Coloniality and the Geography of Seeds and Foods

NnimmoBThe geography of food shows the peculiarities and patterns of food production and consumption across the world or in particular territories. It tells a tapestry of stories of the individuals or communities where they are found and consumed. Food is a key component and marker of any culture.

Peculiar food types are found in particular places and are promoted by persons embedded in such places. The geography of food is largely determined by the type of plants and animal species prevalent in particular areas. The spread of plants and animals across the world is largely dispersed according to the climatic realities of various territories. Available food sources determine our cuisine, support our health needs and impact economic, socio-cultural and religious activities.

Plants-based foods begin their journeys to our plates as seeds. Considering that seeds are essentially whole plants or animals covered by a seed coat, it is correct to say that seed is life. It is life to its species as well as life for those who make their foods from them. Many factors have affected the availability and prevalence of certain seeds in particular territories, nations and regions. Some of these factors include climatic changes as well as economic and political pressures. Natural disasters and wars also orchestrate a change of diet for peoples especially when the response to such situations include the philanthropic supply of seeds and foods that may also be targeted to ultimately trigger food dependence by impacted territories.

Colonialism, neocolonialism and neoliberalism are deeply implicated in the disruption of food systems and in the introduction of plants and animals that are not found in nature. We note that colonialism was a geopolitical tool utilized to ensure extraction of resources and labour from subjugated territories. In terms of agriculture, the major approaches included growing crops mainly for export to the home bases of the colonial powers. These were appropriately called cash crops. They literally shifted the control of local agriculture from the communities to distant market forces and at the same time deprecated community values. The approach of moving agriculture from meeting the needs of the producers can be seen in the manner by which a bulk of genetically modified (GM) crops are cultivated for animal feeds and for industrial purposes.

In considering the matter of seeds, foods and biosafety in Nigeria we are confronted by the display of a sophisticated lack of knowledge by highly schooled professionals who insist that whatever they say must be accepted as truth. These highly placed players pose a grave threat to Africa and not just Nigeria.

Today governments willingly sacrifice national interests in order to attract positive relationships with corporations and international financial institutions. The mindset that promotes this subservient disposition clearly ignores cultural values, our indigenous knowledge and the pressures on our people whose natural socio-ecological support systems are being eroded.

Over the years our farmers have selected, preserved and shared the best seeds. In some cultures, it is an abomination to sell seeds. Our peoples built socio-economic systems that promote human dignity and community cohesion. They built knowledge and values that respect other beings and species with the understanding of our deep interconnectedness as citizens of the Planet. Today seeds have become a global commodity and means of control.

Must we all be molecular biologists before we can reject GMOs and insist on natural seeds and foods? When can people speak up if toxic herbicides like Roundup poison non-scientists? From the grave? If a scientist tells me that cigarettes are good for my health – as they did for several years – should my response be an applause, an Amen? If an engineer or architect swears that a collapsing building is safe, should I move in and begin to decorate it? Or would painting it over with graffiti or poetry change the status of the building?

Many protagonists of the erosion of our dignity and right to life hide under the cloak of science to conceal colonial intent of control, subjugation and denial of the right of choice. The worst form of slavery happens, it is said, when the slave does not perceive that he is a slave and celebrates what he thinks is freedom within his wretched condition. It also happens when the slave master accords some powers to heads of slave gangs and watches them inflict injury of their fellow slaves. Frantz Fanon captured this situation when he stated in his book, The Wretched of the Earth, that “The national bourgeoisie will be quite content with the role of the Western bourgeoisie’s business agent, and it will play its part without any complexes in a most dignified manner… In its beginnings, the national bourgeoisie of the colonial country identifies itself with the decadence of the bourgeoisie of the West. We need not think that it is jumping ahead; it is in fact beginning at the end. It is already senile before it has come to know the petulance, the fearlessness, or the will to succeed of youth.”

