Arrival of Extreme Technology

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bitten by Genetically Modified Gnats

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Knife to the Throat

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Classroom of life has no graduation

C97AC918-4170-4535-86BF-5A3970E9A0D5The Classroom of life has no graduation. Life offers classrooms without walls. Increasingly we are seeing these learning spaces to be the streets. They remain enclosed by our environment and our culture. Importantly, the Classroom of life has no graduation.

The classrooms of universities and multiversities, are concentrated arenas of learning that offer special opportunities to raise students and intellectuals to speak up for the poor, for Mother Earth and her children. In a time where our foods are being assailed by chemical-based agriculture, science needs to assure us that what we eat is not eating us up. At a time when our water, land and air are poisoned by wrongheaded extractivism, we need to remind ourselves that wellbeing is not defined by how much minerals we dig up, transform or accumulate.

What we make of our environment makes us, molds our imaginations and shapes our philosophies of life. It makes us humane or monstrous.

Distinguished ladies and gentlemen, we cannot be onlookers in the fight to tackle the existential crises of our days, especially that of climate change. Through music and philosophies of life we can persistently project our memories and challenge our imaginations till we all agree that the saying ‘another world is possible’ and calling for ‘system change’ are not mere sloganeering but real calls for action.

We face a challenge of how to communicate the horrors of climate impacts and displacements in ways that can wake the world from slumber. We have a duty to stand as environmental defenders and reject the forces compelling millions to live in extremely contaminated environments and pushing others to early and watery graves in the Mediterranean Sea or to fiery graves in the burning dunes of the Sahara.

With broad spectrum programmes such as the Festival of Ideas annually hosted by the University of York, it is clear that the town and the gown, the field and the laboratory, can all trigger innovation that would dismantle the concentration of power in a few hands and rebuild a future for our collective humanity.

Music, poetry, prose, drama, sculpture, architecture, painting and other forms of arts have been veritable tools for education, as well as maintaining our cultures for ages. Today we can make music with our feet and fists and halt over-consumption and build cooperation, solidarity and the true ideals of wellbeing.

Education transforms. One way this happens is by empowering us to accept dissent as a true mark of patriotism and to accept criticisms and needed solutions, even if they are advanced by those we do not often agree with.

We simply cannot stay silent or feign neutrality as societies fall apart. That is challenge offered by the education and practice at the University of York. This is an arena where academics and practice truly blend. We step up today by looking at the past and with solid hindsight building a harmonious and just future with one another, Mother Earth and all our relatives.

Education transforms. One way this happens is by empowering us to accept dissent as a true mark of patriotism and to accept criticisms and needed solutions, even if they are advanced by those we do not often agree with.

Let us close with “Keep Out of Prison” – a poem written by Ken Saro-Wiwa while in prison.

Keep out of prison,’ he wrote
‘Don’t get arrested anymore.’
But while the land is ravaged
And our pure air poisoned
When streams choke with pollution
Silence would be treason
Punishable by a term in prison.

* My speaking notes on receiving an honorary degree at the University of York graduation ceremony on 19 July 2019

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.