Bitten by Genetically Modified Gnats

540AB3D7-FB76-4690-8CE4-6FB3F3D8CB50I would rather not be Bitten by Genetically Modified Gnats. No doubt science has meant advancement in many areas and has helped in the fight to overcome many problems. Science has also been the cause of many problems, some of which may prove to be almost intractable. The major problem is that science does not only tackle known problems, it can create new ones. It can also affect our minds and can become a religion. When folks develop the mindset that every problem has a technological solution, that elevates technofixes to becoming religious fix.

The trouble is that simple solutions to complex problems get ignored on the altar of profit, control and exploitation. A case in point is the needless pursuit of genetically modified mosquitoes to address the malaria problem. The fact that malaria kills thousands every year, and that Africa remains disproportionately exposed to this malaise, does not in any way mean that the less invasive solutions are inadequate or useless. Statements such as the one recently made by Abdoulaye Diabate who works with Target Malaria that “The conventional tools that we have at our disposal today have reached their limit,” underscores the tunnel vision of divers of extreme technofixes.

Target Malaria is running an experiment in Burkina Faso and have released 5,000 genetically modified male mosquitoes into Souroukoudinga, a village in western Burkina Faso as a precursor to the release of gene drive mosquitoes that aims to eliminate an entire species of anopheles mosquitoes. The project is being pursued by Target Malaria with funding from Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Open Philantropy Project and the US Military. That experiment is throttling ahead despite the fact that as a major issue, prior informed consent has not been gotten in the territory that will potentially be impacted by these genetically modified mosquitoes. A documentary, A Question of Consent: Exterminator Mosquitoes in Burkina Faso, produced by the ETC Group exposes the falsehood of claims that there have been adequate consultation and prior informed consent. The matter of free, prior and informed consent cannot be toyed with.

A meeting in 2018, the United Nations Convention on Biodiversity (CBD) set stringent conditions for the environmental release of gene drive organisms. These conditions require that “the ‘free, prior and informed consent’ or ‘approval and involvement’ of potentially affected indigenous peoples and local communities is sought or obtained” before any release of gene drive organisms.

Of concern here is that the National Biosafety Management Agency Act of 2015 has been enlarged to include definitions of gene drives, synthetic biology and other emerging technologies by the National Assembly and signed into law by the president. Ordinarily one would not be concerned by having expanded definitions in any law as that could be a good thing. However, in a system rigged against public opinion and the concerns of citizens, this is a crack in the door through which trouble can either creep or even swagger in. It can be a grave danger to grant authority on regulation of these largely unproven technologies to an agency that is an authority unto itself and operates with scant oversight or accountability.

Sadly, some parts of the world, including ours, have become dumping grounds for obsolete equipments and products. Toxic pesticides such as DDT can still be found in some places. In the USA, thousands of lawsuits are being waged against glyphosate based herbicides that are being fingered in cancer cases. In Nigeria, glyphosate based herbicides are gleefully sold in the market and are duly certified as safe by the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC). This adds to the spate of suicides by drinking Sniper pesticide.

Contemporary global technology fetish makes it difficult for citizens to question anything techie. With the rapid arrival of jaw dropping advances, the tendency is to bow and praise these creations. However, wisdom requires that we question these arrivals and accept them, if we may with full knowledge of the risks and uncertainties involved. And, in fact, we cannot accept all of them. Climate science, for instance, warn that continued dumping of greenhouse gases will inexorably result in increased temperatures and freak weather events. Yet, there are technologies being developed for scrapping more crude oil from previously abandoned or decommissioned oil wells. There are new technologies for extreme extractivist endeavours such as fracturing rocks to push out fossil gas or oil. There are more machineries being built for deep sea mining irrespective of the impacts that such activities will have on marine ecosystems. At a time of impending mass extinctions, should humans be engaging in extinction technologies such as gene drives?

We have to ponder on why it is so difficult to invest in nature-based solutions rather than fighting against nature. Even if humans are in an age of unique unipolar disorder, we are not bereft of common sense. And, come to think of it, mosquitoes have been eradicated in parts of the world through improved sanitation, social infrastructure and without the use of genetically modified varieties. A recent report in Nature revealed that genetically modified mosquitoes earlier released in Brazil have interbred with local mosquitoes, confirming the existence of wide gaps in the claim that laboratory produced “sterile” mosquitoes would not impact local ecosystems in this manner.