In considering the matter of seeds, foods and biosafety in Nigeria we are confronted by the display of a sophisticated lack of knowledge by highly schooled professionals who insist that whatever they say must be accepted as truth. These highly placed players pose a grave threat to Africa and not just Nigeria. There was a time when our country was a bastion of support for the liberation of Africa from colonial subjugation. At a time when the struggle raged in the southern parts of Africa, Nigeria was considered a frontline state in the struggles for liberation. Today when it comes to biosafety and the protection of biodiversity, Nigeria has rapidly become the soft under belly of the continent, the gateway towards a recolonization of the continent. This state of things is celebrated by GMO promoters who have foot soldiers in the corridors of government offices, research institutes and increasingly in the media.

Is shameful when educated persons claim that because genetic engineering is a science, non-scientists must unquestioningly accept whatever product is allowed by the regulators into our environment or market shelves. They claim that those that insist on precaution when it comes to GMOs must produce “evidence-based” scientific reasons for their claims. It must be said that this is a standard biotech industry public relations response to questions from citizens who are truly concerned about the erosion of our biodiversity and the challenges to environmental and human health by these unnatural species and products derived from them.

In fact, the head of the National Biosafety Management Agency (NBMA) routinely claims that whatever they allow into Nigeria is safe. That claim of absolute certainty cannot be supported by science as humans are yet to fully comprehend the intricacies of the interdependencies of ecosystems at molecular and at other levels.

In the past four years Nigeria has witnessed the influx of GMOs and products derived from these novel organisms.  The claim of safety is premised on the arguments of GMO promoters that there is no scientific evidence that such products can be harmful to humans or to the environment does not recognise the highly circumscribed nature of the tests conducted often under the control of the promoting industry. In a recently decided case in the USA where a gardener was awarded millions of dollars for having cancer after being exposed to the chemical glyphosate (once described as a carcinogen) in Bayer/Monsanto’s herbicide Roundup, industry hatchet jobbers insist that the decision made by the jury was not acceptable because none of them is a scientist!

Must we all be molecular biologists before we can reject GMOs and insist on natural seeds and foods? When can people speak up if toxic herbicides like Roundup poison non-scientists? From the grave? If a scientist tells me that cigarettes are good for my health – as they did for several years – should my response be an applause, an Amen? If an engineer or architect swears that a collapsing building is safe, should I move in and begin to decorate it? Or would painting it over with graffiti or poetry change the status of the building?

Over the past four years we have repeatedly heard highly “educated” promoters of modern agricultural biotechnology in Nigeria claim that the taking of a rib from Adam to create Eve was biotechnology. In other words, that creation was by biotechnology. This claim was repeated at the recently held public hearing at the House of Representatives on the attempt by NBMA to expand its law by inserting definitions of extreme forms of biotechnology, including synthetic biology and gene drives. The claim could be interpreted as blasphemous or as an indication that GMO promoters are playing God or that the act of genetic engineering is a form of worship. The claim that creation was by biotechnology is a shameful low that should not be heard from the lips of highly placed government officials.

We are concerned because new techniques deployed in genetic engineering have risks beyond the ones posed by first generation modern biotechnology. Gene drives have the capacity of driving species to extinction – a direct and irreversible threat to biodiversity. While the world is grappling with understanding the implications of these technologies and what governance mechanisms to adopt, our Nigerian regulators and some lawmakers are pushing to open the way for them to be tested here probably based on their unverified claims that Nigeria has the most qualified practitioners as well as the best equipped laboratories in Africa.

It is time for the Nigerian government to fund our research institutions and agencies so that they actually carry out researches that support our seeds, agriculture and food systems. We cannot continue to be a testing ground for risky technologies developed elsewhere. So far, it is doubtful if any of the permits issued in Nigeria is for a variety genetically engineered in Nigeria. They are more likely all engineered elsewhere and brought here to be tested.

We reiterate that seeds, agriculture and food systems mirror and develop our culture. Seed is life. Food is life. Although food is consumed mainly for energy, nutrition and health, its import clearly goes beyond just being things that humans ingest for these purposes.

