In a recent edition of “Fact Sheet,” a publication of the ecological think-tank, Health of Mother Earth Foundation (HOMEF), writers Juan Lopez, Mariann Orovwuje and Nnimmo Bassey insist that Nigeria does not need genetically modified crops to satisfy its food and agricultural needs. They claim that the National Biosafety Bill is deficient and that President Goodluck Jonathan should not assent to it.
The recent disclosure in Abuja by the National Agricultural Biotechnology Development Agency (NABDA) that Nigerian government is working to fast track the adoption of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) is shocking for a number of reasons. The agency’s pitch is more or less that if the doors are not officially open to GMOs Nigerians will be consuming them without knowing. The truth is that there are GMO products illegally in Nigeria and the government ought to be protecting the citizens rather than closing the doors on the Precautionary Principle which as the name implies urges caution in matters of this nature.
The Agency claims the there are enough safeguards in place for the introduction of GMOs into Nigeria. These so-called safeguards include the following: a draft Biosafety Bill, biosafety application guidelines, biosafety containment facilities guidelines, and a variety of forms such as those for accreditation, GMO import and shipment form and a host of drafts. If forms and draft documents are listed as biosafety readiness tools we should be extremely suspect of such a state of readiness.
A Short History: Few Crops Commercialised, Numerous Rejections of GM Food
It was only 20 years ago that a genetically modified crop was commercialised in the USA for human consumption purposes for the first time. It was a GM tomato variety called the Flavr Savr. It failed in the marketplace and its commercialisation ceased in 1997. That failure has been followed by numerous other failures in the past two decades.
The biotech industry has made several attempts to commercialise a wide range of GM varieties since the 1990s. However it quickly encountered stiff opposition. For instance in Europe strong opposition against GM foods took root since the end of the 90s and is still strong as of today.
In 2000 field trials with a variety of GM potato in Bolivia, centre of origin of the potato, were stopped in the face of public opposition. That same year GM potatoes were withdrawn in the US due to commercial failure. In 2002 a number of African countries rejected GM food aid and in 2004 GM wheat was withdrawn from the market due to commercial reasons. China suspended commercialisation of GM rice in 2011 and the US did not proceed with wide commercialisation either of such products. The failures to market GE staple food in the past twenty years have been very notorious.
Biotech Industry Targets Staple Foods
Maize, rice and wheat are the staple food of more than two-thirds of the world’s population, but as of now, no wheat and rice has been legally commercialized in the human food chain. As of today, basically the GM crops that have been commercialized are those of soya, maize, oilseed rape and cotton. Most of these products are not intended directly for food, but for animal feed purposes. For instance, GM maize is strongly resisted in many countries like Mexico, centre of origin of maize, where a Federal Court in 2013 ordered that two of the main Mexican authorities for authorising GM crops must abstain from granting permits of release into the environment of GM maize whether on a commercial or on an experimental basis.
While most GM crops are planted for animal feeds, those targeted in Nigeria are for our foods. Among the target crops is cassava, a staple for most citizens.
Few Countries, Few Traits, One Industry
The few crops commercialised during the past decades were composed only of two traits, and their area of cultivation has been limited to a handful of countries. Over 90 per cent of GM crops grown are only in six countries – USA, Brazil, Argentina, India, Canada and China – with one country alone accounting for 40 per cent of all GM global area: the USA.
In any case, in two decades of GM crops commercialisation, up to 95 per cent of the staple crops which have been commercialised are insect resistant or herbicide tolerant. The push for the introduction of these type of GM staple crops has been led either directly by the big biotech corporations that developed the product or their subsidiaries.
None of these traits, however provide any benefit to the consumer, and none of them as of today has managed to win the heart of the majority of the consumers. For instance, even in the US, the cradle of GM crops, a poll conducted by the New York Times in 2013 concluded that three-quarters of Americans expressed concern about genetically modified organisms in their food, with most of them worried about the effects on people’s health. In The reality of such scepticism has forced the biotech industry to desperately seek to widen its market into Africa. The claim that Europe is influencing Africans to reject GMOs is nothing other than cheap blackmail.
Roundup Ready (RR), the most popular herbicide in the world, property of Monsanto, claimed when it was introduced that farmers would be able to use less herbicide. On the contrary it has been clearly proofed that, in less than two decades glyphosate resistant plant species have become a serious problem for US farmers and others around the world. This has necessitated the increased use of even stronger herbicides.
In addition to the growing use of RR, various scientific studies show concerns over health impacts of RR on the humans. A scientific study published in a European scientific review has identified serious health impacts on rats fed on ‘Roundup Ready’ GMO maize.
Efforts to Convince Africans over GM Food Should Fall on Deaf Ears
Today a new propaganda effort to convince Africans is vigorously pursued by corporations and the development industry trying to convince us Africans that we need genetic engineering to overcome malnutrition and food shortages. Institutions like USAID, and philanthropic organisations like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation are supporting efforts to genetically modify rice and bananas with enhanced levels of Vitamin A with the ostensible aim of keeping African children from being stunted and from going blind. Gates support of the creation of GM staple foods with nutritional traits derives from the fact that “in many developing countries, as much as 70 per cent of an individual’s daily calories come from a single staple food, making it difficult to consume enough vitamins and minerals”. Instead of promoting and supporting food sovereignty and one of its principles – diet diversification- they want us to keep our diet based on one food product for most of the day instead of supporting the tapping on the enormous food diversity existing in our countries, – such us fruits and vegetables, rich in Vitamin A and other valuable Vitamins.
In a 2009 report, the Union of Concerned Scientists stated, “Recent studies have shown that organic and similar farming methods that minimise the use of pesticides and synthetic fertilizers can more than double crop yields at little cost to poor farmers in such developing regions as sub-Saharan Africa.”
Efforts to co-opt small scale farmers into planting Bt cotton has not fared we’ll without heavy subsidies. The case of the downturn at Makathini Flats, South Africa, is instructive.
Nigeria does not need GM crops to satisfy its food and agriculture needs. We know exactly what we have to do and the Nigerian National Conference recently raised the caution with regard to the draft National Biosafety Bill. We urge that the President should not assent to the Bill because the draft is deficient in many areas including:
- Public participation: The draft Bill does not make public participation obligatory when applications to introduce GMOs are being considered.
- The Bill does not specify clearly how large-scale field trials would be contained and regulated to avoid contamination of surroundings or farms.
- Besides Environmental NGOs, Farmer organisations are not represented on the Governing Board.
- Risk Assessment: The Bill does not state criteria for risk assessment nor does it stipulate that such assessments must be carried out in Nigeria and not offshore. This is important because the effect of the GMO on non-target organisms has to be measured with non-target organisms that exist in Nigeria and are ecologically important.
- Strict liability and provisions for redress are not included in the Bill. These is a key part to implementing the Kuala Lumpur-Nagoya Supplementary Protocol adopted three years ago
- Precautionary principle: The Bill should adhere to ensure the implementation of the precautionary principle that entitles our government to decide against approval or for restriction in cases of incomplete or controversial knowledge. This is the essential feature of the CPB, driven by the interests of African negotiators and and should be implemented in Nigeria.