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Published On: Tue, Aug 5th, 2014

Biotechnology and the battle for Nigeria’s food sovereignty

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akinwunmi-ayo-adesinaAs the nation quivers at the recent reports on Ebola virus and its devastating effects, the disclosure by the National Agricultural Biotechnology Development Agency (NABDA) that the Nigerian government, is working to fast track the adoption of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) foods, may again, throw the country over board as it has been viewed as surrendering Nigeria’s food sovereignty to the key players in the biotechnology industry with dire consequences. Ayodele Samuel, writes.

Stakeholders on food security are of the opinion that Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) foods currently creeping, uncontrollably, into the Nigerian market is a  major threat to the nation’s food sovereignty,

 The agency’s pitch is more or less that if the doors are not officially open to GMOs Nigerians will be consuming them without knowing.

 Many stakeholders however argued that there are GMO products coming into Nigeria illegally and the government ought to be protecting the citizens rather than closing the doors on the Precautionary Principle which, as the name implies urges caution in matters of this nature.

 Although the Minister for Agriculture Akinwunmi Adesina said GMOs are not in Nigeria, insisting that “appropriate regulatory agencies would be put in place to check the benefits and risks associated with GMO foods.

  “We must never be afraid of atomic technology in food production. We want to raise productivity, good health and environmental sustainability. We must not listen to those who want to create fear in the minds of people on things they should not be scared about with half-baked knowledge.

 “We must not be afraid of science. We can use science to make our food safe, and on the issue of food security. We must be aware that technology is the only way we can open up opportunities. Also, we have to understand the risks and put good regulations in place to reduce those risks. The fact remains that we have nothing in this country called GMO. People confused modern day science to GMOs. People say hybrid maize is from GMO, but it is from conventional maize,” Adeshina said.

 NABDA claims the there are enough safeguards in place for the introduction of GMOs into Nigeria.

 The safeguards include the following: a draft Biosafety Bill, Biosafety application guidelines, Biosafety containment facilities guidelines, and a variety of forms such as those for accreditation, GMO import and shipment form and a host of drafts.

  Stakeholders however, said if forms and draft documents are listed as biosafety readiness tools “we should be extremely suspicious of such a state of readiness.”

 They argued that contrary to reports that genetically modified crops will help alleviate poverty in Africa, Nigeria, and indeed other African countries should be wary of biotechnology industry, alleging that their campaigns are targeted against food sovereignty in the region.

 Director, Health of Mother Earth Foundation (HOMEF)  Nnimmo Bassey said the fact that some genetically modified products have entered our market shelves illegally should elicit a different response than to open up the market to be flooded with more of such products.

 He said African countries must realize that the campaign is all about the fight for food sovereignty – for the right of people to grow food that suit their environment, protect their biodiversity and serve their ability to eat foods that are wholesome and culturally acceptable.

 Therefore, “Policies must support systems of agriculture and food production that do not distort or damage local economies. We must not blindly or willfully promote policies that build neocolonial structures that lock in poverty by upturning tested local agricultural knowledge; promoting land grabs through large-scale industrial farming and creates dependency on artificial seeds and chemicals. True food security can only be assured by food sovereignty,” he said.

  Calling on the National Assembly and our President not to yield to pressure to foist a weak biosafety law on Nigeria, Nnimmo said the bill that policy makers present as key to opening our environment for invasion by GMOs does not have the teeth to protect our biodiversity and environmental health. The bill has no provisions for strict liability and does not have a mechanism for redress once contamination has occurred.

 “The road towards making a Nigerian Biosafety law has been one bedeviled by hide-and-seek tactics. It has not been a transparent road. The notice of the Public Hearing of 2009 was so short that one could not expect critical participants like farmers and community groups to adequately prepare and submit their memoranda. At the public hearing itself farmers, civil society and community groups were given about a minute apiece to present their views while pro-biotech agencies had all the time to lecture the gathering on the benefits of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). It is worrisome that leaders who should protect our environment, agriculture and general patrimony are at the forefront of promoting and plotting to ambush Nigerians into accepting a technology that portends more harm than good.”

 He observed that a report by London-based think-tank Chatham House, targeted at African governments to open up to biotechnology, made several erroneous and contradictory arguments concerning the lack of uptake or impact of GM crops in Africa, as well as dismissing oppositions to GM crops across the globe as a European-led phenomenon.

