A Morally Wounded People

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

“Evolving” Extinction GMOs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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.

Between Truth and Falsehood

Fabulous Fake Music (or When Fake is Real).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eat Today, Eat Tomorrow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

In Pursuit of Our Collective Wellbeing

Transparent green ballot box, vote for the Earth

credit: future pics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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.