Technofixes and the State of Our Biosafety

Technofixes and the State of Our Biosafety. A time like this demands and permits only sober consideration of where we are coming from, where we are and where we are heading to. The world is virtually shut down due to the ravages of a virus. This is no time for grandstanding or for anyone to claim that they have got anything under control. Interestingly, the virus is not a new organism. It has been around. It appears the consternation is over new variants that have emerged. If the virus has jumped to humans from bats, that would be a strong rebuke over the reckless ways that humans have degraded habitats of other organisms on the planet. If it has emerged from some biological weapons laboratory then it shows both the evil genius of humans and the strong warning that it is a short distance from rides on the back of a tiger and becoming dinner for the canine beast.

Addressing the issues of agricultural technofixes and the state of our biosafety gives us the template to consider the current situation in our world and the unpredictability of what could happen next. We are in precarious times. While scenario planners may have foreseen a pandemic of the scale that coronavirus has provoked, it comes as a total surprise to the average person.

We have had occasion to warn that things can go deeply wrong and out of hand if humans persist on toying with the genetic makeup of living organisms for the concentration of power in a few moguls, and for profit. Everyone knows that Nature is alive and active. She is not dormant and always responds to the manipulations of men. And so, when humans engineer crops to make them act as pesticides, Nature offers super pests or super bugs. When toxic herbicides are produced to kill all other crops except the ones genetically engineered to withstand them, Nature responds by offering super weeds. In either case, humans get trapped in needless and unwinnable battles against Nature. Today many farmers in the USA are suing Monsanto/Bayer over their exposure to one of the most notorious of these herbicides, called Roundup Ready. They are suing because they claim the glyphosate in the herbicide caused them to suffer from cancers. These herbicides are freely available for our farmers in Nigeria without any warnings.

Recently the mainstream genetic engineering has progressed to the level of editing genetic makeup of organisms and not necessarily having to engage in trans-species transfer of genetic materials. This has focussed on becoming extinction technologies – useful for killing off undesirable species and supposedly clearing the way for preferred species to thrive. This technology is the one proposed for gene drive mosquitoes to be released in Burkina Faso and possibly also in Uganda.

While modern biotechnology promoters like the National Biotechnology Development Agency (NABDA) and the regulator, National Biosafety Management Agency (NBMA), feel confident that they can handle any sort of technicalities in both the mainstream and new fields of extreme technofixes, we are deeply concerned that their grandstanding would not stop the purveyors of these technologies from weaponizing them.

The current pandemic has often been described as warfare. The subtle implication is that the virus could well be a biological weapon. Whether it is a biological weapon or just a freak occurrence in Nature, some of the countries most affected by the outbreak and governments have had to rely on the armed forces as the only institutions that can mobilize the amount of resources needed to tackle the scourge. Do we have a military that can mobilize to tackle a biological attack or accident in Nigeria?

We are in precarious times indeed. It is a time when fear and panic are freely propagating terror among populations. We see the generosity of men on display as some donate needed medical supplies and health workers expose themselves to great risk to help the sick. We hear calls of mutual support and care among nations. In the midst of all that we see the drive for self-preservation that brings out a non-cooperating side of peoples and nations. We see this through the closing of national borders and promoting national interests before any other consideration. What we are seeing seems to say that when the tyre hits the tarmac it is everyone on his or her own.

Nigeria took the wrong step by setting up a biotechnology promoting agency before setting up a biosafety agency. By the reason of the promoter midwifing the biosafety agency and consolidating this scenario by law, separating the two has become a herculean task.

For the few days that humans have been forced to be quarantined or restricted by lockdowns, Nature has begun measures of self-healing. The air is getting fresher in some cities and water bodies are getting clean again. Aquatic ecosystems are coming back to life, just because humans have been restrained to their habitats or homes. Do we have to wait until a disaster before we rethink our ways? Do we need a total breakdown of our biosafety before we wake up to the fact that when disaster unfolds propaganda will not erase the challenge?