Along with the GMO debacle in Nigeria is the quiet push to have Nigeria sign unto international seed laws that would further pressure our farmers and open the doors to corporate seed conglomerates to dominate and control our food systems. The combination of GMOs and uninterrogated seed laws will constitute grave environmental harm and will intensify hunger, poverty and social inequality in the country. We must continue to question and reject both.

10 April 2019

Cross section of participants at the Seeds, Foods and Biosafety Conference hosted by HOMEF on 10.04.19

 

 

 

“Evolving” Extinction GMOs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Dining on Genetically Engineered Pesticides

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kotawice and Climate Pathways

IMG_0421President Buhari made a subtle Climate justice pitch in Katowice There is cautious optimism that nations may get serious about climate change as the 24th Conference of Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) opened in Katowice, Poland on 3 December 2018. The optimism is slim because the conference would essentially draw up the rule book for the implementation of the Paris Agreement of 2015. That agreement has been globally hailed as the singular effort of nations to jointly tackle global warming, ensuring that average global temperature rise is kept to 1.5 degrees Celsius or well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.

The anchor on which action to tackle global warming hangs in the Paris Agreement, is what is called the Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) to emissions reduction. The key phrase here is Nationally Determined. This means that each nation must decide or determine what is convenient or feasible for them to do in terms of cutting emission of greenhouse gases known to cause global warming.

While the world celebrated the Paris Agreement, climate justice campaigners warned that there was nothing substantial on which to hang the celebratory banners. It was clear that powerful nations, who also happen to be the most polluting nations, would not cut emissions at source in ways that will halt the rising temperature dial. With pledges made and computed, the world is faced with the stark scenario of temperature rise in the range between 2.7 degrees and 3.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. Such a temperature rise will simply roast the planet, kicking in cataclysmic climate events and making life impossible for humans and other beings in most parts of the world.

In addition, the pledges made by many countries are conditional on having certain supports by way of finance and technologies. Nigeria pledged to cut emissions unconditionally by 20 percent and conditionally by 45 percent with support from international partners. The country also planned to work towards ending gas flaring by 2030 and towards providing off-grid solar power of 13,000 Mega Watts. While making those pledges, it is expected that within the 2015-2030 implementation period, the national economic and social development would grow at the rate of 5 percent per year. It is well known that the economic fortunes of the nation are not anywhere near that level, by any measure.

As the curtains opened in Katowice on Monday, 03 December 2018, President Muhammadu Buhari was one of the heads of governments that took the podium in the high-level sessions. One highlight of President Buhari’s speech was his emphasis that in taking climate action the principle of Common but Differentiated Responsibilities (CBDR) must constantly apply. This was the hammer on the head of the climate nail because without adherence to this principle the justice basis of climate responsibility is forever lost. The CBDR principle was one of the strong anchors in the Kyoto Protocol of 1997. That protocol differentiated rich, industrialised polluting countries from poor, vulnerable and non-polluting nations. They were grouped under Annex I and Non-Annex I countries respectively.

The protocol provided a legally binding framework by which nations were supposed to be assigned scientifically determined emissions reduction targets. By that means, it was hoped that the effectiveness of emissions reduction would be known in advance if parties agreed to adhere to their assigned targets. The level of ambition of 37 industrialised countries and the European community in the first commitment period (2008-2012) of the Kyoto Protocol was a mere 5 percent against 1990 levels.

A second commitment period (2013-2020) was agreed in 2012 as the Doha Amendment. President Buhari announced during his speech that Nigeria was set to ratify the Doha Amendment. This agreement more or less provides life support for the Kyoto Protocol, especially after the emergence of the Copenhagen Accord (2009) and the Paris Agreement (2015) both of which are anchored on voluntary emissions reduction, with scant attention to the requirements of science.

The recently released special report of the Intergovernmental panel on climate change (IPCC) warns of the dire situation facing a world that has already crossed the 1-degree Celsius temperature increase above pre-industrial level. It gives the world an ominous 12-year window in which to act or descend into an utterly chaotic climatic situation.

