit was issued on a public holiday that also happened to be a Sunday (1 May 2016). By December 2019 the National Biosafety Management Agency had issued 13 permits for various types of GMOs. 

When the president of Uganda insisted that that country’s GMO law must have strict liability clauses, the promoters of the technology accused him of attempting to stifle science. In other words, Africans should be guinea pigs and accept to be used for experimentations with no one taking responsibility over possible mishaps. The Nigerian law does not have strict liability clauses.

The process of subjugation of our agriculture and food systems to corporate interests goes on in various tracks. GMO food products flood our markets without much regulation. HOMEF conducts annual market shelves surveys and finds GMO products in shops and markets across the nation. Most are brought in without any form of authorization by the relevant agency, beyond the NAFDAC numbers on them. 

There was an interesting case of a seizure of over $9m worth of genetically modified maize imported by WACOT from Argentina. After much theatre orchestrated by the NBMA, the Nigeria Customs, the NASS and the Federal Executive Council, the seized maize were ordered to be sent back as they were imported without approval. Within weeks, the importer applied for a permit to import genetically modified maize and was granted a three years license to import GM maize at will.   

Here is how the NBMA explained their about-turn on this matter:

‘NBMA confirmed that WACOT imported GMO maize in December 2017 and explained that it was after the firm had applied and met all regulatory conditions necessary for approval as prescribed by NBMA, which the firm was unable to do at the time its goods were not allowed entry into Nigeria. ‘’The Agency issued some permits and due processes were followed in the course of reviewing the applications and ensuring that all the necessary requirements are met before the permits were granted,’’ she stated.’ The agency also accused HOMEF of making unpatriotic comments concerning the WACOT matter.

The second wave of GMOs have since been released in the world without much regulatory restraints. These are of the gene drive types and already find application in manufacturing. They have been called extinction technologies as they have the capacity of wiping out targeted species within a few generations. An experiment towards wiping out anopheles mosquitoes in Burkina Faso is being attempted. Nigeria is a whistle away with the amendment of the NBMA Act to include gene drives and synthetic biology!

Researchers believe that the new GMOs have the potential to transform our natural world and even how humans relate to it. According to Friends of the Earth USA, “Gene drives force a genetically engineered trait to be expressed in every single generation, driving engineered traits through an entire species to permanently change it or cause it to go extinct.” Needless to say that this technology poses a threat to human safety as they can easily be weaponized or even used to trigger a pandemic.

Welcome words at HOMEF’s Biosafety Roundtable held on 24.11.2020 in Abuja


The Colour Blue is not the Problem with the Blue Economy

The color blue is not the problem with the blue economy. We often hear that sustainable development stands on three legs of social equity, economic viability and environmental protection. The intersection of these three leads to sustainability.  The challenge is that these three are rarely given equal consideration when actions are being taken. A careful consideration of the impacts of alterations or transformations in the environment leads to less degradation and ensures less destruction of habitats. Economic measures aimed at profit accumulation will ride on the exploitation of nature and labour to the detriment of the environment. Measures taken will dress business as usual in the garbs of technological advancement and innovative ideas. Where social inclusion in decision making and implementation is not a cardinal consideration, unethical and immoral decisions may be the outcome. Such decisions may cause divisions in society, entrench inequalities and promote racism and xenophobia. These are issues we have to keep at the back of our minds as we continue.

The world has been engulfed in crises arising from turmoil in the social, economic and environmental spheres. The climate crisis is one of the most challenging problems of our age. Analysts agree that the crisis is a result of a deeply flawed economic model that sees nature as an inexhaustible source of materials including the non-renewable ones like coal, oil and gas. This mindset has led to massive deforestation, and monoculture agriculture leading to nutritional deficiencies. It has generally encouraged over consumption, wastage and the driving of species to extinction. It goes without saying that of the three legs of sustainability, it is the economic one that takes precedent, creates the problems and is at the same time presented as the solution. Some of the economic bandages applied to the multiple crises engulfing the world include the Green Economy and the Blue Economy. If we are not careful the Green New Deal may end up being another of these.