Permitting Africa to be turned into a laboratory for experimentations for profit and with tools that can easily be weaponized is both a betrayal of trust in leaders and unethical in all senses. With full, prior, informed consent it will be seen that our peoples will rather not be bitten by genetically modified gnats no matter who markets them.

A Knife to the Throat

ChangeA Knife to the Throat. Think before you dance to the GMO beat. A popular saying has it that the person that pays the drummer dictates the tune. That saying may not hold true at all times because the drummer may on occasion allow her innate artistic flair to take over. The saying, however, finds a wide parallel in situations where governments do not fund their research institutions and agencies, thereby pushing them into the embrace of funding agencies with motives that may not be in sync with that of the governments.

A case in point has to do with the way we are handling issues of biosafety. We do not appear to worry that the surveyors of genetically modified (GM) crops and products, apart from their pretentious messianic posturing are mostly concerned with making profit out of our miseries. We do not worry that our staple crops are targeted and that these marketers are the ones declaring our vitamin or mineral deficiencies and presenting GM crops and foods as silver bullets to solve all our problems.

We are happy when we are assured that GM foods and products will be labelled and that we will definitely have a choice with regard to whether or not we wish to eat them. We do not consider the fact that most of our staples are sold in ways that do not permit labelling. We do ourselves harm when we gloss over this issue. We do know that in the global north you can know the origin of the bananas, oranges and other fruits you buy from the labels stuck on them.

We have said several times that our socio-cultural context does not allow for labelling in our informal marketing and sharing systems. The African Agricultural Technology Foundation (ATF) announces that GM beans will be planted in Nigeria in 2020. We must not lose sight of the fact that we are in breach of the law if any GMO is released into our environment and to our markets if it is not, and cannot, be labelled. Without the right of choice, we are forced to eat GM foods with a knife to our throats.

Back to the payer and the drummer. Sometimes the drummer may go into a flourish, but that often happens when the payer starts what may look like limitless spraying of currency notes. If the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation or Monsanto sprays you with seeds, or a laboratory, the dancer can go into a frenzy.

The fervour with which we are open to being used as testing fields of hypotheses dreamt by speculators, and even by students in foreign laboratories, should capture our attention. We recall when the great work IITA did in developing natural cassava varieties and methods for controlling the dreaded cassava leaf mosaic disease. These days they appear more bent to working on GM cassava for the increase of starch content in the tubers, not for foods for humans, but probably for industrial purposes. One such GM cassava was developed in a student project in a laboratory in Switzerland and brought to Ibadan, Nigeria, for testing. The so-called confined field trials have since been concluded but information on the outcome is not in the public sphere.

The routine response of the agency when asked for information on the basis of which they issue permits is to refer the enquirer to their website. When told that the information is not on their website, their response is to again reiterate their blanket reference to their website.

The same laboratory from Switzerland recently sent another GM cassava for a willing Nigerian institute, the Nigerian Root Crops Research Institute (NRCRI) located at Umudike, to obtain a permit and carry out confined field testing of a cassava variety engineered to contain high levels of iron and zinc. Despite very detailed comments sent to show why approval should not be granted for its field testing, the approval was granted by mid-July 2019.

Expert comments sent to show why certain applications should not be approved are treated with contempt and brushed aside. The agency is averse to giving a response as to why they reject the contrary points raised by concerned citizens and groups. The arrogance and hostility towards those who do not dance to the GM beats keeps increasing by the day. This has to stop.

The NRCI got the permit to carry out a confined field trial of the GM cassava on a plot measuring not more than 200 square metres. That is small, right? However, NRCI is to ensure a buffer or exclusion zone of 1.5 kilometres in which there must not be any non-GM cassava planted or growing wild. Is that possible in Abia State, or anywhere in Southern Nigeria? 1.5 kilometres without a cassava plant? Another requirement is that the place in which the GM cassava is to be planted must have security personnel keeping watch on a 24 hours basis. Really?