These are some of the questions we need to ask ourselves. Nigeria took the wrong step by setting up a biotechnology promoting agency before setting up a biosafety agency. By the reason of the promoter midwifing the biosafety agency and consolidating this scenario by law, separating the two has become a herculean task. The truth is that this situation will only be resolved through legislation and through having a biosafety agency that is neutral, regards the opinion of citizens and accepts the basic biosafety plan of precautionary principle.

In the global north, one of the platforms on which GMOs have been permitted to be allowed into the markets has been that they must be labelled. We have painstakingly explained that because of our socio-cultural setup it is impossible to effectively label GMOs in Nigeria. Genetically engineered beans have been released into the environment and we all know that no one will label and give citizens a choice between eating akara or moi moi made from this variety of beans. Genetically modified cotton has already been introduced into the environment. Our people will eat cotton seed cakes and oils without the slightest inkling that they are consuming GMOs. Where is the choice? We have surveyed the markets for imported GMO products, and several have been found, proudly displaying NAFDAC approval numbers. Did these products pass through the approval processes before they were sold to our people?

Our regulators require to accept that they are not infallible and that they need help. Even the Supreme Courts do meet sometimes to review themselves. Biological weapons facilities are sometimes forced to shut down for decontamination exercises when accidents occur before they dare to reopen.  We cannot keep running blind-eyed to technologies that portend so much danger and for which there are viable and proven alternatives.

 


Welcome words by Nnimmo Bassey, Director Health of Mother Earth Foundation (HOMEF), at the Stakeholders Conference on Biosafety hosted by HOMEF and holding on 23 March 2020 in Abuja

Locust Swarms and other terrors

LocustThe desert locust storms hitting East Africa indicate unfolding horrors. They are also a metaphor for other terrors on the continent. Pictures of swarms of locusts, crawling, flying, mating and stripping greenery in the East and Horn of Africa region appear like something out of a horror movie or some Africa Magic epic. One agrees that the poor devils have a right to live and to thrive, but why could they not find their own creepy planet? How could billions of the little horrors descend on shrubberies and farmlands without care?

The Earth is already challenged with a plethora of crises and one would think that plagues of locusts are best left as already settled in the Holy Book. To have those noisy crowds flying about and eating up every green thing is a form of terrorism.

And here we are, having these creeping disasters attack the last hope of the already desperately poor. It is said that a small swarm of desert locusts can devour the same amount of food as 35,000 people per day. Imagine that one swarm can have up to 150 million locusts per square kilometre of farmland or an equivalent of about 250 football fields! No one wants these swarms, no matter how small. One report has it that a large swarm in north eastern Kenya measures as much as 60 kilometres long and 40 kilometres wide.

Even without rising temperatures and though they die soon after copulating, these creatures are annoyingly fecund. Africa has had an unfair share of climate-related disasters. Floods, droughts, heat and water stress all pile harms upon the continent, deepening poverty and exacerbating inequalities. These locusts should take their lust for greenery to another planet.

Mark Lowcock, UN humanitarian chief, warns that the locust invasion in East Africa can become “the most devastating plague of locusts in any of our living memories if we don’t reduce the problem faster than we’re doing at the moment.” What is being experienced is said to be inching towards the worst to be seen in the last 70 years. The menace is so shocking that even cows are wondering what on earth is happening. Humans know that a hotter climate means more swarms, no matter what deniers may postulate.

It is estimated that if the locust storm (and that’s a close image of the plague) persists, up to 10 million persons may  plunge into hunger in that part of Africa. The locusts have already struck Kenya, Somalia and parts of Uganda. South Sudan, Eritrea and Ethiopia are also threatened. They are believed to have been blown in by strong cyclones from the Arabian Peninsula and across the Red Sea and to have had a hit with greenery in East Africa. More rains offer better conditions for the locusts to thrive. Lesser rain reduces their population, but a whiff of water would quickly see a multiplication of the survivors.

