The world today, Africa inclusive, battles with several food system related issues – biodiversity loss, soil degradation, non-communicable diseases and climate change.
While these challenges require urgent attention, it is pertinent that we carefully examine approaches that are formulated to solve them. There is a popular saying that “two wrongs cannot make a right”. It is also said that the best way to get out of a pit is to stop digging. It is absurd to think that the same model or approach that bring about these issues would solve them.
Industrial agriculture is shown to be the leading cause of anthropogenic climate change especially with the production of inorganic fertilisers, transportation over long distances and intensive animal production. It is also one of the major causes of deforestation, water pollution, and biodiversity loss. Its use of large volumes of chemical fertilisers and pesticides is linked to various adverse health effects – cancers, immune malfunction, developmental delays in children and more.
Industrial agriculture produces mainly commodity crops, used in a wide variety of calorie-dense foods. Thus, about 60 per cent of all dietary energy is derived from just three cereal crops – rice, maize and wheat.
This calorie-based approach fails to meet nutritional recommendations, such as those for the consumption of fruits, vegetables and pulses or legumes. The popularity of processed and packaged food is increasing across the world. Obesity is also on the rise globally and many suffer from avoidable diet related diseases like heart disease, stroke, diabetes and cancers.
Industrial farming entrenches inequality. Although small farms make up 72 per cent of all farms, they occupy just about 8 per cent of all agricultural land. In contrast, large farms – which account for only 1 per cent of the world’s farms – occupy 65 per cent of agricultural land. This gives large farms disproportionate control. Also, Industrial farms use over 70 percent of the world’s resources but produce less than 30 percent of food consumed – most of it is for machines – while small farms use less than 30 percent of available resources to produce over 70 percent of food consumed.
GMOs – genetically modified organisms – are a major component of industrial agriculture. Global adoption of products of this technology has been limited despite three decades of robust marketing. 26 countries have banned them while 64 countries currently require manufacturers to label foods with GMOs.
GMOs were introduced with two main promises: to increase crop yield and reduce pesticide usage. A comparison done by the New York Times using United Nations Data of crop yield in most parts of Europe where GMOs are rejected and North America which has largely welcomed GMOs revealed that North American GMO crops showed no gains over non-GMO crops in European countries with comparable agricultural technology (France and Germany, among others).
The comparison specifically on corn, rapeseed, and sugar beets. Corn yield was largely equivalent, but both rapeseed and sugar beets saw increased yields in Europe and not in North America, which is a shame for GMO proponents whose propaganda has mostly been based on crop yield. In almost 30 decades since their introduction, GMOs have not solved world hunger as promised. This is because in actual fact, GMOs were not designed to solve world hunger.
The claim that GMOs would reduce pesticide use is pure fallacy considering that the same companies making the genetically modified (GM) seeds make pesticides to accompany them. The GM seed market is dominated by crops acclaimed to be herbicide tolerant or pest resistant.
Pesticide use – including both herbicides and insecticides – has actually increased, despite claims from Monsanto (now Bayer) and others that the GMOs seeds would create plants that were resistant to pests.
The report by New York Times cites data that herbicide use in the US has increased by 21% in the last two decades. Soybean herbicide use has grown 250% since the introduction of GMO seeds. Use in corn was actually decreasing before GMOs but doubled between 2002–2010.
This information is not considered by the Nigerian government. Part of consideration and sometimes the only consideration before permits are granted for importation of GMOs into the country as in the case of the WACOT maize is the fact that the GM products were approved in “other jurisdiction”.
After years of exposure to the herbicides, weeds are becoming resistant to them leading to the development of super weeds. This increasing resistance is provoking chemical manufacturers to formulate more toxic compounds which then increases their impacts on human health and the environment.
These pesticides destroy not only the target pests but also beneficial soil organisms as well as predators that help to keep the pests at bay. Population of bees have been shown to reduce over time and this has direct implication on crop yield.
Glyphosate, a major component of Roundup and many other pesticides used by farmers in Nigeria is globally subject to massive litigation claims and awards, and is implicated in the causation of multiple cancers.
GMOs have failed the coexistence test with the ability to contaminate neighbouring farms. A popular case is that of Percy Schmeiser who faced a legal battle from the then Monsanto (now Bayer) after genes from genetically modified Canola planted in nearby farms were transferred into his farm. Until now, mechanisms for compensating farms contaminated by GMOs are lacking.