The immediate area of the trial zone is to be surrounded by a pollen trap to prevent the spread of pollen grains from the GM cassava. The trap is not something mechanical, like a mouse trap. It is rather a planted area where the crops planted there must flower at the same time as the GM cassava in the confined trial area. If that is not preposterous enough, consider who would ensure that the area is decontaminated after the field trial. That task will be done by “persons trained by the permit holder.” It is doubtful if such a person can be trusted to be objective in carrying out the task. It is obvious that entire scheme is a wild, needless gamble.

Some of us are wondering if the biosafety regulatory agency in Nigeria should bother to advertise applications for introduction of GM crops and call for comments when they already have their minds set on being little besides a permitting agency. Expert comments sent to show why certain applications should not be approved are treated with contempt and brushed aside. The agency is averse to giving a response as to why they reject the contrary points raised by concerned citizens and groups. The arrogance and hostility towards those who do not dance to the GM beats keeps increasing by the day. This has to stop.

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

 

 

 

“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.

 

 

Dining on Genetically Engineered Pesticides

thumb_img_0761_1024-2.jpgEating Genetically Engineered Pesticides. All through the ages, in the development of agriculture, humans have selected and cultivated crops and animals that thrive in their environments and are good for their health. Some of the factors that determine what we love as food are highly sensory and include the texture, taste, colour and their smell. Taste, for example, can drive people to eat things they know are not good for their health. Besides, people may tilt to a food product due to the power of suggestion through advertisement on the mass media.

Food can be an instrument of control and power. Weather variations and extreme weather events can bring communities and nations to their knees. Violent conflicts and wars can also render people hungry and expose them to the need to receive or purchase food aid. Yes, some food aids are paid for and are not exactly humanitarian. One nation that stood her grounds and insisted on what sort of food aid was acceptable is Zambia. They rejected the genetically engineered grains that were extended to them as food aid in 2002. And although much political pressure was piled on the nation, they did not starve but transited to bountiful harvest the following year. In the case of Nigeria, after the devastation of agriculture of the Northeast, we have received tones of seeds without verifying if they were genetically modified or not. That is how much food aid can trump caution.

What do consumers look for when they go shopping for groceries? Research has shown that consumers that care to read the labels on the food products prefer to buy those that are pesticide free and are not genetically modified. Generally, buyers prefer fresh, clean and natural products.

Unfortunately, many of our foods in Nigeria are sold in measures using cups and basins. Foods such as beans, garri, corn, amala, and the likes are often neither packaged nor labelled. You simply have to trust your eyes to tell you whether what you are buying is wholesome or not. And, our people hardly read the labels on the packaged products on the market shelves. They may read the brand names and pay less attention to the contents. Agencies saddled with policing our borders against entry of unauthorised foods, such as the ones that are made of genetically engineered materials, appear overwhelmed by the influx of these products. Products are imported without much filtering with the assumption that whatever is presented as food is safe. It is as if it is assumed that because a thing was made in the United States of America, for instance, then it must be good for our consumption. We simply do not know what we are eating. However, we should care to know as our health depends on that knowledge and our choice.

Regulators and promoters of genetically engineered crops and foods in Nigeria accuse those that question the technology of being fear mongers or anti-science. This may be dismissed as a hollow accusation, but when they make such arguments frequently, the real fear is that they may believe themselves. Besides, they also believe that they are running the best biosafety system in Africa and that other countries such as Burkina Faso who junked genetically engineered cotton, cannot be compared to the supposed high skills and facilities Nigeria boasts of. This arrogant posturing is extremely dangerous.

When scientists produce genetically engineered beans (cow pea), do they consider the fact that the insecticidal beans could also kill non-target organisms and that even the target pests could develop resistance? When crops are genetically engineered to withstand herbicides, do they consider that they kill other plants and not merely weeds? And what about the soil microorganisms they kill thereby disrupting the webs of life in the ecosystems?

Working beneath the supervisory radar, the promoters of these technologies are set to erode our biodiversity and set the stage for ecological harm. Nigeria has quickly become the testing ground for novel and risky technologies, exposing citizens to next levels of danger. With regards to the recently approved genetically engineered beans, we note that this beans variety with the transgene Cry1Ab used in its transformation, has not been approved anywhere else in the world. The International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) may have concluded field trials for a cassava variety that has never been planted anywhere else in the world. That cassava was engineered to produce starch that would last longer than normal before degrading.

