Arrival of Extreme Technology

architectureTechnology is defined as the application of  scientific knowledge for practical purposes, especially in industry. Oftentimes industry is related to the transformation of nature or raw materials in factories. The word, technology has roots in  Greek: tecknologia,meaning systematic treatment, itself derived from  teckne— art or craft. The meaning of the term has obviously been evolving over time as is the case with other words and concepts. For example, industry does not just mean “factory” or “manufacturing”. It also means hard or focused work.

Technology was not always about the transformation of nature, but was more of working with it as evidenced in the development of agriculture. Today, technology often aims to make nature more efficient or to subvert it. The subversion of nature has manifested in a series of innovations that have fundamentally shaped the character of societies. Such milestones include the invention of fire and of projectiles probably initially for the hunt and later   predominantly for killing other humans and not just other animals.

Efforts at enhancing the efficiencyof nature, such as experienced in the so-called Green Revolution of the 1960s, has led to the loss of species through the focus on enhanced production per unit of land area. The new green revolution seeks to further narrow down what is left and intentionally drive the extinction of others. The Green Revolution was based largely on monocultures, which affected not just crops or animals, but also human minds.

Technology has also been developed to entrench certain industrial and socio-economic pathways that has generated catastrophic outcomes including climate change. Such anthropogenic interventions spiked in the dawning industrial revolution with the atmospheric carbon budget quickly gobbled up through the burning of fossil fuels, land conversion, chemical/energy-intensive agriculture, manufacturing and others. Interestingly, rather than retrace their steps since realizing the wrongheadedness of such actions, humans strive to offsetsuch socio-ecological misbehaviours through technological or engineering means.

Traditional wisdom teaches that digging further down any pit of error is  hardly the best way to get out of it. Turning this basic wisdom on its head has led to concentration of efforts in locking in business as usual in the interest of profit and at the expense of the wellbeing of both people and the planet. In the sphere of climate discourse, the pursuit of geoengineering is carefully cloaked in the language suggesting that technological solutions hold the key to decarbonizing economies. The challenge is that, outside computer modeling, the determination of the efficacy of most types of geoengineering can only be tested on mega or indeed planetary scales, with the potential of astonishing success or cataclysmic failures. Technology is not just about experimentation for the pursuit of beneficial solutions, they are great tools for concentration of power, for dominance  and for control.

The other streak of technological advancement that we will consider is in relation to food and agriculture. Traditional biotechnology has been practiced by humans from time immemorial. However, the application of modern agricultural biotechnology, specifically the commercialization of genetically engineered organisms is barely three decades old. While three decades may not be sufficient to study the impacts of these artificial organisms, scientists have moved on to produce population-scale genetic engineering driving for intentional species extinction.

Easily weaponized technologies are being promoted by vested interests in the military and philanthropic-capitalist circles. These risky and largely unregulated technologies are set to be unleashed in the world’s favourite laboratory, Africa, where we are all considered expendable guinea pigs. Bioterrorism is a real threat, especially in regions best seen as storehouses of raw materials for global technological production.

To make this incursion unassailable, Africa is projected as the continent of hunger, malnutrition, stunted children, blind adults, disease and population explosion. The logic builds on the supposition that mechanistic solutions are the last hope for humanity since our social fabric is so broken that only automaton with curtailed human agency can fix it.

We keep pondering why it is so difficult to invest in nature-based solutions rather than fighting against nature. To be sure, some nature-based solutions can indeed be technological, but they simply have to be techniques that are pro people and planet and not disruptive of our rights to thrive within the cycles of nature, as part of the intricate webs of life. Nature-based solutions must never be a route to the marketization of nature.

We must school ourselves to recover and retain our memories. The idea that technologies can only come from outside Africa is untrue and problematic, as the development of African and general human societies have shown. Schooling ourselves to decolonize the narratives that drive us into the vice-grip of exploitation and on the pathways of catastrophe is pertinent . It is also our duty to hold to account public agencies that insist that untested and risky technologies are safe. Such official fetish addictions and superstitions must be debunked in the interest of the present and the future generations. And in the interest of the planet and other beings.

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.

Perverse Corporate Investment Benefits

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Let us look at forces that lock in perverse corporate investment benefits. The quality of political leadership of nations is often judged by the volume of corporate investments they are able to attract, or trigger. These investments could be from national or transnational corporations. A favoured manner of describing some of the inroads made by, or with, the transnational corporations is one that encourages foreign direct investment. Diplomatic travels by political leaders is often geared towards showcasing business opportunities in their home countries by selling the notion that such investors would enjoy political protection as well as the best business environments.