What can be done about these creatures? Kill the nymphs before they grow! Did we just say that? That sounds horrendously gruesome. But that’s the harsh truth. When they pop up, wiggly, wingless and hopping, that is the time to step on them. Ouch. That is the time to give them a shower of pesticides or locusticides. The insects are edible, but locust fries, salad or suya would not eliminate these hordes. Imagine if nets were set and these troops are captured and sent to any community where they could be served for snacks or dinner. Where are the titans in search of capital? This is a business idea, brisk, short-term and extremely profitable. The stock will be freely available, and you would not even need to pay for the creatures.

Aerial spraying could be a solution in the less accessible parts of Somalia, but that option is a no brainer with the presence of al-Qaida-linked al-Shabab groups. Halting the spread of the locust is a task that must be done. Left to their devices, the attack becomes a plague that  according to experts,  would take years to eradicate.

Looking at the climate disasters and now the locust invasion in East Africa, one cannot help but conclude that West Africa has generally gotten off lightly from the tweaks of Nature and disasters triggered by the reckless plunder of Nature in the pursuit of capital.

Look at a nation like Nigeria. Natural disasters are few and far apart. When the floods come it is often predicted by relevant agencies and the disaster nevertheless arrives at a leisurely pace, traveling down the Niger and Benue Rivers until they empty into the Atlantic Ocean after sweeping away the dreams of the hapless citizens.

While locusts devour lives from trees in East Africa, in Nigeria, city gates are locked before dusk in the fear of terrorists. Citizens locked inside the cities may enjoy a dubious respite, but those locked outside the gates get roasted and annihilated in exposed and unsecured villages.

The swarms of locusts love germinating crops, devour leaves and generate hunger and desperation. Climate change intensifies floods and wreak havoc in many areas. Where these aren’t so potent, humans look for ways to spill blood, light the fires of terror in forests and scrublands, kidnap, abduct and make kids become targets merely by wearing school uniforms.

While no one can claim now to have an immediate solution to the locust strike, we have those saddled with responsibility of providing security in Nigeria screaming that they have defeated their human locusts several months ago, and that even if they are bereft of ideas on how to tackle the murderous swarms, they are indispensable. Meanwhile, we wonder why the number of victims of terrorist attacks in Borno State and in the North East generally has regularly hovered around 30.

A casual look at some news reports show that 30 persons were reportedly killed in attacks in February 2012, July 2013, December 2013, May 2015, December 2016, September 2018, May, June and December 2019, and in January and February 2020. Is it that we cannot count persons or is 30 a set number for massacres in the region?  This variant of the locust storms built by years of inequality, deprivation, poverty, corruption and ignorance has blown long enough and demands real action.

 

 

 

AGRA isn’t the Face of Agriculture

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

GMOs, Herbicides – Ambush in the Night

Moi moi

Moi moi wrapped in leaves, not plastics!

The tide of GMOs and deadly herbicides creeps on unsuspected consumers as they are literally being ambushed in the night. Twenty countries, including Togo and Malawi, have placed a ban on the use of glyphosate containing herbicides based on health and environmental concerns. Togo recently joined the ranks of countries that have banned the herbicides after two years of intense debates. According to that country’s minister of Agriculture, the such herbicides already in the country must be used up or destroyed within 12 months.

While we regret that the ban ought to have meant an immediate halt to the use of the herbicides, we believe there is a lesson to be learned here by Nigerian authorities. Glyphosate, as an active ingredient in herbicides such as Monsanto’s Roundup Ready which is widely used as a weed killer around the world, have been named a cancer-causing agent. Thousands of plaintiffs have sued the makers of these herbicides due to impacts suffered through exposure to them. Probably the most well-known case is that of Dewayne Johnson who was awarded US$289 million that was later reduced to US$78million for harms suffered.

In many of the cases, the key arguments include that the manufacturers of the harmful herbicides did not adequately warn consumers and users of the associated cancer risks. Concerns raised in Nigeria as NBMA opened the avalanche of GMO approvals was initially met with the explanation from Monsanto that the chemicals are safe if used according to specifications. It can readily be seen that the caveat was given with the knowledge that the average Nigerian farmer is not likely to read the fine letters on the packages or to wear space suits before spraying their farms with the poisons.