 Nnimmo added, that even in the United States (U.S.), public opposition to GM crops has been growing for some time. “Over 500,000 people have written to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) calling for the rejection of Dow Chemical’s application for several GM crops tolerant to 2, 4-D based herbicides.

 “Unperturbed by the prospect of legal action from the biotechnology industry, several states are pressing ahead with laws for the labeling of GM food. To argue that onerous laws and political expediency has created a situation of ‘continual field trials’, as the Chatham House report does, misunderstands or misrepresents several key issues at play,” Bassey said.

 Also President Women Arise, Dr Joe Okei-Odumakin , tasked the federal government to ensure proper scrutiny of the genetically modified foods being illegally imported into the country.

 “Nigerian authorities must take cognizance of the kind of GM products being imported into Nigeria. Only Nigerians can determine what come on their plates as food. There are GMOs products abroad that have been rejected by their government and citizens but they will want to impose such on Nigeria; Nigeria is not a dumping ground. We reject being feed with GMOs that have largely come from unverified technologies into Nigeria.”

 We have our rights to food sovereignty. We reject the instigation of biotechnology companies and their local allies who, under the pretence of food sufficiency want to impose GMOs products on us,” Okei-Odumakin   said.

 She urged the National Assembly to be careful with the pushing of law that will impose GMOs on Nigeria, “we must campaign against the passage of such law. Instead of GMOs the federal Government should strengthen conventional breeding and encourage small and large scale farming.”

 Coordinator of African Food Sovereignty Alliance (AFSA), Ethiopia, Million Bellay, added that the vast majority of GM crops grown worldwide were either tolerant to the application of herbicides, produce their own pesticides (Bt crops) or were a combination of the two.

“There is good reason that the ‘pipeline’ of new GM crops and traits, such as drought tolerant or nutritionally enhanced African ‘orphan’ crops, has not materialised; they are all profoundly more complex process than what has so far been commercialised.

“The fabled ‘Golden Rice’ (engineered with extra vitamin A) has been in development since the early 1990s. While this has been going on, the government of the Philippines (one of the target countries) has been remarkably successful in lowering vitamin A deficiency using cheap, low-tech solutions.

“The obsession in promoting GM crops in Africa, exemplified in this instance by the new Chatham House report, diverts attention and resources from a plurality of genuine and localised solutions and flies in the face of the recommendations of independent science”, he noted.

Bellay added that research had shown that small-holder farmers produce 75 per cent of the world’s food, but only use about 25 per cent of the world’s agricultural resources. The industrial agriculture chain only produces about 25 per cent of the world’s food but uses 75 per cent of the planet’s agricultural resources.

“Imagine the gains that could be made if even a fraction of the resources propping up the industrial food system were channeled into alternative systems,” he said.

Director of African Centre for Biosafety, South Africa, Mariam Mayet, further said that Africans must reject GMOs because the technology has not delivered on any of its promises and poses significant long-term threats to our environment and peoples.

She said though the issue of risk is given little attention in the Chatham House report, “lest we forget that in late 2013, nearly 300 scientists and legal experts from around the world signed a statement affirming that there is ‘no scientific consensus on GMO safety.

“That GM’s proponents can claim the contrary merely reflects the undue influence the biotechnology industry has on the scientific process.”

“Further, are philanthropists who are supporting GM development and pressuring Africa to open up also heavy investors in the biotech sector? For example, the relationship between Monsanto and the Gates Foundation is well documented. Monsanto, DuPont and Syngenta are all heavily involved in the G8 New Alliance on Food Security and Nutrition, the sharp end of the Green Revolution push in Africa.

“No matter how much these forces manoeuver to seem altruistic rather than predatory, the smoking gun always seems to be visible. The combined forces of Big Agribusiness and Big Philanthropy have been so effective at pressuring our governments that some of them see biosafety laws as mere instruments to opening up our nations to the biotech industry and their local surrogates.

“African countries must realise that the campaign is all about the fight for food sovereignty – for the rights of people to grow food that suits their environment, protects their biodiversity and serves their ability to eat foods that are wholesome and culturally acceptable,” she said.

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