All these genetically engineered events are prepared overseas and brought for testing in Nigeria and yet we boast that we are so equipped and innovative in the sector.

If anyone tells you that the producers of genetically engineered crops (and foods) are cocksure of their products, ask them why they fight against nations having strict liability clauses in their Biosafety laws. Uganda just inserted such a clause in their genetic engineering regulatory law, ensuring that makers of GMOs will be held liable for any harm that may come from cultivation or consumption of their products at any time, even if such effects come years down the road. Since that law was enacted, scientists have branded President Museveni and the Ugandan parliament as being anti-science. In other words, good genetic engineering science must leave room for doubt and when harms manifests, the producers should not be held strictly liable. That posture puts the Precautionary Principle on its head. That principle is the bedrock of Biosafety regulation. It simply means that where there is doubt, we should be cautious. The speed with which Nigeria is permitting GMOs is highly suspicious and offers no assurance that the government is concerned about food safety and the preservation of our biodiversity.

Nigerians must be mindful of what we buy, cultivate or eat. We can bet that no one will knowingly eat an insecticide. But that is what we do if we eat any crop genetically engineered to be insecticidal.

A Dose of Needless Medicine

img_0764.jpgA Dose of Needless Medicine. In this reflection we are looking at genetically modified cotton (GM) in the light of  the Tortoise Principle. There is a folktale about a time a Lion was sick and declared that all the animals in the kingdom should pay him a get-well-soon visit. After several animals had heeded the call it was Mr Tortoise’s turn. On arrival at the gate of Mr Lion’s home, Mr Tortoise noticed that all footprints were in one direction, all going into the house with none coming out or going in the other direction. On careful reflection on the import of this observation, Mr Tortoise turned back and decided not to go into Mr Lion’s house. Did Mr Tortoise decide to avoid Mr Lion’s house out of fear?

Our submission is that the decision not to enter a house from which no visitor emerged was not predicated on fear but on sound judgement.

Our application of this tale relates to the forced release and endorsement of genetically engineered crops and products into Nigeria without due consideration of clear failures elsewhere and with a cavalier attitude to the grave danger that these artificial crops and products portend to the health of our peoples and environment. At a recent press conference by the ministers in charge of Agriculture and Science in partnership with Bayer-Monsanto
to celebrate Monsanto’s release of genetically engineered cotton into the Nigerian market and environment, the Nigerian Minister of Agriculture declared that although he was not a scientist, he saw no reason for not accepting genetically engineered crops. He went on to say that Africans are too fearful of “new things.” In other words, the minister was declaring that those who call for precaution over the release of these artificial crops into our environment are unreasonable and do so out of fear. On his part, the minister of Science repeated myths peddled by the biotech industry and their cohorts – that genetically engineered crops yield more than natural varieties and require less pesticides (because some of them are pesticides) and make farmers rich.

The positions of the ministers raise serious questions about their willingness to dispassionately consider issues related to these technologies. The position that GMOs are rejected out of fear does violence to the integrity of scientists and governments who fought hard to ensure that the Precautionary Principle is a cardinal element of the United Nation’s Convention on Biodiversity (CBD). Indeed, because of the knowledge of the harms related to the release of genetically engineered organisms into the environment and in food, the African Union (then known as the Organisation of African Unity) produced the African Model Law on biosafety. That model law was to provide African governments a basic scaffold on which to build sound Biosafety regulatory frameworks. The notion that it was not the job of regulators to stop GMOs, as often peddled these days, was alien to the defenders of biodiversity.

At that time, African governments knew the importance of biodiversity in securing nutritious food and building resilience of local agriculture to the vagaries of weather and pest infestations. African research institutes had scientists that were engaged in promoting crop and animal species that were suitable to the local environment and yielded products that suited the local cultures, tastes and had acceptable levels of storability. That was the focus of science and agricultural ministries at that time. The coming of Structural Adjustment Programmes of the international financial institutions in the 1980s ensured wholesale adoption of neoliberal conditionalities and policies that brought about the destruction of local agricultural support systems. They also destroyed social safety nets and made our countries dumping grounds for all sorts of products which today appear in the form of untested GMOs originating from corporate laboratories that are not in the least concerned with our interest.