Nations also make laws and regulations to ensure that local businesses are integrated in the areas dominated by transnational corporations. Such moves are sometimes termed backward integration, economic empowerment or indigenisation processes. Whatever is the case, governments work hard to ensure that these entities enjoy a good level of ease of doing business. The quest for ease of doingbusiness has become such a desirable thing that indices for measuring achievements in that mode have been developed and governments work hard to ensure that they are not found on the wrong end of the measuring stick.

Transnational corporations are especially favoured in the viewing lenses of national governments because they are seen as a major source of foreign exchange earnings and their flourishing encourages the influx of other corporate entities. The corporations are also seen as major job creators and politicians do whatever they can imagine would help ensure that the job numbers are higher than those recorded by their predecessors, or are unassailable by the promises of their competitors.

Followers of international politics will notice the way some political leaders are fixated or deeply immersed in following the job indexes as well as the outcomes of each trading day at the stock exchanges.  To some of us who are not experts in the economic fields, the posture of political leaders with regard to the indexes and indices sometimes appear comparable to the way people focus on games, rejoicing when things go our way, then sulking and laying out blames when things turn against our favoured teams. Whereas spectators at a sporting event cannot determine the outcome of the competition, officials sometimes engage in what is termed match-fixing in the soccer arena, for example. Match-fixing distorts the spirit of the game and attracts sanctions when uncovered. However, political leaders engage in what can be regarded as match-fixing through tariff wars or when they manipulate the value of their national currencies. Who sanctions them?

Having political leaders deeply focussed on their national, and even global economic fortunes, does make sense to the extent that a state of health of the nation can be gauged by the health of her economy. However, the economy can give a distorted sense of the wellbeing of nations when the measures are inclined mostly to the production and movement of goods and services in the formal sectors.

The forgotten and often purposely ignored sectors are populated by citizens that are not employed by governments or by corporations. They lie in the informal or unorganised sectors, if we take note of the term ‘organised private sector’ as is used in countries, including Nigeria. The notion that government has no business in business has led to the general belief that it is not the duty of government to provide jobs for the people. This has pushed governments to strive to reduce their workforce and forever moan over the fact that recurrent expenditure spent on civil service wages is bloated and a blot on the health of national economies. While the workforce continues to be constricted, the work to be done by government remains and to justify keeping citizens in an endless search for jobs, duties that ought to be carried out by government workers are farmed out to the private sector.

While the private sector is a vital part of any nation’s economy, the general belief that government cannot effectively and efficiently deliver services is a myth entrenched by neoliberal propagandists. Making the distortion worse is the reality that after giving contracts to private entities, governments also provide financial coverage for these entities when they obtain loans for the execution of the contracts. The reality that governments access loans at a cheaper rate than the private sector does not bother the promoters of the dubious creed that government has no business in business. With layers of consultancies and a web of invisible services, corporations are sometimes able to obtain a pile of financial benefits for providing services that only they can see. This phenomenon has been characterised as official larceny by Nicholas Hildyard of The Corner House in his book, Licensed Larceny: Infrastructure, Financial Extraction and the global South.

The matter of invisible services is heightened in the extractive sector where transnational corporations enter into agreements with governments but act as the operators of the businesses, determining what needs to be done, how it is done and what is expended on carrying out such activities. This is the case in the petroleum sector in Nigeria, for example. The operators determine the cost of operations, and such costs are recovered at source and the balance of the earnings is what is then shared with the government and other players in such joint ventures. This state of affairs subsists, and the Petroleum Industry laws stagnate in their primordial forms, because the corporations ostensibly bring incredible benefits to the nation.

The ease of doing business requirement is also enhanced by the creation of export free zones where corporates escape the requirements of national laws and to a large extent operate more or less as colonial enclaves. Besides, in the quest to ensure corporate profits, there is no accounting with regards to health and environmental harms inflicted on the people and communities. And, although national laws governing the extractive sector demands that exit plans by made, and resources kept aside for closure of mine or oil wells at the onset of the projects, these are neither enforces nor adhered to. Thus, oil wells drilled in the 1950s have been abandoned and were never truly decommissioned and are leaking crude into the environment to this day. The benefits brought by transnational oil corporations remains perverse if the question as to when the damage done to the environment, people and communities will be accounted and when the heavily impacted environment will be evaluated and restored are not addressed.

