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Nnimmo Bassey: Why Nigeria does not need GMOs

In keeping with our tradition of seeking ways to build common understanding on critical issues, no matter how complex, today we are considering “The Food We Want” and the need to have wholesome food. It is a great honour to examine this topic with you, members of The Young Environmentalists Network (TYEN). Being children from primary and secondary schools we can rightly say that you hold out the hope for our nation to overcome her challenges, to produce healthy foods and protect our environment.

A group photo at the 5th Sustainability Academy in Benin City, Edo State, Nigeria

A group photo at the 5th Sustainability Academy in Benin City, Edo State, Nigeria

As we all know, food means more than merely something that we place in a pot, cook and eat. Agriculture means more to us than merely going to the farm to plant some seeds or stems.  Good food makes you grow healthy and strong. Bad food can make you sick and keep you from going to school.

Going to farm is almost like going to school. At the farm we learn about crops, trees and our culture. We learn to know which seeds have to be preserved after harvest for planting at the next season. We see our parents share seeds with neighbours and also share food. Agriculture and food help to build and unite us in our communities.

On a global scale, food is so important that when the United Nation’s Millennium Development Goals were prepared the first goal was the eradication of extreme poverty and hunger. It was hoped that between 1990 and 2015 the number of people suffering from hunger would be reduced by fifty per cent.

Although some progress has been made in this direction, over 800 million people do not have enough food to live healthy lives.  The death of 3.1 million children (or nearly half the number of deaths among children) between ages 1-3 years has been linked to not having wholesome or nutritious food. And many children still go to school hungry every day.

Global hunger and malnutrition are still key issues in the world as of today.

 

Overcoming Hunger

You will agree with me that people are not hungry because there is no food in the market or at the farms. There are many factors that keep people hungry.  In fact most of the hungry people in the world today are farmers. They sell their harvests so as to use the money to pay school fees for their children, pay house rent, pay medical bills and also for transport and other costs.

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Farming has become big business and the support for farmers that community life used to provide is being reduced by what we now term as modern life.

To overcome hunger we need to look at the root causes and tackle them rather than seeing hunger as an opportunity to manipulate the system and make more profits from the misery of the poor.

 

Are GMOs the answer?

In 1996 the world saw the commercialisation of genetically modified organisms popularly known as GMOs. These are plants, animals and other living organisms genetically modified by scientists in the laboratory. The scientists cut desirable genetic materials from one organism and insert or paste them into another organism to produce totally new organisms that would otherwise not exist in nature. These are often done across species boundaries. For example, a gene can be taken from a pig and inserted in rice or corn or banana.

Most crops are modified to do either of two things or both:

  1. To withstand chemicals that would kills every other plant
  2. To kills particular pests that are known to usually attack a plant

So far the major crops that have been genetically modified and are planted in large commercial quantities are: soybeans, corn, cotton and canola or rapeseed. There are few countries that plant GMOs in the world today. These include: USA, Brazil, Argentina, India, Canada, China, Paraguay, Pakistan, South Africa, Uruguay, Bolivia, Australia, Philippines, Myanmar, Burkina Faso, Mexico and Spain.

 

Problems with GMOs in Agriculture

Many people think that any fruit that is bigger than the usual ones are GMOs. This is not true. The biggest advantage of GMOs is that they make big farming easier for the farmer. The problems with this are many.

  1. They do not support mixed cropping but support monocultures
  2. They are not good for our agriculture, as the system requires that farmers must buy seeds and not save and reuse or share them.
  3. Some of the crops are engineered to produce infertile seeds
  4. They contaminate other natural varieties of crops and animals/fish
  5. They reduce the varieties of particular crops available and this creates more problems as unexpected diseases can wipe out vast quantities of crops
  6. They require the use of large quantities of toxic chemicals some of which are manufactured by the companies that genetically modify the seeds
  7. Those engineered to kill particular pests also kill other organisms that were not a threat to the crops
  8. They sometimes look like normal crops and can pass undetected making it difficult to control or withdraw it once released into the environment
  9. There is no scientific certainty about the safety of these crops.
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The major global convention governing the production, movement and use of GMOs is the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). This convention has a particular protocol known as the Cartagena Protocol that has an important principle known as the Precautionary Principle. This principle requires that nations should exercise precaution whenever there is doubt about the safety of any new organism to be introduced into the environment.

The CBD also requires that countries must put in place measures to regulate, manage or control the risks associated with the release or use of GMOs that are likely to affect natural biodiversity and human health. It particularly Article 8(j) of the CBD requires that nations put in place measures to “respect, preserve and maintain knowledge, innovations and practices of indigenous and local communities relevant for the conservation of biological diversity…”

As we said earlier, once GMOs are released into an environment the contamination cannot be controlled and the only persons that gain is the company that makes the crop or organism. In fact in many cases where there are no laws to regulate the introduction of such organisms what the companies do is to ensure the contamination of the environment and then the government would be forced to make weak laws to protect their activities and allow for more contamination and possible takeover of the agricultural sector.

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GMOs are useful in production of drugs and in certain other manufacturing processes. Here we are concerned with GMOs in agriculture and food.

 

What is happening in Nigeria?

There has been a very serious desire by companies that make GMOs to open up the Nigerian environment for their control and business. Working with their local and international agents they are making effort to have a weak law in place that would allow introduction of GMOs without any provision for holding them liable if there are accidents or contaminations.

We believe that Nigeria does not need GMOs. And that what we need is to adequately support our farmers who have been feeding us and keeping our environment healthy. We also need to make farming attractive to young people, provide rural infrastructure, and create food processing/preservation facilities. We need more agricultural extension officers and agriculture should not be used as a means of punishment in schools.

Only wholesome, natural foods can ensure adequate nourishment for you children. GMOs have been fed to farm animals since 1996 and some food products for humans contain GMO products. If anyone tells you they are safe, ask them for the proof. There is no scientific evidence to show that GMOs are safe. The makers of GMOs and their agents want to turn Nigeria, Africa and the world into their laboratory for experiments. Will you accept to be used for experiments?

 

Last word

This Sustainability Academy has been organised to share information with you so that you can know what is happening around the world and in our nation. Although only few items on the market shelves that have GMOs are so labelled, it is important to check the labels – especially for products that contain soybeans and corn. The future belongs to you. Shine your eyes.

 

  • Presentation by Nnimmo Bassey, Director, Health of Mother Earth Foundation (HOMEF), at the 5th Sustainability Academy of HOMEF held at Eghosa Grammar School, Benin City, Nigeria on 25 November 2014 in collaboration with The Young Environmentalists Network (TYEN)
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