Today the framework that would have protected our environment is being shredded, and Nigeria is leading the pack in this ignominious degradation. This reverse leadership is very visible at the ongoing CBD Conference of Parties (COP24) with Nigeria and South Africa as the main negotiators. The most contentious items at the negotiation include what to do with extreme genetic engineering including synthetic biology (Synbio) and gene drives organisms (GDOs). These are technologies that have dire socio-economic and ecological consequences for Africa. Reports from the COP show serious opposition to gene drives with a number of countries demanding spoke a moratorium on the technology. Opposing countries include Bolivia, El Salvador, Grenada and Egypt. Shockingly, most African countries at the COP have become advocates for gene drives probably with the hope of attracting grants and other pecuniary benefits to their governments.

Observers believe that the inexplicable enthusiasm of a group of African nations, including Nigeria, to reject a moratorium on gene drives and to promote their release may be connected to the Gates Foundation’s funding for the production and release of gene drive mosquitoes in Burkina Faso by an organisation called Target Malaria.

Gene drives is a new gene-editing technology that makes it possible to have species-wide genetic engineering through the aggressive spreading of genetic changes through the wild. Analysts posit that gene drives have a high potential for unpredictable, and even uncontrollable, impacts on biodiversity, wildlife and ecosystems.

The products that the synthetic biology industry is bringing into market include a vanilla flavour produced using synthetically modified yeast and some special oils used in soaps and detergents derived from synthetically modified algae. The replacement of natural vanilla with a synthetic variety has implications for millions of farmers, many of them Africans, who depend on them for livelihoods. They also have social and cultural implications. In addition, scientists warn that genetically modified algae and yeast could have unpredictable health effects and ecological impacts if they escape into the environment.

To say that opponents of GMOs are fear mongers is a sad way of demonizing Africans as fearful of new technologies. If fear is a factor in the demand for strict risk assessment of new technologies, that fear must be one that rises from the fact that public officials who should protect our interests are instead being tied to the apron strings of corporate and pseudo philanthropic interests. The Tortoise principle requires that we setup platforms for the critical assessment of new technologies.

As the world edges towards unleashing unregulated technologies that have the capacity to wipe out species, and can readily be made into biological weapons, we have a duty to review how we regulate our foods and environment. A situation where the most vulnerable continent, with scant capacity to regulate and contain basic genetic engineering, cheers on the merchants of the technology spells nothing but trouble.

First published as Of Genetically Modified Cotton and The Tortoise Principle at https://leadership.ng/2018/11/23/of-genetically-modified-cotton-and-tortoise-principle/

 

Do Not Betray Africa on Extreme Genetic Engineering

24f6f9cf-069e-41e4-aa98-cdc61885d841.jpegDo Not Betray Africa on SynBio and Gene Drives

As representatives of a broad range of African civil society organisations (CSOs), we do not feel represented by the delegations of Nigeria and South Africa, speaking on behalf of African Group, in their attempt to speak on behalf of the people of Africa on the issue of synthetic biology (synbio) and gene drive organisms (GDOs).

Throughout the history of the United Nations (UN) Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and the UN Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, African delegates have championed the defence of our biodiversity, protection of our seeds, indigenous agroecological practices and culture. They have always advocated the need for a precautionary approach.

In the past, African delegates have strongly defended our ecological life-support systems from threats, such as Terminator technologies (seeds designed to be sterile).

We are now alarmed at what is going on at COP14 and how our concerns for our environment, biodiversity and communities are being betrayed and threatened by delegates from some African nations. In particular, they are not representing our concerns about gene drives and synbio.

Most countries in Africa are still grappling with the threats from basic genetic engineering and associated agro-toxics and do not even have experience or capacity for basic regulation of the risks for those first-generation genetic technologies, let alone synbio and GDOs.

Gene drives, such as those being promoted by Target Malaria, aimed at releasing gene drive mosquitoes in Burkina Faso, are a deliberately invasive technology designed to propagate genetic material across an entire population – potentially wiping out entire species. As Africans, we are forced to confront this new and serious threat to our health, land, biodiversity, rights, and food supply.