While Togo has declared a total ban of herbicides with glyphosate, such herbicides are quite commonplace in Nigeria. They are freely sold and some even have certification from NAFDAC.

Nigerians should worry because certain crops approved in Nigeria are genetically engineered for the application of the cancer-causing herbicides.

Ministers of Agriculture appear to be stepping up to the challenge concerning the threats posed by harmful chemicals and the genetically engineered crops necessitating their production. The position of the Togolese minister and the government on these glyphosate-based chemicals must be applauded. The position will not only protect farmers who are bound to be directly exposed to the chemicals but will also protect consumers who would eat crops with the residues of the chemicals.

The other minister that stepped the plate is that of Ghana. With a bold headline, “National well-being wins over foreign interests as gov’t ditches GMOs, a report announced that the government of Ghana, through the Minister of Food and Agriculture announced the terminating of imposition of GMOs on farmers in the country. The minister was paraphrased to have said that “the nation has capable scientists who could use traditional breeding methods to produce high yielding varieties and disease resistant plants for cultivation by farmers and no need for GMOs in the next 100 years in Ghana.”

The Ghanaian groups rejected the use of their people as guinea pigs in an unnecessary experimentation. Today they will probably rest easy that the Nigerian government has taken the lead in using her citizens as guinea pigs for this sad experiment.

Peasant farmers and civil society groups responded to the declaration by urging institutions, persons and groups “benefiting from proceeds from Monsanto to promote GMO in Ghana to rather join Ghanaian scientists and farmers to promote the local seed industry”

While Ghanaians celebrated the “defeat” of GMOs in their country, a major civil society group in the country, Food Sovereignty Ghana, cautioned that the battle is not yet over. They hinged this position on the fact that government is still defending the impending release of Bt cowpea, GM rice and Bt cotton in court. The next hearing on the case comes up on 30 January 2020. Food Sovereignty Ghana and others had sued the government of Ghana represented by the Ministry of Environment, Science, Technology and Innovation, the Ministry of Food and Agriculture, the National Biosafety Authority and the Attorney-General’s Department to stop the commercial release of these crops.

When the case against the release of the genetically engineered cowpea (beans) first went to court in Ghana in 2015, no country in the world had authorized the release of the variety for human consumption. The promoters of the GM beans declare that they cannot be visually distinguished from their natural counterpart and point to this as a mark of substantial equivalence. It is not rocket science to know that things may look alike without being the same. They may indeed have special genetic characteristics that makes their patentable as unique, as the situation with the GM beans is. Promises of labelling is trash when we consider our socio-cultural context, especially in terms of processing, storage, marketing and consumption of local foods. Selling the idea of labeling GM beans and other local crops can be compared to accepting to be ambushed in the night (apologies to Bob Marley).

The Ghanaian groups rejected the use of their people as guinea pigs in an unnecessary experimentation. Today they will probably rest easy that the Nigerian government has taken the lead in using her citizens as guinea pigs for this sad experiment.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Climate Change Cooked Africa (in 2019)

Solitary tree, Kano

Solitary Tree @ Dawakin Tofa, Kano. photo by Babawale Obayanju (www.tellthatstory.com.ng

2019 was a year of extreme weather events spread across the world. Sweltering heat hit much of the world. Raging wildfires were recorded in Brazil, Bolivia, Australia and the United States of America. Massive floods ravaged even cities like Venice, famed to be able to handle floods.

Climate change was implicated in exposing over 33 million Africans (spread across Madagascar, Malawi, Mozambique, Zambia, Zimbabwe, South Sudan, Sudan, Ethiopia, Somalia and Kenya) to food insecurity emergencies. The food situation has been compounded by the erosion of food sovereignty due to the loss of biodiversity. Violent conflicts and poverty add another dimension to the dire situation and raises the number of the vulnerable to over 52 million.