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) proposed a response in the form of a Global Green New Deal (GGND) aimed at using the multiple-crises as an opportunity for transformation through placing green investment at the core of stimulus packages, including green investment in regular government budgets and creating public-private green investment funding mechanisms. It also proposed the provision of domestic enabling conditions (fiscal/pricing policy, standards, education and training and global enabling conditions covering trade, intellectual; property rights, overseas development aid, technology transfer and environmental agreements.

UNEP sees the Green Economy as the “process of reconfiguring businesses and infrastructure to deliver better returns on natural, human and economic capital investments, while at the same time reducing greenhouse gas emissions, extracting and using less natural resources, creating less waste and reducing social disparities.” This statement reinforces the exploitative business as usual model that is driving the world towards the precipice. The Green Economy hinges on the commodification of nature.

Applying the mercantilist notion of the Green Economy to the seas, rivers and other water bodies will further erode the seeing of the gifts of nature as things that should be protected, preserved and nurtured from an intergenerational perspective.  This is imperative because over 200 million Africans draw their nutrition from freshwater and ocean fish and over 10 million depend on them for income.

Africa literally floats on water. She is surrounded by water. The Blue Economy covers the use of aquatic species, including those found in the creeks, rivers, lakes, oceans and underground water. It covers fisheries, tourism, transport, energy, bioprospecting, marine biotechnology and underwater mining. These will clearly have serious negative impacts on the integrity of our aquatic ecosystems. 

An African Union official sees the Blue Economy as “Africa’s hidden treasure” and declared that the “potential of oceans, lakes and rivers is unlimited.” He further added that the Blue Economy would move Africa “from an economy of harvests from limited resources to an economy of harvesting unlimited resources if we organize ourselves well. With the exploitation of resources come also sustainable financial means. But to approach this revolution we must completely change our perspective.” This vision raises a lot of red flags. Firstly, there is nothing that is limitless on a finite or limited planet. This idea of unlimited resources is what has gotten us into the current ruinous state, at national as well as global levels. 

We must understand that the Blue Economy is about the exploitation of water bodies. Just like land grabbing is raging across Africa, the Blue Economy will unleash an exacerbated sea grab on the continent. Already, marine resources on our continental shelf are being mindlessly plundered and trashed. The Blue Economy will solidify this trend. Maritime insecurity will intensify, and our artisanal fishers will be at great risk. Deep sea mining will increase the pollution of our water bodies. It is speculated that marine biotechnology can bring Africa up to $5.9 billion by 2022, but in a continent with very lax biosafety regulations this will mean reckless exploitation, contamination of local species and exposure to more risks and harms.

We conclude by iterating that the Blue Economy portends great danger for Africa. Besides the illogic of limitless aquatic resources, the economic template could open our oceans for risky geoengineering experimentations ostensibly to flight global warming. What we need is not cosmetic programmes that lock in the current ruinous track but a completely overhauled economic system built on the picture of a future that is truly socially inclusive, environmentally sustainable and economically just. These are just a few red flags on the Blue Economy.

 

Welcome words at the School of Ecology session on Blue Economy Blues. 10.09.2020


Welcome to the Age of Paradox

Drink

Welcome to the age of paradox
Baskets over our mouths
Masks on forlorn faces we march incognito
Hopes bloom, blossom but long awaited fruits wither
In storms and ambush at corners behind rusty barometers and wind vanes
Shouts for help blocked by impregnable social distancing
Walled national borders stand silly policed by benumbed sentinels
While viruses float over visa-less air
Naval armadas boast ballistic missiles yet sailors are locked in by unseen enemies
A cough, a shiver raises dusts and … a hail of demonic pans in a pan…demic
This virus floats in the air, slithers on shinny steel and grainy boards
Yet as our fingers hover and minds flutter
No one says for how long the devious virus lives on keyboards
Welcome to the age of paradox

