Food production and hunger continue to be issues of major concern in Nigeria and in Africa as a whole. The continent has been the poster child of hunger and malnutrition since the structural adjustment programme (SAP) policies decimated the agricultural sector from the early 1980s. This picture has remained persistent for a number of reasons. Some of these include the occasional food shortages experienced in parts of the continent as a result of weather events that impact the agricultural sector and the way these shortages are managed.

Some of us believe that African agriculture has been quite resilient and can be improved upon without having to be pushed into the mould fabricated by the policies whose aims are to make the continent dependent on imports and on so-called food aid.

In this article we are responding to views credited to the Director General of the Nigeria Biotechnology Development Agency (NABDA) as published in the Vanguard newspaper of 31 December 2012 in a report captioned “BT Technology Can Assist Nigeria’s Food Security – Solomon”.

We can understand the struggle of the head of agency set up to develop modern biotechnology seeking to perform their duties, but this must be within the realm of global reality, facts and fears concerning the ideas and products being plied.

Before we look at the contentious issues, it is important we state that the idea of setting up the Nigeria Biotechnology Development Agency was hasty as it was set up in a situation where Nigeria did not have and still does not have an adequate regulatory framework such as a Biosafety Law. Secondly, an agency for the development of biotechnology should only have been set up after the need for such an agency had been clearly and publicly seen to exist especially with regard to its contentious push into food and agriculture. We must see danger signals when Prof Solomon states, “My major concern is that we should not be over regulated”. Generally, commercial proponents of genetic engineering in agriculture abhor regulation, and it is surprising that the NABDA boss should toe this line.

Another preliminary issue here is that food security can best be attained within the context of food sovereignty. Food security is mainly concerned with availability and accessibility of food, keeping down the numbers of the hungry. Food sovereignty on the other hand goes beyond this to demand that such foods must be wholesome, culturally appropriate and are produced on the principles of agro-ecology to ensure maintenance of environmental integrity. Clearly modern biotechnology is against the achievement of food sovereignty as its products go against the grain of local contexts/environments and do not respect local knowledge but rather are dictated by corporate interests and those of governments who are bent on promoting the corporate takeover of food production and marketing systems around the world.

The NABDA boss informs us that Nigeria already has three genetically engineered crops in confined field trial. He names them as BT cowpea in Zaria, the African bio-fortified sorghum also in Zaria and the Cassava plus at the National Root Crops Institute at Umudike, Abia State. It will be proper for the agency to publish the results of their confined field trials as well as notify Nigerians as to where the crops were engineered and for what purposes. Could it be that our agencies and institutes are merely surrogates for experimentation on behalf of foreign/commercial interests? Have these test crops already been smuggled into the farms? Are we eating them already?

We have had cause to argue that Nigeria does not need genetically engineered cassava, for instance, when research institutes have already developed varieties that are capable of fighting the major diseases that plague the crop. The Umudike trials were for cassava fortified with higher levels of vitamin A. We certainly do not need to endanger our environment and crop varieties for such purposes when simple education to ensure that citizens eat crops such as carrots with high vitamin A content would suffice.

One understands the frustrations of the promoters of genetically engineered crops. To start with the technology is fast becoming old fashioned as more aggressive varieties of ways to tamper with nature are being developed. We refer here to the vastly unregulated fields of nanotechnology and synthetic biology. In the light of recent developments, the NABDA boss’s claim in the interview that this is the era of biotechnology is far fetched.

Our experts on genetic engineering keep parroting sales information from the likes of Monsanto whom the NABDA boss characterises as “the leader” in the field while speaking about the spread of Bt cotton. According to him, Monsanto is “the one giving the technology to Burkina Faso.” The last cotton harvest in Burkina Faso was a fiasco for the poor farmers who have been trapped in the Bt cotton web.

Burkina Faso Bt cotton farmers harvested cotton with shorter fibres than the traditional varieties they used to plant and thus suffered loses. Why are our genetic engineering promoters not sharing this sad information with the public? In the past, the false example of Bt cotton success in Africa used to be the Makathini Flats in South Africa. The remarkable failures there and the abandonment of the crop have led to silence on that.

Professor Solomon singles out Friends of the Earth as opposing the development of biotech in Europe. The truth is that there are many groups, including farmers and social movements, who are absolutely opposed to modern biotechnology in agriculture not only in Europe but also around the world. If the Europeans solved their food problems as alleged was this done via the genetic engineering route?

Another claim that requires a quick response is where the report claims that “the Germans have suddenly developed the industrial potatoes and already, the Irish that we named the Irish potatoes after have taken the German potatoes and are already growing it. So, it now pleases them to do that. In Spain they are already growing BT rice and many part of Europe BT crops are already being developed.”

The truth is that although there was an industrial starch GM potato developed in Germany, and approved at EU level nobody has grown it because a conventional variety already existed. In fact Europeans generally do not want to grow a GM crop even for industrial use.

Unlike the impression the report seeks to give, there is only one very small trial for GM blight resistant potatoes in Ireland and even this little trial is widely opposed. And we should state here that although Spain does grow Bt maize it does not grow GM rice. In fact there is no commercial GM rice openly grown anywhere in the world. There was a global uproar in 2006/2007 when a GM variety labelled Liberty Link Rice was found on market shelves (through monitoring and testing) in some countries including in Nigeria, Ghana, Sierra Leone and elsewhere in 2006 and 2007. With little or no monitoring of our markets there is likelihood that we may be assailed by these illegal products already.

Genetically engineered crops are being resisted and rejected in many countries in Africa and it is not correct to paint a picture of major strides being made in East Africa. There are no such wide open doors.

It is vital to mention here that a report of the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) issued in April 2008 clearly showed that modern biotechnology is not the key to the future of food production in the world. Bodies such as the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), the World Bank, the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) and the World Health Organization (WHO) sponsored the report that was prepared by up to 400 scientists and related experts. About 60 countries including Nigeria have endorsed this report.

The so-called Open Forum being run by NABDA once a month in various parts of the country to press for the signing of the Biosafety Bill by the president are anything but open. Nigerians deserve to have truly open debates on these very important issues so that citizens can weigh the options and decide if they want their genetic resources contaminated, eroded and taken over by corporate interests without regard to our sovereignty and right to wholesome food. Genetic engineering poses serious and unpredictable risks in the environment. The crops do not yield more than traditional varieties; they are not more nutritious and require extensive chemical external inputs made and sold by the same promoting corporations. African researchers should be concerned with methods of agro-ecological agriculture, cooperating with nature and using knowledge accumulated over centuries of practice.

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