Southern Africa warmed at two times the global rate and experienced two massive cyclones in March and April leading to a loss of over 1000 lives. Having two cyclones in one season was a record. The intensity and upward reach of the cyclones on the South Eastern coastline also broke the records. Cyclones Idai and Kenneth impacted close to 3 million persons. Some researchers tie the cyclones to the warming of the Indian Ocean. If this is true, we can expect more cyclones as well as the devastation of marine ecosystems in the region.

If parts of Africa warm at double the global average, it means that if the global 1.5 degrees Celsius target of the Paris Agreement is achieved, we can expect a 3 degrees scenario in Africa. And, if the “well below” 2 degrees Celsius temperature increase above preindustrial level is the result of lack of ambition, Africa will be cooked at over 4 degrees Celsius. We note also that the global lack of ambition or readiness to seriously tackle global warming and the aggregation of the Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) already points at over 3 degrees Celsius temperature rise – sentencing pasts of Africa to a calamitous roasting.

Southern Africa warmed at two times the global rate and experienced two massive cyclones in March and April leading to a loss of over 1000 lives. Having two cyclones in one season was a record. The intensity and upward reach of the cyclones on the South Eastern coastline also broke the records.

Within the year, the continent experienced a high level of climate induced refugees and migrations. Some of these refugees are internally displaced while many, seeking to escape the clutches of the disaster, lost their lives in the Sahara Desert or in the Mediterranean Sea.

The shrinkage of Lake Chad and the attendant social upheavals are already very well known. From a size of over 25,000 square kilometres in the 1960s, the lake measures a mere 2,500 square kilometres today. What caught the attention of the world towards the end of 2019 is the shrinkage of Victoria Falls to mere trickles due to disastrous droughts in the region.

In addition to the floods, droughts, deforestation, food shortages, violence complicates and escalates the problems. Floods displaced hundreds of thousands in Somalia within the year. It is known that disasters happen when hazards meet vulnerability.  Things cannot get worse than when you live in an unstable society, with violence knocking on the door and then climate change steps in.

In the same year, Nigerians, though warned of impending floods, could do nothing to stem the tide when they arrived. Storms and cyclones brought deadly floods that hit Angola, Namibia, Uganda, South Africa, Burundi, Rwanda, Madagascar, Democratic Republic of Congo and Congo-Brazzaville. More than half a million people were affected by floods in Ethiopia and in South Sudan. According to reports, entire communities were submerged by floods, destroying basic services, markets and farms. Floods between August and October affected more than 420,000 people in Sudan with 78 people dead and 49,500 homes destroyed.

There are genuine reasons for anger at the inability of the multilateral system to address the climate challenge in a serious manner. Things have gone so bad it has taken the rising of kids to call out dithering adults before they could even come up with fictive false solutions. Vulnerable nations, including those in Africa were forced into a deadlock over Article 6 of the Paris Agreement. That article is the sword that fossil fuel interest groups foisted on the Planet.

The Article 6 promotes approaches that will help governments to implement their NDCs through voluntary international cooperation. The Article seeks to establish a policy foundation for a carbon emissions trading system, that allows polluters to buy the license to continue polluting from less polluting nations. The fossil fuels industry and partner nations love this article because it would require nothing but a monetary exchange for their climate sins. The point is this: the polluters have the cash and the vulnerable could receive the cash, but the Planet will suffer. The first step is to halt extracting and burning new fossil fuels. Next step is a planned systemic change. The alternative will be a chaotic change for those that may survive!

Science informs that the world cannot afford to open new fossil fuel mines or fields. This sector is responsible for 80 percent of all carbon dioxide pumped into the atmosphere since the industrial revolution. Rather than halt the extraction of the climate harming fuels, the industry is set to invest US$ 1.4 trillion in new oil and gas projects between 2020 and 2024. It is estimated that this will yield 50 percent more fossil fuels by 2030 and would drive the world to a 2 degrees Celsius temperature rise.

A combination of factors places African nations in a tight corner and requires critical examination of the route forward. First is the fact that while African nations have contributed little to the depletion of the carbon budget, and have been quite ambitious in the NDCs, they are trapped in the catch-up narrative where they make the futile dash to be like the rich, industrialised and polluting nations. They push is for serious climate mitigation actions while ensuring high economic growth and development. Considering that economic growth and development in the current capitalistic and neoliberal framework propel climate change, it should be obvious that that is the wrong way forward.