Welcome to the age of paradox
Where were we when the birds chirped the message and
Lizards nodded in prodigious assent
Bellies bulging in agreement and receding in doubt?
Yet in a maddening non-choleric season
We accumulate shit papers rolled in watery dreams
Herd mentality entrenched by fear of the known
Politicians turn conductors of tragic orchestras belting out an unending dirge
Bust social safety nets torn by goodwill
Trillions were thrown on rusty guns, grenades and jammed hardware
Billions doled to imaginary poorest of the poor that none could sight no matter where you look
Pandemic of corruption erupts in millions of innovative streaks
Welcome to the age of paradox

Welcome to the age of paradox
Since accumulation remains the creed even in a season of death
Today we wonder if home is where the heart is
Why the restless feet sliding from locked door to locked door
Seeking a break to jump into the brutish
Embrace of brutes in jackboots who had forgotten their heart at loveless homes
Licensed to roam the streets and threaten daughters, mothers and wives with poisoned arrows beneath their belts
In the gloom and the doom
The rich and power brokers once proud of being peripatetic now deny their vagabond history
But all end at the same dilapidated rat infested gates
Of illness clinics they refused to fund
Welcome to the age of paradox  

Welcome to the age of paradox
No search warrants, no docks, no pleadings to their lordships
No judgements, yet the world is sentenced
Locked down, locked in, locked up
Terror as running noses paralyze motion
And a mere sneeze shames star olympians
Locked down, locked in, locked up, locked out
We attend parties of the mind and throw banters in the air
Spiders spin intricate webs beneath swivel chairs
And workers speak keyboard to keyboard
Minds sanitized, shut eyes opened with
Hands trapped under running water from long dried faucets
Welcome to the age of paradox

Welcome to the age of paradox
Emptied of corona-virus bats now sleep by night
Men loaded down wheeze and doze in the crack between day and the night
But if bats birthed the pain why are men still bent on stealing their homes?
Habitats vanish, species go extinct, yet 10 humans are trapped in 3 X 3m boxes!
What if Coronavirus  is your Frankenstein or the genie that escaped the cork?
Hidden amazements torment our hearts
As these our relatives evicted from their homes
Seek habitations and knocked on our doors
Cashless society starves while cash gets stoked in billionaires’ bottomless pockets
Gate keepers shout the world’s population must be cut by 15 per cent
Way to knock off the stats that their wealth equals that of the rest of the world
Why don’t the rich line their golden necks on the slaughter slab
Or be the first to be vaccinated against the virus of greed?
Welcome to the age of paradox

 

this poem first published at https://www.fes.de/referat-afrika/neugikeiten-referat-afrika/the-age-of-paradox

The Virus Will Not Change Anything We Won’t Change

24F6F9CF-069E-41E4-AA98-CDC61885D841A key fact we have to face is that the coronavirus will not change anything we won’t change. The change that will frame the post pandemic era will come from humans, our relationship with each other and with Nature. The push for change will inevitably revolve around our interpretation of what is happening around us.

There were tales of woe as hapless citizens got trapped at the land border between Bayelsa State and Rivers State in Nigeria. They were not trapped because the bridge straddling the Orashi River had collapsed but because the State Governments had shut off the states from the rest of Nigeria in a bid to halt the penetration of coronavirus. The scenario played out at other border communities and may get messier as interstate travel is halted across Nigeria.

One media report informed that “following the enforcement order on border closure in Delta State, hundreds of travellers in and out of the state were stranded at the Asaba and Onitsha ends of the River Niger bridge. Similarly, commuters and travellers were reportedly barred at Agbor, Koko junction and Patani borders from entering or leaving the state. Heavy duty trucks, buses and cars stretched over two kilometres on the busy Onitsha-Benin expressway as they were stopped by security agents from entering or leaving the state.”