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

Rethink Order on Ogoni Oil

HereGovernment Should Withdraw the Order for Resumption of Oil Exploitation in Ogoni Land. The Health of Mother Earth Foundation (HOMEF) and We the People notes with alarm and unease the recent memo reportedly originating from the Presidency and addressed to the Group Managing Director of the Nigeria National Petroleum Corporation; and signed by Chief of Staff to the President, Mr. Abba Kyari. In the said memo dated March 1, 2019 with reference number SH/COS/24/A/8540, the NNPC and NPDC are directed to take over OML 11 (located in Ogoni, River state) from Shell Petroleum Development Company.

The letter states;

 “NNPC/NPDC to take over the operatorship, from Shell Petroleum Development Company, of the entire OML 11 not later than 30 April 2019 and ensure smooth re-entry given the delicate situation in Ogoni Land”.

It goes further to instruct

“NNPC/NPDC to confirm by May 2, 2019 the assumption of the operatorship.”

We consider this instruction by the Presidency insensitive, ill-advised and capable of inflaming suspicions and conflict in an area that is already very fragile and prone to crisis.

Recall that in 1993, Shell was forced to abandon its OML 11 operations located in Ogoni and pull out of the area, following campaigns by the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP) led by environmental rights activist Ken Saro-Wiwa , for fairer benefits to the Ogoni people from oil wealth, as well as compensation for the damage of their environment. The campaigns by the Ogoni ethnic nationality for a better deal from the Nigerian state also includingrestitution for the dearth of poverty in Ogoniland, as well as recognition and responsibility for the ecological damage of Ogoniland occasioned by the activities of oil companies.

The response of the Nigeria government to these peaceful demands was terrifying. MOSOP was brutally repressed using the Nigerian military. The mass killings and widespread carnage which the military visited on the Ogonis remain largely undocumented. Thousands of Ogonis lost their lives, and many others went into forced exile around the world. In May 1994, capitalizing on the unfortunate killing of 4 prominent Ogoni leaders by a mob of yet to be identified persons in Gokana local government area, Ken Saro Wiwa and other leaders of MOSOP were arrested and detained. After a few months of trial by a special military tribunal, a sentence of death was pronounced on Ken Saro Wiwa and 8 others on October 31, 1995. 10 days after, the nine were immediately executed on November 10, 1995.

It is important to note that the fears of ecological damage which the Ogonis expressed was confirmed in 2011 when the United Nations Environment Programme UNEP released its assessment report of soil and water samples from Ogoniland. The report confirmed massive soil and water contamination which has significantly compromised sources of livelihood and was slowly poisoning the inhabitants of the area.  So alarmed was UNEP about the findings that it recommended that inhabitants of the area immediately stop using water from all their traditional sources, while the government was to immediately commence a clean-up exercise which could take up to thirty years, and amount to the biggest soil and water remediation exercise ever embarked on.  As damning as the Report was, its recommendations remained unattended until 2016 when the government established administrative structures to commence the clean-up.

Given the above, it is worrying why the government will decide to resume oil extraction in Ogoniland when the pollution of the last decades is yet to be cleaned and the recommendations of UNEP have not been fully complied with. The action of the government at this time gives the impression that it only flagged off the Ogoni Clean up through the Hydrocarbon Pollution Remediation Project (HYPREP) in order to purchase the goodwill to resume oil extraction in the area. How else does one explain the fact that a site supposedly being cleaned up will resume full oil extraction activities with all the pollution that comes with it?

HOMEF and We the People also note that the demands of the Ogoni people which led to the abuses they suffered in the hands of the Nigerian Military in the 1990s, and the termination of oil operations in the area, have still not been addressed. It is disappointing and demonstrates a lack of initiative for the government to imagine that those concerns have simply withered away with time. Those of us who have remain connected to the communities know for a fact that the Ogoni people remain resolute in their resistance to any renewed hydrocarbon extraction in their domains.

We fear that the manner the Presidency has approached this subject through an order, without any consultation with stakeholders in Ogoniland or concern for the reservations the people may feel, is capable of threatening the peace in the area and conveying the message that their complaints and demands have been blatantly ignored. It is important to note that since the ugly events of the 1990s, the government has not initiated any peacebuilding processes in Ogoniland, neither has any kind of amelioration for the pains, losses and suffering sustained by the people been provided.

HOMEF and We the People strongly recommend that the government withdraws this order for the resumption of oil activities in Ogoniland, and rather concentrates on redeeming the ecological disaster in the area, and replacing the lost sources of livelihood of the people.