While the big polluters are reticent, suggesting that the capacity to pollute is the mark of progress, some non-polluting countries are displaying NDCs that would mean cutting emissions they are not even emitting. These show that voluntary emissions reduction pathway is not the way out.

President Buhari spoke of the harsh situation the 14 million persons depending on the shrinking Lake Chad are facing. He spoke of the plans for an inter-basin water transfer that would see water from the Congo Basin being piped to recharge Lake Chad. The canalisation idea was first developed by an Italian firm, Bonifaca, about four decades ago. While the feasibility studies of that old recharge idea are being worked out, perhaps we can work on examining the ground water management systems in the region with the aim of conserving and protecting what is left to keep the lake alive.

The president’s speech covered many areas, including the need to maintain sound environmental management in economic development. Surprisingly, he said nothing about ending gas flaring. Considering that the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) is selling the idea that gas flaring would end by 2020 ahead of the 2030 target set by Nigeria’s NDC, and has placed advertisements in papers indicating readiness to pursue that goal. It was disappointing that the president did not utilize that global stage to show how Nigeria is taking leadership in cutting emissions from one of the most obnoxious sources.

As the first week of COP24 draws to a close, the world is waiting to see if the leaders in Katowice will wake up to the fact that the NDCs are not the right way forward. To continue on the path that inexorably leads to intractable climate chaos is another side of the denial coin sold by the political heads of the USA and Brazil.

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This piece was first published on 7 December 2018 as Buhari’s Climate Justice Pitch in Katowice in my Leadership newspaper column,  The Instigator

 

 

 

 

A Dose of Needless Medicine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Do Not Betray Africa on Extreme Genetic Engineering

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Signed by the following organisations:

-Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa.

– La Via Campesina Africa

– Friends of the Earth Africa

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

– CCAE Collectif Citoyen pour L’Agroecologie

– Fahamu Africa

– Advocates Coalition for Development and Environment, Uganda

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

– Comparing and Supporting Endogenous Development (COMPAS Africa)

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

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

– Convergences Régionales Terre-eau et Autres Ressources Aturelles

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

– Terre á Terre, Burkina Faso

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

– African Centre for Biodiversity

– Inades-Formation

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

– Jeunes Volontaires pour l’Environnement (JVE International)

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

– The Africa CSOs’ Coalition on African Development Bank

– Health of Mother Earth Foundation

– Committee on Vital Environmental Resources, Nigeria

– The Young Environmental Network, Nigeria

– Community Empowerment Initiative (GECOME) Nigeria.

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

– Climate Change and Amelioration Initiative( ECCAI), Nigeria

– Pearls Care Initiative (PCI), Nigeria

– Intergrity Conscience Initiative (ICI).Nigeria

– Participatory Ecological Land Use Management (PELUM) Association

– Rural Women’s Assembly

-Rural Alliance for Green Environment (RAGE), Nigeria

– Bio Interrity in Natural Foods Awareness Initiative, Nigeria

– Initiative for Peace, Empowerment and Tolerance, Nigeria

– Integrity Conscience Initiative (ICI), Nigeria

– Eco-Defenders Network, Nigeria

– Green Alliance Network (GAN) Nigeria

– Rural Environmental Defenders (U-RED) Nigeria

I Dream Of Clean Creeks

pondering

I dream of clean creeks. Writing about the creeks and swamps of the Niger Delta can be quite a struggle for me at times. Many times, I have set aside my poetry quill and declared to myself that I would no longer write poems like these. But then something happens that prompts a line, and then another one, and more.

I would rather write more poems about lush vegetations, of butterflies and beautiful gazelles. Poems inspired by love, of which I have done a few in the past. One stanza penned for my soul mate echoes in my mind often: When I see you/ I see you again/ and again and again. On reflection, those lines echo lines by the master poet, Odia Ofeimun, which he wrote about his father: I see my father’s face in every mirror, if I remember correctly.