African government delegations appear to have been neutralised. They have fallen from grace on the altar of the multi-national corporations, gene giants and private foundations. The African group’s position at the CBD slavishly replicates the position of these interest groups.

As Africans, we do not wish to be lab-rats for Target Malaria’s experiments. We refuse to be guinea pigs for their misguided disruption of our food systems and ecology.

We call on the African and all other delegates to put the brakes on this exterminating technology. We reject any form of representation that is against the interest of our peoples and biodiversity. We call on the governments of Africa to call their delegates to order and avoid acquiescence to unfolding intergenerational crimes.

Signed by the following organisations:

-Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa.

– La Via Campesina Africa

– Friends of the Earth Africa

– Coalition for the Protection of African Genetic Heritage (COPAGEN)

– CCAE Collectif Citoyen pour L’Agroecologie

– Fahamu Africa

– Advocates Coalition for Development and Environment, Uganda

– Eastern and Southern Africa Small Scale Farmers Forum (ESAFF)

– Comparing and Supporting Endogenous Development (COMPAS Africa)

– West African Association for the Development of Artisanal Fisheries (ADEPA)

– Plate-forme Régionale des Organisations Paysannesd’ Afrique Centrale (PROPAC)

– Convergences Régionales Terre-eau et Autres Ressources Aturelles

– Network of West African Farmer Organizations and Agricultural Producers (ROPPA).

– Terre á Terre, Burkina Faso

– Fellowship of Christian Councils and Churches in West Africa (FECCIWA)

– African Centre for Biodiversity

– Inades-Formation

– Indigenous Peoples of Africa Co-ordinating Committee (IPACC)

– Jeunes Volontaires pour l’Environnement (JVE International)

– Institute de Researche et de Promotion des Alternatives en Development Afrique (IRPAD)

– The Africa CSOs’ Coalition on African Development Bank

– Health of Mother Earth Foundation

– Committee on Vital Environmental Resources, Nigeria

– The Young Environmental Network, Nigeria

– Community Empowerment Initiative (GECOME) Nigeria.

– Gender and Environmental Risk Reduction Initiative(GERI), Nigeria.

– Climate Change and Amelioration Initiative( ECCAI), Nigeria

– Pearls Care Initiative (PCI), Nigeria

– Intergrity Conscience Initiative (ICI).Nigeria

– Participatory Ecological Land Use Management (PELUM) Association

– Rural Women’s Assembly

-Rural Alliance for Green Environment (RAGE), Nigeria

– Bio Interrity in Natural Foods Awareness Initiative, Nigeria

– Initiative for Peace, Empowerment and Tolerance, Nigeria

– Integrity Conscience Initiative (ICI), Nigeria

– Eco-Defenders Network, Nigeria

– Green Alliance Network (GAN) Nigeria

– Rural Environmental Defenders (U-RED) Nigeria

We can plant a seed

Seeds
We can plant a seed

Way back yesterday
In the glow of nighttime fires
We sat around steamy bowls
Carving up mounds of foo foo
Then dipping our hands in hot soups
Mouths long open awaited the feast
With every bite our tongues knew the source
Jolly jolly bellies, happy happy hearts
We danced our way through the night
These days we line up at the shops
Awaiting junk foods and maybe small chops
Bright coloured walls and blinding lights
We take selfies as we down deadly sodas
With loud music, we munch and munch but hear no crunch from our plastic foods

We can plant a seed
And not eat poison 

These days we go to the farm
It could also be the harvest is next to our homes
Straight bananas
Squared up squash
Cassava tubers that don’t ferment
Genetic engineers target our staple crops
Especially ones grown by women
With mythic tales they sell lies
Crops kill pests and innocent species
Like their ancestors sold beads, mirrors and whiskies
And we are to be excited eating pesticides
And wash down with water packed in plastics and served like drugs

We can plant a seed
And not eat poison 

We live in the city
Streets blocked with cars
Every piece of land thoroughly cementified
The Earth is denied rain from the sky
You want some water, toxic drains send a deluge
We want some corn?
Go to the shop
You want vegetables?
Go to the shop

“This food is safe”
That’s what they say
Made by giant conglomerates
On the back of imperial neocolonial agencies
But they cannot even say what they sell
All they yell
Is “shut up and eat
“An hungry man has no choice”
Genetically engineered
Isolated from weeds with glyphosate