With Lagos, Ogun State and the Federal Capital Territory (Abuja) entering a total lockdown and Ekiti State capping their restriction of movements with a curfew, the situation requires that we examine if these measures on their own can stem the tide of the pandemic. Shutting down the borders of states in the Niger Delta may well be a futile exercise considering the fact that some of them can be easily accessed by boats from different directions. In fact, the only points at which enforcement of shut-ins, or even shut ups, can be enforced would be at places where oil and gas pipelines cross the creeks or rivers. Such points are manned by the military and other security forces who exert virtually all their energy on securing pipelines and intimidating the locals.

Many commentators have made the point that total lockdowns in societies with a high proportion of citizens subsisting in the informal economic sector could be suicidal. We are talking of about 70 percent of Nigerians doing informal work and earning incomes on the go and often going for days with nothing coming in. The 70 per cent we refer to gives us an idea of the size of the problem, irrespective of what bogus population (200 million) figure the nation bandies about – at the behest of international financial institutions and other manipulators of economic and political indices.

This is no time to panic. The pandemic is exposing the depth of inequalities in our society, including by showing who gets access to being tested and who has no possibility of being tested and who dies without even being noted in the statistics. Now is the time for citizens to be many steps ahead of panicky governments.  

Although these compatriots are the ones driving the country’s economy, providing services for the middle class and the affluent, they hardly enjoy significant official services. They are the ones whose children attend public schools where learning is often under shade trees or on broken floors.  They are the ones whose informal settlements are brutally destroyed or simply walled off as recently happened to residents of Monkey Village in Lagos. They are the ones who sleep under the bridges or in uncompleted buildings and yet wake up every day working to keep the wheels of the economy moving. They are the ones readily sacrificed without any compunction.

Similar situations are playing out in other nations, notably India where millions of citizens are embarking on treks over hundreds of kilometres as they struggle to get back to their villages. These citizens, characterised as migrant workers although they never left the borders of their country, are heading to their home villages because, as is the case in Nigeria, that is where they are sure of social and economic support from the traditional systems.

This pandemic is a multi-faceted disaster, no doubt. However, disasters and emergencies have provided the cover for the powerful to dispossess the poor of their lands, farms, rivers, creeks and other resources. Responses to the pandemic may not (yet) generate physical dispossessions, but they are already propelling finances from the public purse into the wallets of corporations and their chief executive officers. Megalomaniacs in power will see opportunities to assume unbridled power and by so doing shake what remains of the slim spaces for public participation in governance.

This is no time to panic. The pandemic is exposing the depth of inequalities in our society, including by showing who gets access to being tested and who has no possibility of being tested and who dies without even being noted in the statistics. Now is the time for citizens to be many steps ahead of panicky governments.

Despite the challenges of collapsing state structures and economies, this is no time to panic. It is time to think and overcome the miseries fabricated by the system. It is time to organise, even if we are physically isolated.  As an activist reminded me recently, the virus will not change anything that we the people won’t change.

It is time to reflect on how to push for systemic changes to steer away from the pathways that led the world into the present cul de sac. It is time to forge new ways of organizing and bridging distances created by geographic separations. Already humans are forced to forego the luxuries and material things they thought they could not do without. This is what ought to be done without waiting for a virus to force us into line. We have to halt over-consumption and the rabid assault of our ecosystems. We have to rethink wellbeing and our relationship with Nature. It is time to halt warfare, including the use of biological weapons. We all deserve a breath of fresh air and should already be fashioning a positive post coronavirus era that is free of fossil fuels.

Not all borders are marked and closing marked and manned borders will obviously not end the pandemic. The brutalization of citizens and destruction of goods and foods in the name of enforcing regulations will only increase the pains of already helpless citizens. Security task forces may harass and hound citizens who break curfews or lockdowns, but the virus moves both by day and by night. Coronavirus respects no curfew or borders.

Despite the challenges of collapsing state structures and economies, this is no time to panic. It is time to think and overcome the miseries fabricated by the system. It is time to organise, even if we are physically isolated.  As an activist reminded me recently, the virus will not change anything that we the people won’t change.

