In his welcome words at a Media Training on Promoting Biosafety in Nigeria held on Tuesday, September 25, 2018 in Abuja, Director, Health of Mother Earth Foundation (HOMEF), Nnimmo Bassey, expresses concern over the state of biosafety in the country
At a recent HOMEF dialogue with farmers, most of the participants declared that they have never heard of anything called genetically modified organisms (GMOs). When they got to know what GMOs are, they all declared that genetically modified crops are bad for our agriculture and overall environment.
Despite huge financial outlays in modern agricultural biotechnology roadshows, the people remain unaware of these commercially and politically driven organisms that are rapidly being released into our markets and environment. Without free and clear knowledge of these artificial organisms, it can be said plainly that the right of our people to safe food and safe environment is being officially breached with crass impunity.
As we speak, the promises of the first-generation GMOs that are being promoted in Nigeria are unraveling – with persistent failures being recorded around the world. Herbicide use has increased rather than reduce – of course the toxic chemicals are made by the makers of the GMO seeds. Pesticide use has not waned even though Bt crops (crops inserted with gene from the organism, Bacterium thuringiensis) are essentially engineered to act as pesticides themselves.
Farmers are trapped in debt in the cotton fields of India because of the seeds-chemicals trap traceable to GMO Shylocks. GMO infested South American countries are reeling from chemical poisons on farmworkers and in farm-fence communities. In the United States of America, Monsanto was ordered to pay $289m in damages to Dewayne Johnson after a jury found that the company’s Roundup weed-killer caused him cancer. There are over 4000 similar cases in the USA. The safety of GMOs and the claim that GMOs yield higher than normal crops have not been proven.
The old GMOs are now being joined by more extreme variants known as Gene Drives. That target whole populations, involve gene editing and do not involve cross-species gene transfers. They pose special and unique dangers to Nigeria and Africa. The first danger is that our regulators are gullible and tend to be remotely controlled by forces that promote untested technologies. The second danger is that even the dangers and risks are known, they are happy to allow experimentations and expose our people, communities and environment to be used as guinea pigs.
Two cases to buttress this assertion relate to biotechnology experimentations in Burkina Faso. Firstly, was the failure of Monsanto’s Bt cotton in that country that led to the phase out of the GMO from Burkina Faso. The same GMO cotton that failed is now to be released in Nigeria, the second testing ground for an unnecessary and failed product. Of course, the local experts serving as midwives or middle men of the technology in Nigeria are celebrating that they can release the varieties into our environment without check, without questions.
Secondly, modern biotechnology entrepreneurs like Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation are funding Target Malaria to release 10,000 gene drive mosquitoes, in a village in Burkina Faso without our relatives there being truly aware of the what would be bitting them. The gene drive mosquitoes are designed to crash the population of female anopheles mosquito species that transmit malaria parasite. Risks of this untested technology include the fact that they could have unexpected ecological problems, could be used as a weapon of war and is deployed without real prior informed consent of the poor villagers. This is another technofix to tackle a problem that has roots in poor sanitation and socio-economic inequities, among others.
A great risk is that the influencers of the technologies in Nigeria are already trumpeting that Nigeria must jump on the gene drive train just because we must, as a people, play the neocolonial catch-up game with targets set offshore.
We need to interrogate not just the technology but also the regulation of the technologies. We need to ask why an application from a company like WACOT Ltd was approved when the only backing document, as published on NBMA’s website was a sheet of paper showing varieties of genetically modified maize approved by some European countries. This application was approved although there has been no risks assessment in Nigeria and even though approval in the EU does not in any way confer automatic acceptance of those things in countries outside of the jurisdiction within which they were approved. The application did not state that about half of EU countries do not allow these varieties of maize into their countries. For Nigeria, anything goes because everything is safe for Nigerians no matter how toxic they may be to others.
A grave problem with this approval of genetically modified maize for production of feed by WACOT Ltd is that the company sought and obtained the approval after being adjudged to have imported the GM maize without due approval and had been asked to repatriate the maize to Argentina from where it was imported. A further issue that cannot be ignored is that the Federal Executive Council (FEC) had been notified of the impounding of the illegal and unauthorized transboundary movement of the genetically modified maize into Nigeria.
According to reports, the FEC was also informed that the offending company had been asked to send back the illegal shipment. Yet, the same illegally imported grains were approved for release and use by the company. The repatriation order proved to be a mere smokescreen. The company was further licensed to import the supposedly EU approved GM maize over a period of three years.
HOMEF along with 16 other civil society groups filed a suit challenging the granting of permits to Monsanto Agriculture Nigeria Ltd for the confined field trial of genetically modified maize (NK603 and MON 89034 x NK603)) as well as commercial release of Bt cotton earlier mentioned. We challenged the permit based on strong scientific, sociology-economic, environment and administrative concerns. We also drew attention of the court to the fact that the approvals were granted on Sunday 1 May 2016 a mere one working day after the National Biosafety Management Agency (NBMA) acknowledged that they had received our copious objections and promised to consider them. They obviously did not consider the views expressed in our objections.
The judge eventually struck out the case based on the technicality of the case being statute barred. In other words, the case was struck out because we filed the suit more than three months after the permits were granted. The GMO promoters of all shades, both local and international, have crowed that the decision of the court equals an open door for any sort of GMOs to be brought into the country. That is an absolutely specious understanding of the court’s decision. The judge clearly stated that case was not struck out for lack of cause but because the particular action was statute barred. No time for celebration, Monsanto chiefs!
We will go into more details concerning the reasons Nigerians have to worry about the state of biosafety in the country. There is certainly time for that. Although we may no longer waste our time and resources sending objections to a regulator that disdains public opinion, we will not shirk our responsibility to demand safe and suitable foods for our peoples.