We can plant a seed
And not eat poison 

All around us seeds are sprouting
Along the rivers and streams through our cities
Every city block long abandoned
Day and night we sow the seeds
Many don’t ask where magical fresh foods emerge
We labour all day to bring yet nothing to eat
Officials feed fat on our labours
Then loosen their belts
Call the bulldozers
Pull down our dreams
Level our fields
Destroy our homes
“This urban space isn’t for rats
Go back to the village unwanted migrants
Our foods are imported, packaged, some even come as aid”

We can plant a seed
And not eat poison 

The food we eat must not eat us
Mother Earth warns: we are all her children
The plants, the birds, the beasts, the worms, the bees, the butterflies
In the soil and above the soil
On the seas and beneath the seas
Trillions of our relatives call to us
“Globalize the struggle
Globalize hope!”
Globalize the people
Not transnational corporations

Resilience
Solidarity
Hope
Power
Life
are all in the seed
And if we care we can touch the soil
We can plant a seed
We can water a plant
We can nurture life
We can raise a goat
We can connect to the soil
And allow Mother Earth to feed us all

We can plant a seed
And not eat poison 

#AfricanFoodSystems
AFSA
Saly
03.11.2018

Eco-Instigator #21

64855DF9-C8DA-4448-85FF-E7150FAEF43EWe are glad to serve you a feisty edition of your informative Eco-Instigator. In it you will find articles and reports from our projects and our continuous struggles for ecological justice.
Due to the focus of extractive industry on offshore exploration and exploitation actions, the need for fishers to step up to the challenge has never been more urgent. Fishers stand at the frontline of the struggle against deep sea mining as well as offshore pursuit of oil and gas resources.
We serve you reports from our Fish Not Oil community dialogues where fishers review the state of our water bodies, note the changes, map the culprits and chart the course of action to protect our marine ecosystems. These spaces are also used to create linkages between fishing associations and for the expansion of an emerging FishNet Alliance.
We also bring you the reports from our School of Ecology focusing on Life After Oil. We held the maiden session of this exciting school in our Oronto Douglas Board Room, Benin City 30- 31 July 2018. The second session was hosted by We The People in Port Harcourt, Nigeria, on 29 August 2018. Participants had two additional days during which they joined in the Right Livelihood Lecture as well as Sustainability Academy, both held at the University of Port Harcourt. Reports of these will be brought to you in our December edition. While the maiden edition was exclusively for youths, the second session extended the age bracket and admitted community persons with a bias to women. Life After Oil campaign is an offshoot of our Beyond Oil research that drove for a reimagining of development in the Niger Delta and Nigeria as a whole.
Our fight for food sovereignty continues in an atmosphere of absolute disregard for the dangers posed by the introduction of genetically modified crops into our environment. Nigerian Biosafety Management Agency (NBMA), gleefully announced the release of Bt cotton into the market while our case on their permit to Monsanto was awaiting decision in court. We considered this a disregard of due process and a crass display of the arrogance of the industry and their allies. The court eventually decided against us, but on the technical grounds that the case was statute barred and that we filed the suit outside the stipulated time boundary. The struggle continues.
As usual, we bring you poems, book review and books that you should read as well as indications of our forthcoming events. We will be glad to hear from you.

Download and read the full issue Eco-Instigator #21.

Until Victory!

Systemic Betrayal of Farmers (and Consumers)

Lawyers RTSystemic betrayal of farmers. Applications for the introduction of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) into Nigeria started flowing literally before the ink with which the bill was signed into law had dried. Promoters of modern agricultural technology, notably the agency set up for that purpose before the law was dreamt up were ecstatic. In less than a year, the controversial biotech and chemical company, Monsanto, had collected the first three GMO permits to ever be issued in the country.

This was very significant, not because of the recipient but because they were applying to introduce a crop that had just failed spectacularly in Burkina Faso. That was the Bt cotton that had nearly ruined cotton growers in that country. The Nigerian regulatory agency, National Biosafety Management Agency (NBMA) apparently believes that Monsanto was too big to fail and that they would do better in Nigeria. The bad news for them is that just as they were not too big to be swallowed up by Bayer, the German chemical company, they are not strangers to failure.

