A short video produced by the North Africa Network for Food Sovereignty showed the origin and solutions to the COVID-19 pandemic. The video showed that it is not enough to say that the virus jumped from animals to humans as that is little more than skimming the surface of the rather intricate webs in the socio-economic systems that have thrown up the pandemic and will yet trigger others.
The video showed how industrial agriculture and the pursuit of profit have unrelentingly eaten away at natural habitats, displacing both humans and beasts. The period of lockdown showed animals boldly taking up contested spaces over which humans had proven to be destructive predators. Some of these animals are natural hosts to the pathogens that are harmful to humans. It is clear that we can only find solutions to problems when we understand the problems.
A situation where industrial agriculture propels 80 percent of deforestation, promotes land grabs, displaces family farmers and communities can only be ignored at a great cost. It may be said that such agricultural systems provide jobs and possibly some sort of development. The questions that are not being asked are about the types of jobs created and the definition of the imported development.
A number of persons across the world took to growing a garden, keeping themselves busy and eating healthy meals during the lockdown. This has been one of the positives that came out of the lockdown. Some of us have not only grown crops, we have been paying close attention to them as they grow.
Working with nature allows the farmer or gardener the pleasure of safely interacting with soils, crops and animals without the fear of being affected by agrochemicals applied on genetically modified varieties or in industrial farms. Connecting with nature and eating natural foods is an important way to build resilience against COVID-19 and other diseases that may emerge.
The COVID-19 pandemic gives us a good space to consider the need to protect our farming and food systems from being destroyed by manipulators and market speculators as well as a cohort of promoters and supposed regulators of agricultural genetic engineering in our countries. It is a big challenge when public officers saddled with defending our biosafety refuse to see the interconnectedness between the social, economic and environmental elements of agriculture and foods.
“We don’t regulate chemicals,” was the triumphant but sad response of the Director General of NBMA when asked about the increase in the use of toxic herbicides in the cultivation of crops designed specifically for the application of such chemicals, during a webinar on food labelling on June 29, 2020. To assume that Nigerians can be given a choice as to whether to eat genetically modified (GM) foods through labelling is a crass refusal to understand our food systems.
Food is not a mechanical or chemical product from a factory or laboratory. Eating is often a celebration and has deep cultural and spiritual anchors with special significance in many religious observances. In Nigeria and across Africa, communities thrive on maintaining their biodiversity. They save, reproduce and share seeds, understanding they encapsulate life
They engage in mixed cropping and harvest a mix of fruits, tubers and vegetables that yield foods that are rich and healthy, providing needed nutrition and building defences against illnesses.
These exchanges are largely informal and do not yield to labelling. It must be agreed that labelling is an offshoot of industrial production that marks the distance between the producer and the consumer. This distance is getting wider as industrial producers squeeze nature tighter, packing farm animals into smaller spaces, destroying forests and habitats and turning farmers into sharecroppers or even farm slaves.
The claim that biosafety regulators are not concerned about what chemicals are unleashed in our farms and general environment is a grievous and unacceptable insult. It calls to question the basis on which they authorise the planting of herbicide tolerant crops in Nigeria.
No nation can claim to be unaware of the report, Agriculture at a Crossroads issued by the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) in 2008. That collaborative study conducted by some 400 experts drawn from 110 countries, targeted the development and sustainability goals of improving nutrition, health and rural livelihoods; reducing hunger and facilitating social and environmental sustainability. That report calls for adoption of the most efficient farming systems and recommends a fundamental shift toward agroecology as a way to boost food production.
The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation in 2014 endorsed agroecology as a key element of the food system that the world needs in order to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). As noted by the FAO, Agroecology directly contributes to many of the SDGs such as the eradication of poverty (1) and hunger (2), ensuring quality education (4), achieving gender equality (5), increasing water-use efficiency (6), promoting decent jobs (8), ensuring sustainable consumption and production (12), building climate resilience (13), securing sustainable use of marine resources (14) and halting the loss of biodiversity (15).
The utilisation of these landmark outcomes in national policy has been slow, giving room for merchants of obnoxious ideas to upturn wisdom and ram risky foods down the throat of unsuspecting citizens. To ensure that this state of affairs does not continue, we must frequently have dialogues on food and farming systems and advocate for the investment in agroecology by our ministries of environment and agriculture.
This is one way to build resilience and avoid being caught unawares by pandemics lurking in the folds of garments of big capital. Moreover, agroecology is an acknowledged way of using agriculture to tackle global warming rather than aggravating the crisis.
We all know that the COVID-19 is an opportunistic disease that aggravates sickness in persons with underlying health conditions. Underlying health conditions abound in terms of biodiversity erosion and pollution. Unhealthy foods, toxic chemicals and the consumption of insecticides (such as crops engineered to kill pests) could aggravate health conditions.
The destruction of natural crops and foods is equal to the sowing of seeds of intergenerational crimes. It is thus urgent for the youths to equip themselves with knowledge, speak up and reject efforts to entrench systems that will thwart the gains of viable culturally and ecologically appropriate agricultural and food systems developed over the millennia. Surrendering our food systems to pretentious merchants and warrant chiefs is a blatant permission of food colonialism.
Nnimmo Bassey is Director, Health of Mother Earth Foundation (HOMEF)