GMOs are not designed to build or strengthen local economies. Farmers lose the right to save, share or reuse seeds due to royalties/patents imposed on most of them. Farmers/communities have to depend on the corporations to get seeds and the accompanying pesticides year in year out. This weighs much, economically on the farmers in addition to the fact that they require even more pesticides to address the resultant super pests.
Given freedom and the right information, citizens will reject technologies such as genetic modification of food crops that abuse our food, our bodies and the planet.
The recombinant bovine growth hormone injected into cows for increased milk production was rejected in Canada after it caused severe diseases in the animals.
The highly acclaimed product – h Flavr Savr tomato which was genetically modified to prevent rotting was also abandoned by consumers even though at that time there were neither biosafety laws nor labeling regulations.
Bt Cotton was also rejected by farmers in Burkina Faso in 2015 because of its inferior quality. Across the world, civil society groups and consumers groups strongly resist the introduction of GMOs into the food system especially owing to the fact that they are designed in actual fact mainly for profits for the corporations making them and as tools of control.
In Nigeria, over 20 genetically modified products are approved for importation for various reasons – food, feed, processing, and field trials. Cowpea and Cotton have been approved for commercial use.
One of the key issues with GMOs in Nigeria is that citizens have no sufficient knowledge on the GM varieties approved for commercial use or those illegally imported into the country. In an interview in a community that have received the Bt Cowpea for planting, a farmer said he wouldn’t plant the crop variety because of the problem of pests. Clearly, he doesn’t know exactly what it is the crop is supposedly designed to do.
A study the Health of Mother Earth Foundation (HOMEF) supported in 2022 also revealed that farmers do not have sufficient knowledge about the Bt Cowpea. They rely on word from the agencies handing them the products.
The Bt Cowpea said to be resistant against the lepidopteran insect pest was approved for commercial release in 2019. Key issues with this approval:
- No molecular risk assessment was conducted – safety cannot be demonstrated.
- No measures to prevent gene flow from the Bt cowpea – next generation effects emerging from spontaneous hybridisation remains an area of major uncertainty and unknowns.
- No data on the susceptibility of non-target organisms – Toxicity of Bt toxins is beyond the expected range of organisms.
Findings have shown an increase in the toxicity of Bt proteins when combined with protease inhibitors (PI), naturally produced in the cowpea. Not even one single feeding study with the whole food was performed; the safety of consumption of the Bt cowpea is therefore not shown and health risk assessment inconclusive.
Labeling is not a solution
Labeling does not solve the problem of choice in Nigeria as some think or as is obtainable in other jurisdiction. This is because the majority of Nigerian citizens purchase food from open markets where items are sold in cups and measure. It is also not likely that people who sell these products or by-products as in akara (from beans), moi-moi (from beans), ogi (from maize), etc will put up a stand that their products are made with GM crops especially knowing the controversy surrounding them.
Short Fall of the Regulatory Architecture in Nigeria
Nigeria has a National Biosafety Management Agency Act set up since 2015 to regulate the use of GMOs. This Act in its present state cannot guarantee human, animal or environmental safety. There are fundamental flaws in areas of risk assessments and management; access to information; public consultation and participation; liability and redress; the right to know; decision‐making and appeals and reviews.
The composition of the Governing Board of the agency is arbitrary and constitutes serious conflict of interest. For example, the National Biotechnology Development Agency (NABDA) which is the major promoter of the technology sits on that board, yet there is no sufficient representation of civil society and no representative of farmers and consumers. It doesn’t make sense for NABDA to be on the board since it is their conduct, their technology, and products that the law aims to regulate.
To solve the food crises is to address its root causes – over consumption, the exploitation and commodification of nature, disregard for the knowledge, experience and rights of small holder food producers, conflicts, inequalities, and industrialisation of Agriculture.
To solve the food and climate crises is to embrace agroecological farming, which is able to cool the planet, transform the food system and assure food sovereignty. Food security will best be accomplished under the atmosphere of food sovereignty.
To safely and effectively generate crops with complex desirable properties such as higher yield, drought tolerance, and disease resistance, we can use natural breeding, augmented where useful by marker assisted selection. Conventional breeding combined with agroecological farming methods can fulfil all our current and future food needs.
Joyce Brown is of the Health of Mother Earth Foundation (HOMEF)