2020 presents us opportunity to look back, hopefully not in anger. It presents us a moment to interrogate the notion of development and growth in a finite world. It also gives us a moment to deliberate on means of halting fossil fuels proliferation and how to secure a just cooperative future for our peoples. Oilwatch International has proposed that a group of Annex 0 nations be created in the UNFCCC as a means of promoting real climate action. Countries like Belize, Costa Rica, France, New Zealand can already be grouped here as they have halted fossil fuels extraction. Ogoniland can also be recognised as a community that has taken this action within Nigeria. A fossil fuels non-proliferation treaty has been proposed for the halting of a disaster that is more likely to happen than what triggered the nuclear non-proliferation treaty.

2019 was a year that sounded a loud alarm. We chose to play hard of hearing. A quarter of a million Australians called attention to the disastrous fires ravaging that nation and petitioned for a halt of the elaborate fireworks to herald 2020. Their government responded that the fireworks had already been paid for and must continue. They did. A perfect example of how we are comfortable with “the normal”, no matter the circumstances or the consequences. The alarms have gone off everywhere. 2020 is the moment for reflection and action. Shall we wake up?

 

 

 

Walk Back from GM Beans

Not on our Plates!

Nigerians are not ready for GM Beans or any GMO for that matter. The commercialisation of genetically modified (GM) beans has been celebrated by the purveyors and promoters of the artificial variety. The Pod Borer-Resistant Cowpea (PBR-Cowpea) also known as Vigna unguiculata is modified to express the Cry1Ab protein expected to “confer protection from certain lepidopteran insect pests of cowpea, principally the pod borer (Maruca vitrata Fabricius).” Although the insecticidal beans has been advertised as the first genetically modified (GM) crop to be released into the Nigerian environment, and for consumption, it is actually the second crop. The first crop was GM cotton whose application for commercial release was approved by the NBMA in 2016.

Most people see cotton as a crop whose use is only in textiles. However, the truth is that cotton seeds are used in making cotton cakes as well as cotton oil. Cotton is eaten by our peoples in one form or the other. We are emphasizing this because some GMO promoters tend to wave off complaints on possible health impacts of the crop on the false claim that it would not enter our food chain.

Seeing the promoters of GM beans celebrate through press conferences, announcements and meetings is quite understandable. The approval for confined field trial of the variety was first granted in 2009, six years before Nigeria had a biosafety law. Another application for same purpose was approved in 2018. After spending over a decade working on the variety and having a system that authorizes its release into the environment and unto our food bowls, any scientist should be proud of the achievement. But the duration of an experiment does not suggest that the product is needed.

In assessing the application for release of the variety into the environment and market, the National Biosafety Committee decided that the beans was more or less the same as the natural counterpart. They also claimed that “The characteristics and factors affecting survival, multiplication, gene expression and dissemination are not different from those of the unmodified counterpart.” They further claimed that “Interactions with the environment are not different from those of the conventional counterpart, except in the insect resistance trait for which the product was modified.” They also claimed that the GM beans is substantially equivalent to the natural variety. In fact, the only queries on the GM beans application are basically on typographical errors.

A section of the report of the recommendation document speaks to the socio-economic considerations regarding the GM beans. This is what they said: “The introduction of the Bt Cowpea will not stop the continued use of unmodified farmer preferred varieties by any farmer who chooses to do so. The use of the Bt cowpea will increase farmers’ wealth from increased yield and reduce Farmer investment in pesticides, it will reduce environmental pollution by the insecticides due to reduced amount of total insecticide sprayed, it will reduce farmers’ health challenges from insecticide exposure. Introduction of Bt Cowpea will translate to improved food security in the entire country due to availability of much higher amounts of cowpea. This will also translate to higher incomes due to export of the commodity, because less residual insecticide means higher acceptability of Nigerian cowpea in the international market.”

