Director, Health of Mother Earth Foundation (HOMEF), Nnimmo Bassey, in a presentation at a Media Training on Promoting Nigeria’s Biosafety in Lagos on Tuesday, November 26, 2019, underlined the need for scientists, government officials and activists to keep an eye on the new extreme variants of GMOs, which he says try to upturn nature, are prone to being weaponised and introduce traits with unpredictable and dire consequences for the future
Small scale farmers provide 80 percent of global food supply using a mere 25 percent of the resources in the food production sector. Industrial agriculture provides less than 20 percent of the global food supply using 75 percent of cultivated land. These stark statistics are from the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), not from some angry civil society group, and state the simple truth of the situation. Nevertheless, the world is gripped by the myth that small scale farmers cannot feed the world. How is that?
Industrial agriculture thrives on monocultures, pervert diversity and has inexorably forced humans to develop monocultures of the mind, to borrow the phrase from Dr Vandana Shiva. A handful of corporations have cornered the seed and agricultural inputs market and so concentrated power in their control that governments, multilateral and research institutions find it difficult to stand up to them. To be clear, the corporate mafia has not cultivated the minds of policy drafters and makers through mere propaganda, they have achieved this through arm twisting, bribery and diverse devious ways.
Thus, you would hear otherwise respectable persons wave off small scale farmers as being incapable of feeding Nigerians, Africans and the world. We hear so much excuses for not supporting the hoes and sickles that feed us. They are dismissed as primitive, burdensome and not modern. Industrial agriculture offers the world well packaged foods, and these are hailed as what is feeding the world. The mafia is so powerful that even when in 2008, over 400 scientists and development experts under the United Nations-World Bank-sponsored International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) called for the revitalisation of public sector agricultural research, small farmer-oriented, low-input agroecology, governments endorsed the report and quickly ignored it.
Today, the world denigrates agriculture that is aligned with nature and celebrates the propaganda from companies whose products can be traced to death sciences and who are now pushing products into the market under a false façade of being promoters of life sciences. How could chemicals that wipe out beneficial organisms, not just in soils but in our guts, be the product of life sciences?
Makers and promoters of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) have been hard pressed to sell their artificial and unnatural crops and animals. They have achieved the spread currently attained through all manner of approaches: political pressure and blackmail, illegal introductions through irreversible contaminations and through basket-case biosafety regulatory systems.
If we agree to the FAO findings, then it should be self-evident that GMOs are unnecessary. The arguments for introducing them are untenable except for those who prefer to swallow whatever is offered as food. Our small-scale farmers require support, including through extension services, rural infrastructure, storage facilities and access to markets. Agriculture is a highly subsidised business in many countries.
Why is it a taboo to support our small-scale farmers? Is it not clear that those who insist that there should be no subsidies in the agricultural sector, and no critical support except through wasteful and harmful fertiliser distributions, are sabotaging our food system?
Matters got worse for Nigeria because somehow the nation set up an institution whose mandate is to develop biotechnology before making a law to regulate the sector. Once the biotech foot was in the door, it became the duty of the promoter to facilitate the development of the regulatory framework. This explains the porous regulatory system as well as the incestuous relationship between the promoters and the regulators. They simply find it impossible to stand apart. And, so you find the regulator spending a bulk of their time talking about the safety GMOs.
We are told that GMOs yield higher than natural varieties. This has been shown through scientific studies to be a false claim. Another claim is that with GMOs, farmers will use less chemicals because some of the crops are engineered to act as pesticides. We are also told that the GMOs designed to tolerate certain herbicides reduce the application of the chemicals in farms. Both claims are not only patently false, they have been shown to try to conceal harmful repercussions of dependence on the pesticidal crops and chemicals.
First, the herbicide tolerant crops may withstand the chemicals, such as Monsanto’s Roundup Ready which is all over the Nigerian market. However, the weeds they try to kill have been known to build resistance and become super weeds, requiring higher doses of the lethal poisons. These chemicals don’t only kill weeds, they kill other beneficial organisms in the soil and in waters where they may be washed into. We should state here that Roundup Ready has glyphosate as a major component and this is a carcinogen. Thousands of cases have been instituted against Monsanto (and Bayer who bought the company) over the deadly health effects suffered by users of the chemical. That chemical is all over our markets, complete with NAFDAC numbers.
Second, some of the GMOs, such as Bt cotton and Bt beans, are designed to kill target pests. They are created by genetically altering their genome to express a microbial protein from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis. The argument is that the bacterium is found in soils, is safe and should be no cause for concern. The inconvenient truth is that the naturally occurring Bt is not the same as the genetically engineered Bt. The natural Bt has a shorter half-life when exposed to sunlight, but the biotech variant persists with implications and consequences, including for our gut organisms.
Bt Cotton was trumpeted as dramatically reducing the use of pesticides on the crop as they were supposed to kill the target bollworm pests. The crop has failed to kill off bollworms in India and farmers have had to use more pesticides and suffered economic woes as a result of the failure. Cotton farmers in Burkina Faso complained of this failure, besides the fact of poor-quality fibers. It is that failure that is being celebrated in Nigeria.
In many countries there are strong demands for labeling of GMOs so that consumers would have a choice of whether to eat such foods or not. The issue should not even arise in Nigeria because the way we package, sell and consume many of our foods simply make it impossible to label them. Who would label genetically modified ogi, akara, eko, moi moi, garri, epa and the rest?
As we interrogate GMOs today, we must keep an eye on the new extremes variants that have emerged. These ones do not involve transference of genetic materials between species. Whereas old school GMOs tried to reduce the need to weed frequently or to kill off pests, the new variants, among other things, are essentially extinction GMOs. They also try to upturn nature, are prone to being weaponised and introduce traits with unpredictable and dire consequences for the future.
If the earlier GMOs had inputs from a war or poison mindset, and lead to erosion of biodiversity, the new ones aim to annihilate our understanding of agriculture and the care for Nature and her children. They herald a system of greed before life and an age of warfare without gunpowder. False claims continue to swirl wherever we look. It is time for us to wake up.