Food safety, biosafety and themes around biodiversity are key issues that Africans have been deeply concerned about. Added to these is the issue of biosecurity as manipulated organisms can easily be weaponized.

To address these concerns, we were pleased to have a Conversation with, Professor Johnson Ekpere, one of the pioneers and iconic intellectuals and public officers with deep knowledge of the history and developments in these sectors. The Conversations took place on 8 October 2020 under the banner, Africa: Biosafety and Biosecurity. The following were addressed in this Conversation series- the concerns of African and developing countries at the Convention of Biological Diversity (CBD); major reasons behind the formulation of the Model Laws juxtaposed with what is currently available; efficacy of the impression that modern agricultural biotechnology would be the key to solving the world’s and Africa’s hunger problem; arguments as to why we have to accept modern agricultural biotechnology; and ways that farmers can grow their crops without agrichemicals.

The CBD that led to the development of the African Model Laws by the OAU (now AU) was convened out of concerns for world development, the bastardisation of earth, depletion of earth resources without adding any value to it and fear of possible annihilation of the earth.

Considering the adoption of the modified version of the Model Laws in 2003, Prof. Ekpere addressed the issue of whether the Laws have lived up to the initial purpose with skepticism. According to him, what they tried to do was “to disaggregate the OAU Model Laws and remove the components that were at variance with popular thinking at the international level.” This was how the modified version of the Model Law came to be. Prof. Ekpere held onto the hope that at the right time some critical issues covered in the original version of the law will be unearthed and “the spirit of the original document will become obvious.”

There were lots of threats to issues raised in the laws. These include issues such as indigenous rights and the possibility of a biotechnology without biosafety. Despite the challenges, the document still considered critical concerns related to indigenous and traditional knowledge. 

It was noted that in the preamble to the modified Laws, African Union (AU) gave the impression that modern agricultural technology would be the key to solving hunger problems. This impression was rebuffed by the Professor who vehemently objected to the blanket acceptance of biotechnology on such a premise. He insisted that the impression was misplaced. “It could provide some respite but cannot be considered as a panacea,” he stressed.

His position was that it was impossible to “appropriate rights through biotechnology to the national wealth of nations.” This position is based on discussions at international level which brought two concepts to the deliberation table. The first concept was Precautionary Principles which suggest that “if you are not absolutely sure of what the outcome of a scientific experiment/technology is going to be, do not give a 100% acceptance”. The second was Liability and Redressproposed to hold “the proponents of biotechnology accountable for whatever went wrong.  This is due to scientific evidence that biotechnology was harmful to animals, humans and the entire environment in several ways,” Prof. Ekpere explained. It was gathered that the notions of precaution, liability and redress were never completely adhered to as they represented a minority opinion.  

This has led countries like Nigeria into accepting biotechnology and cultivation of genetically modified plant varieties even as farmers are falsely promised wealth on acceptance of genetically modified (GM) seedlings. This promise has been a mirage as the cultivation of GM crops has brought the farmers no gains. Concrete examples were cited in Burkina Faso, Ghana and other Sahel countries (highly involved in cotton production) where GM cotton seeds which were promoted by companies like Monsanto were cultivated but today are not being grown anywhere in the countries. In India, farmers were cajoled to take loans for GM cotton seeds and cotton production. When the crops failed many of the farmers committed suicide. Farmers involved in soya bean production in Brazil were also caught up in the GM seed failure. There are several scientific evidences that GMOs are injurious to human health though lots of these evidences are suppressed. The use of GM feeds to feed mice proved to have adverse effects on their reproductive system and have been found to cause limited growth in rats. 

Protagonists, however, argue that the above effects of GMOs have not been observed in countries which have been using them. Prof. Ekpere, thus, speculated that “the low immunity that is being observed, for the past seven months, in some countries during this COVID-19 era may be traced to consumption of GMO products.”

The Professor and Nnimmo Bassey, Director of HOMEF commended countries like Uganda where the president initiated a legislation that holds producers of GMO products liable for consequences that may arise in the immediate or long term. It was also pointed out that the Zambian government rejected grains from the US despite food shortages experienced in 2002 and made it through the crisis without succumbing to pressures. Again, it was noted that some scientists reject the idea of liability and redress on the premise that such legislation may stifle science. 

The Professor maintained that if countries stuck to the natural breeding processes for high yielding cotton and crops generally, they would have ended up with a sustainable agricultural system. It was established that if adequately supported, small-scale farmers can solve the problem of hunger in Africa. 

Arguments that harvest losses and the need to control pests are justifications for accepting modern agricultural biotechnology were also refuted. Our scientists were encouraged to explore sustainable alternatives like the use of natural plant breeding techniques to tackle the problems. There are already cowpea varieties that have pericarp that insects cannot penetrate. Another sustainable solution is to go back to traditional ways of storing seeds. 

It was stressed that agricultural institutes, agricultural science and related departments should be better supported with the necessary equipment to produce well trained agricultural officers. According to the Professor, this would enable the training of agricultural officers that have both cognitive and psychomotor skills.

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