There are a number of contentious ascertains in the above quote. First of all, this GM variety will likely contaminate natural varieties through cross pollination, although beans are usually self-multiplied. There is a possibility that even where a farmer chooses not to grow the GM variety, the preferred natural variety could be contaminated. The release of the GM variety thus poses a threat to the preservation of natural species. A loss of natural varieties would mean that rather than promote food security, Nigeria could be stepping into an era of uncertainty, of unpredictability and food supply instability.

The declaration also claims that farmers will earn more income because the beans would have “less residual insecticide” and would thus be more accepted in the international market are questionable. Apart from the fact that the GM beans is actually an insecticide, it is very doubtful that there will be much international market for genetically modified beans, unless their identity will not be declared in such markets.

Although the Nigerian Biosafety Act requires labelling of genetically modified organisms, we have said repeatedly that our socio-cultural and food systems do not lend themselves to labeling. This is obvious with the way our foods are prepared, packaged, presented, served and eaten. It means that regulating our food systems must take our context into consideration and much more care should be taken than may be necessary elsewhere. We are in a situation where the NBMA and the GMO promoters are ambushing both the farmers and the consumers through the release of these needless varieties into our environment and food system.

It is important to note that there are natural innovative strategies to solve the problem of pests including the Push and Pull method and biological control which have proven effective. The rush to adopt a technology immersed in so much controversy and linked to health, environmental as well as economic problems is unnecessary and ultimately unhelpful.

We have had reasons to warn that the NBMA’s process for GMO approval is stacked against contrary opinions and objections. This position has been strengthened by the Recommendation reports posted by the agency on the website of the Biosafety Clearing House (BCH). Two of the reports relate to applications from the Institute of Agricultural Research (IAR), Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria. One is for GM Beans, while the other is for “confined field trial of maize genetically modified for resistance to stem borer insect and for drought tolerance.” The NBC members that signed the recommendation document for the GM maize application include vested interests represented by prominent and frontline promoters of GMOs in Nigeria. We cannot expect rigorous evaluation and assessment of applications when the promoter is saddled with the task of such assessments.

Considering the above, it is imperative that the risky beans are recalled before it is too late. It is never wrong to retrace your steps when you find that you are on the wrong track. No matter how far you may have gone.

We Cannot Feed on Myths

Moi moi

Moi moi made with GMO beans will not be labeled.

Myths don’t feed anyone. Small-scale farmers provide 80 percent of global food supply using a mere 25 percent of the resources in the food production sector. Industrial agriculture provides less than 20 percent of the global food supply using 75 percent of cultivated land. These stark statistics are from the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), not from some angry civil society group, and state the simple truth of the situation. Nevertheless, the world is gripped by the myth that small scale farmers cannot feed the world. How is that?

Industrial agriculture thrives on monocultures, pervert diversity and has inexorably forced humans to develop monocultures of the mind, to borrow the phrase from Dr VandanaShiva. A handful of corporations have cornered the seed and agricultural inputs market and so concentrated power in their control that governments, multilateral and research institutions find it difficult to stand up to them. To be clear, the corporate mafia has not cultivated the minds of policy drafters and makers through mere propaganda, they have achieved this through arm twisting, bribery and diverse devious ways.

Thus, you would hear otherwise respectable persons wave off small scale farmers as being incapable of feeding Nigerians, Africans and the world. We hear so much excuses for not supporting the hoes and sickles that feed us. They are dismissed as primitive, burdensome and not modern. Industrial agriculture offers the world well packaged foods, and these are hailed as what is feeding the world. The mafia is so powerful that even when in 2008, over 400 scientists and development experts under the United Nations-World Bank-sponsored International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) called for the revitalization of public sector agricultural research, small farmer-oriented, low-input agroecology, governments endorsed the report and quickly ignored it.

Today, the world denigrates agriculture that is aligned with nature and celebrates the propaganda from companies whose products can be traced to death sciences and who are now pushing products into the market under a false façade of being promoters of life sciences. How could chemicals that wipe out beneficial organisms, not just in soils but in our guts, be the product of life sciences?