I see the creeks of the Niger Delta in every creek and river I encounter in my pollution tours around the world. When I look into streams and rivers and see the fish swirling about, and the pebbles and white sands way beneath the surface of the water, I pause and reflect on what once was the condition of the Niger Delta. I also think of what was once the state of the lagoons of Lagos, the Challawa River of Kano as well as the Kaduna River. These creeks, streams, rivers and estuaries of the Niger Delta now wear the cloak of hydrocarbon pollution, like the proverbial mourner or penitent dressed in burlap.

It would probably take a space probe to see the bottom of even the shallowest creek or pond in the Niger Delta because of the thick layer of crude oil and related pollutants that have literally choked the daylight out of them. The only relief to the eye in these hellish seascapes is fish floating belly-up having dared to survive for a time in such a hostile environment. The Lagos Lagoon and rivers Challawa and Kaduna do not fare any better, clogged with pollutants of a different class – ranging from effluents from factories, waste oil to sundry wastes from households.

What is hardly spoken about is the huge amount of waste water that comes out of crude oil drilling. Known as produced or process water, this highly toxic water can, at times, be radio-active. On average, about five barrels of water are produced for every barrel of crude oil extracted. Some oil fields may produce higher volumes, but if Nigeria extracts 2 million barrels of crude oil per day, we can expect that there are 10 million barrels of produced water to contend with on a daily basis. How do oil companies dispose of this highly toxic wastewater?

The wastewater can be used as production fluid by pumping or reinjecting it to help recover more oil from the wells. They could also be stored in containment ponds lined with water proofing membranes and detoxified to some extent before being discharged into the environment. The question as to whether this toxic wastewater is handled in Nigeria according to the best international standards is an open one.

Between 2008 and 2010, Sign of Hope, a German charity, took 90 water samples from 76 locations in oil field communities in Thar Jath, South Sudan.  The result of the hydrogeological study was released in 2014 and showed that the ground water in the areas was heavily contaminated with salts and heavy metals. It was later confirmed, by scientific analyses of hair samples, that the people have been exposed to chronic poisoning by the heavy metals including lead and barium. The threat to the health of the people has been persistent and unrelenting. The conflict situation in the area may have served as a cover for environmental misbehaviour, but with returning peace, demands are being made for thorough health audits of the population and the provision of alternative and safe drinking water for the people.

The oil pollution in South Sudan pales compared to the situation in Nigeria. Now is the time to ask questions about how Shell, Chevron, Exxon, Agip, Total, the Nigerian Petroleum Development company and others handle their toxic produced water. Could it be that millions of barrels of toxic water are discharged into the creeks, rivers and estuaries of the Niger Delta on a daily basis without sufficient treatment? The study of the environment of Ogoni by the United Nations Environment Programme showed high levels of pollution of land, surface and ground water. The situation is the same or worse across other oil field communities elsewhere in the Niger Delta.

These questions assault our dream of clean creeks in the Niger Delta. And this is why the success of the Ogoni clean-up project is so vital for the health of our present and future generations. With the completion of the long process towards the award of the contracts that would allow the clean-up machinery to roll in, we urge the Hydrocarbons Pollution Remediation Project (HYPREP) to ensure that delays become a thing of the past. Ogoni is a living laboratory and the clean-up holds out hope for a detoxification of the entire Niger Delta, and the clean-up of the entire pipeline routes in the country as well as the refinery area in Kaduna and, of course, the Lagos zone when the mammoth refinery being built there begins to produce and to pollute.

We dream of seeing the pebbles at the bottom of the creek at Bodo, Goi, K-Dere and in other parts of Ogoni. We also have the dream that one day, as the Ogoni clean-up unfolds, the periwinkles, crabs and myriad aquatic life forms will return to the mangroves. We dream that at that time, the mangrove roots will breath again. And so will the people.

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First published on 16 November 2018 under the column The Instigator at https://leadership.ng/2018/11/16/a-dream-of-clean-creeks/