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?

AGRA isn’t the Face of Agriculture

The announcement of the nomination of the President of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), Agnes Kalibata, as the Special Envoy of the UN Secretary-General to the 2021 UN Food Summit is very troubling. It is not a shock because of the person of Kalibata but because of her connection to AGRA. It is a shock because AGRA stands in stark contradistinction to some fundamental positions of UN agencies such as the FAO.

The FAO leans towards the promotion of agricultural systems that are in harmony with Nature as opposed to systems that erode biodiversity and force farmers to depend on artificial and chemical inputs. For example, the FAO launched an initiative to scale up Agroecology as a key pathway of supporting the SDGs.

An important International Symposium on Agroecology organized by the FAO in 2014 was attended by six UN organisations, 700 participants from 72 countries and 350 civil society organizations and NGOs. The symposium considered diverse ways by which Agroecology can be enhanced around the world to contribute to realizing the SDGs. The benefits of agroecology were pointed out as including food security and nutrition, resilience, promoting health, protecting biodiversity and soil fertility, and mitigating climate change. During the symposium, the FAO Director-General Graziano da Silva noted that it strengthens “the role of family and small-scale farmers, fisher folk, pastoralists, women and youth.” At the end of the symposium the participants endorsed the launch of the Scaling up Agroecology Initiative and demanded that FAO should develop a ten-year plan for implementation.

After over 10 years of the existence of AGRA, it is hard to find any evidence that a so-called green revolution is happening in Africa.  According to Timothy Wise, “AGRA’s stated goals are to double yields and incomes for 30 million farming households by 2020. Despite millions of dollars spent by AGRA since 2006, few comprehensive evaluations of AGRA have been made available. An additional USD 30 billion was recently pledged at the African Green Revolution Forum to continue AGRA’s work and help launch the organization’s new strategic vision, without a clear understanding of how effective AGRA has been in increasing agricultural productivity and adoption of green revolution technologies and reducing poverty and malnutrition in the countries over the past decade.”

Critics see AGRA as a body that uses all the right language in framing its work as supporting small scale farmers whereas the reality is that its approaches promote the strategies of big business and the promoters of genetic engineering. AGRA has not categorically denied leaning on genetic engineering but like the International Institute for Tropical Agriculture (IITA) they would claim that they don’t rule out technologies. This is duplicity of focus – posing as a supporter of small-scale farmers working with Nature while in reality working with systems that fight Nature and undercut the resilience of local ecosystems.

This is why the elevation of the President of AGRA to be the Special Envoy of the Secretary-General of the UN to the UN Food Summit is a loud endorsement of genetic engineering in agriculture and is highly worrisome. The move is rightly seen as a route to “hijacking the agenda and silencing the voices of African farmers and environmentalists while catering to the profits of agri-business.”

Unfortunately, big capital, such as that wielded by Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the parents of AGRA, has shut the ears and hearts and governments from paying attention to the people. They promote agri-business, negate local knowledge and food systems, and promote systems that are ultimately inimical to the best needs of local farmers.

We are convinced that the UN Secretary-General can better be represented by persons that would promote Agroecology and systems that would protect global biodiversity, tackle hunger and fight global warming.

At this point in time, a Special Envoy should be someone that would clearly show support for the implementation of the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD). The findings of IAASTD were captured in the report (2008) titled Agriculture at the Crossroads. The report clearly showed that the future of food supply in the world will depend on the production from small-scale farmers as opposed to industrial agriculture and those applying genetically engineered organisms (GMOs).

A special envoy of the UN Secretary-General should be someone who would demand that African governments implement the decision of The African Union’s (AU) Maputo Declaration, better known as CAADP. That Declaration was officially adopted by member states in 2003 with the requirement that each country should allocate at least 10% of their annual budgets to agriculture by 2015. Only a handful African countries have met this target with the continental average standing at about 5%.

AGRA is not the face of agriculture in Africa and cannot speak in our name or represent us in any way.