Makers and promoters of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) have been hard pressed to sell their artificial and unnatural crops and animals. They have achieved the spread currently attained through all manner of approaches: political pressure and blackmail, illegal introductions through irreversible contaminations and through basket-case biosafety regulatory systems.

If we agree to the FAO findings, then it should be self evident that GMOs are unnecessary. The arguments for introducing them are untenable except for those who prefer to swallow whatever is offered as food. Our small-scale farmers require support, including through extension services, rural infrastructure, storage facilities and access to markets. Agriculture is a highly subsidized business in many countries. Why is it a taboo to support our small-scale farmers? Is it not clear that those who insist that there should be no subsidies in the agricultural sector, and no critical support except through wasteful and harmful fertilizer distributions, are actually sabotaging our food system?

Matters got worse for Nigeria because somehow the nation set up an institution whose mandate is to develop biotechnology before making a law to regulate the sector. Once the biotech foot was in the door, it became the duty of the promoter to facilitate the development of the regulatory framework. This explains the porous regulatory system as well as the incestuous relationship between the promoters and the regulators. They simply find it impossible to stand apart. And, so you find the regulator spending a bulk of their time talking about the safety GMOs.

We are told that GMOs yield higher than natural varieties. This has been shown through scientific studies to be a false claim. Another claim is that with GMOs, farmers will use less chemicals because some of the crops are engineered to act as pesticides. We are also told that the GMOs designed to tolerate certain herbicides reduce the application of the chemicals in farms. Both claims are not only patently false, they have been shown to try to conceal harmful repercussions of dependence on the pesticidal crops and chemicals.

First, the herbicide tolerant crops may actually withstand the chemicals, such as Monsanto’s Roundup Ready which is all over the Nigerian market. However, the weeds they try to kill have been known to build resistance and become super weeds, requiring higher doses of the lethal poisons. These chemicals don’t only kill weeds, they kill other beneficial organisms in the soil and in waters where they may be washed into. We should state here that Roundup Ready has glyphosate as a major component and this is a carcinogen. Thousands of cases have been instituted against Monsanto (and Bayer who bought the company) over the deadly health effects suffered by users of the chemical. That chemical is all over our markets, complete with NAFDAC numbers.

Second, some of the GMOs, such as Bt cotton and Bt beans, are designed to kill target pests. They are created by genetically altering their genome to express a microbial protein from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis. The argument is that the bacterium is found in soils, is safe and should be no cause for concern. The inconvenient truth is that the naturally occurring Bt is not exactly the same as the genetically engineered Bt. The natural Bt has a shorter half life when exposed to sunlight, but the biotech variant persists with implications and consequences, including for our gut organisms. Bt Cotton was trumpeted as dramatically reducing the use of pesticides on the crop as they were supposed to kill the target bollworm pests. The crop has failed to kill off bollworms in India and farmers have had to use more pesticides and suffered economic woes as a result of the failure. Cotton farmers in Burkina Faso complained of this failure, besides the fact of poor-quality fibers. It is that failure that is being celebrated in Nigeria.

In many countries there are strong demands for labeling of GMOs so that consumers would have a choice of whether to eat such foods or not. The issue should not even arise in Nigeria because the way we package, sell and consume many of our foods simply make it impossible to label them. Who would label genetically modified ogi, akara, eko, moi moi, garri, epa and the rest?

As we interrogate GMOs today, we have to keep an eye on the new extremes variants that have emerged. These ones do not involve transference of genetic materials between species. Whereas old school GMOs tried to reduce the need to weed frequently or to kill off pests, the new variants, among other things, are essentially extinction GMOs. They also try to upturn nature, are prone to being weaponised and introduce traits with unpredictable and dire consequences for the future.

If the earlier GMOs had inputs from a war or poison mindset, and lead to erosion of biodiversity, the new ones aim to completely annihilate our understanding of agriculture and the care for Nature and her children. They herald a system of greed before life and an age of warfare without gunpowder. False claims continue to swirl wherever we look. It is time for us to wake up. Enough of these myths. Myths never fed anyone!