Trust Built, Trust Betrayed

Farmers trust government to support their efforts to feed the nation. This implicit trust was built in the days before the so-called structural adjustment programme imposed on the nation by international financial institutions decimated the ranks of extension officers and other support mechanisms. The trust was also built by public research institutes providing sound agricultural advice, seeds and roots to farmers. Government and farmers were partners in progress. Today the faith of farmers that government would always extend the best support to them is being betrayed in obnoxious ways.

The betrayal happens because farmers are being sold the idea that genetically modified crops provide the best options to ensure high yield, enrich the farmers and abolish hunger from the land. Farmers are equally not warned of the harmful impacts of agrotoxics that they must apply as they grow the genetically modified crops. Superficial roadshows advertising GMOs are falsely construed to be consultations with the public. Glossy brochures, television and radio programmes with tilted and dubious information have become the order of the day. And they equally use local and foreign movies to add to their arsenal of falsehood.

Feeding Hungry Africans on Lies

The rapid evolution of the subversion of our food system is accelerated by the opening of the gates for an influx of genetically modified grains – like maize- thus constricting the market space for local farmers. We believe that it is time that our people begin to look the proverbial gift horse in the mouth, no matter who is presenting the gift.

The argument that Africa needs GMOs in order to feed her population is nothing but a commercial narrative that on scrutiny holds no water. For more than two decades that GMOs have been around they have not halted the upward rise of hunger in the world. Indeed, the yield from GMOs do not surpass those of natural crops. Instead of reducing the use of herbicides and pesticides, GMOs have created super weeds and super bugs requiring stronger doses of the toxic chemicals.

Dearth of Expertise

The absence of adequate biotechnology expertise in the development and regulatory sphere makes it inescapable that the biosafety discourse is shaped to suit the preferences of the actual developers who stand to gain from the technologies. The genetically modified maize (NK603 and MON 89034 x NK603)) varieties for which Monsanto got permits were not developed in Nigeria. The Bt cotton that has been approved for placement in the market was not developed in Nigeria. The GMO cassava being field tested at the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) in Ibadan was developed in Switzerland. All the GM maize and soybean being approved for various purposes in the country were developed elsewhere. In addition to being developed elsewhere, the required risk assessment before they are brought into Nigeria is perfunctory exercise.

Mute Food Safety Controllers

The National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC) that should safeguard the foods on our market shelf is busy playing the ostrich while the land is flooded with the products. Indeed, NAFDAC is expected to give a bill of health to any GMO product or seed before importers can apply to bring the GMOs into the country. At present it is doubtful if NAFDAC is providing such a cover for Nigerians. We say doubtful because the agency us yet to respond to an enquiry HOMEF sent to them on 1 February 2018 seeking to know if they granted a clean bill of health to enable NBMA issue permits to WACOT Nigeria Ltd to import genetically modified maize for feed and processing. The murky process through which the permit was issued to the company raises red flags over the entire regulatory architecture demanding closer scrutiny.  WACOT’s application was based solely on the fact that certain genetically modified maize varieties had been approved for use in the European Union (EU). However, it is our position that the approval of anything in the EU does not confer automatic endorsement for entry into Nigeria. Biosafety requires case by case risk assessment in each jurisdiction that any of the artificial organisms are taken.

Counting on The Law

LawyersRoundtable4

As legal experts, the Nigerian people need your help in fashioning out means of ensuring that we are not ambushed into eating anything without knowledge of their makeup and safety. Our people require your help in ensuring that our food system is protected and that our biodiversity is protected. Our people will be happy to receive an understanding of the provisions of the law governing biosafety in Nigeria as well as if what exists is sufficient to protect them. We also hope that you will keep an eye on unfolding events in other jurisdictions where for example, Monsanto has been asked by a court to pay $289m to a citizen of the USA for cancer attributed to the use of that company’s weed killer, Roundup.

In all, Nigerians want to know the legality or otherwise of the roughshod march of the GMO train in our land.

 

——-

Welcome words by Nnimmo Bassey at Round Table with Lawyers on Promoting Biosafety in Nigeria – held on 26 September 2018 in Abuja, Nigeria