GMO crops designed to kill the eaters
AN architect, environmentalist, activist, author and poet, Mr. Nnimmo Bassey, is a former executive director of Friends of the Earth Nigeria (FoEN/Environmental Rights Action (ERA). He was named laureate of the Right Livelihood Award and was awarded the Rafto Prize in 2012. In this interview, Bassey, presently a director of the Health of Mother Earth Foundation, an environmental think tank and advocacy organisation and one of Time magazine’s Heroes of the Environment in 2009, speaks on the effects of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO) on agriculture and the health implications on Nigerians. He speaks with HENDRIX OLIOHMOGBE
What is your take on the GMO technology? What is it all about?
GMO is a technology that is just more than two decades old. It was started in the mid 90s and allow scientists in the laboratory to modify the genetic make up of a plant or animal by introducing traits from other species to achieve a particular purpose. For example, most of the crops being genetically engineered either to resist or to withstand herbicide so that when a particular plant is planted, the herbicide can be sprayed to kill only the weeds.
Morsanto is a major producer of GMO food. Morsanto has been bought over by Bayer of Germany and so is now BayerMorsanto.They produce and sell seeds that will withstand the herbicides and farmers buy the seeds and herbicides from the company. You can’t save the seeds.
The second major variety of GMOs are engineered to act as pesticides. When scientists discover a particular pest that attacks a particular crop, they now engineer the genetic make up of that crop to kill the pest that eats the crop. Now of late, they have been pushing the idea that they also genetically modify crops to make it more nutritious or contain certain vitamins so as to take care of all deficiencies in Africa and other parts world. The GMOs are presented as crops that can solve the hunger problem. But this is not so because it has been confirmed that the production of genetically modified crops in the US and also some places in Europe where the technology and cultural practices are similar and found out that the differences in productivity between the GMOs and natural varieties are the same and not necessarily higher. So, the idea that they will feed the world is not true. The idea is basically commercial where big corporations want to control the food system of the world because farmers have to buy the seeds every year as they can’t save them to re-plant.
How does this new technology affect farmers?
It is okay for big farmers who get financial facilities from banks and can afford to buy but not for small scale farmers who do inter cropping and mixed cropping. This will not just work. If a small scale farmer who wants to engage in mono farming by growing, say only cassava, the experience has been that they have been supported with inputs and loans in the beginning and left to either swim or drown. They naturally drown.
This has been the case in India, for example, where mixed cropping has been cultivated over the years. Over 300,000 farmers commited suicide by drinking the herbicides. In fact, the crops that the pesticides are engineered to kill have become either resistant or new pests come up. Unfortunately, new pests come up. Nature has a way of resilience. If you find three solutions, nature will counter it. The best way to grow crop is to grow working with nature and not to work against nature.
What are the implications for the different varieties of crops?
There are different varieties of crops in the country but with GMO, they are going to contaminate other varieties of maize. At the end of the day, you will have only one trait. There are hundreds of varieties of maize in the world today but genetic engineering can reduce them to only one. If you reduce the biodiversity to fewer or only one variety, if anything goes wrong, you’re going to lose everything. The struggle to stop this technology is actually a struggle to ensure that we have biodiversity which is the only way to ensure resilience of the environment and our farming system and of the people.
Now, one crop that this industry tries to push into the market is genetically modified cotton to fight the bollworm, a pest that attacks cotton. The argument is that nobody eats cotton and it is for textile industry and so why worry about it, but in Africa, the cotton seed is used to make cotton cake and cotton seed oil which is used in food. People are going to eat it and so it is not just for textile. In some other places where people don’t eat them directly, they use them for animal feed. It eventually goes into the food chain and so we need to consider and be concerned what could happen if anything goes wrong, that is, if the food is toxic. For example, recently, an agency of the World Health Organization (WHO) said that an herbicide produced by Morsanto and now Bayer which is used to kill herbs in the field where they grow their genetically modified crop is a possible cancinogy. It is a diplomatic way of saying that it is a cancer causing chemical because of glefocet in it.
There was a big fight over it but it needed to be proven that it was not a carcinogen. There was a case in the US recently when a gardener used such and became heavily sick. He was granted millions of dollars by the court against the company manufacturing the chemical but in Nigeria where will justice come if the problem comes here?
Don’t you think there is need for regulations?
It is in realisation of this possible challenge in Africa that the President of Uganda, Mr. Yoweri Museveni refused to sign the biosafety bill. He told them to change the name of the law to make it genetic engineering regulation bill so that we know that. Nobody is against biosafety but if you are going to regulate, then regulate the thing that is causing the problem. He also inserted in the law, a clause for strict liability, that in the future if it is found out that what you did to people is harmful, you will be held accountable. All the scientists are complaining that attempts are being made to stop them from experimenting and it’s killing science but this is about our health. You can’t use that argume`nt to stop me from protecting myself. If you are sure of what you are doing, you should stand by it and be prepared to accept responsibilities in the future if anything goes wrong but they are not willing.
How widespread is GMO in Nigeria?
We found illegal GMO rice here in Nigeria, Ghana and Sierra Leone. This was something that was not approved but it was already here in Africa.
In 2006, there was an illegally released genetically engineered rice in the US which was called Liberty Link rice. It was released before it was approved. We decided to just check Nigeria and the West Africa sub-region to see if the rice was here. We checked, doing scientific and laboratory checks. We sent the first check and samples abroad for testing. We also tested it in Nigeria in 2016 and 2017. We found illegal GMO rice here in Nigeria, Ghana and Sierra Leone. Something that was not even approved and released was already here in Africa.
This variety of rice, Liberty link rice, you won’t find it on the label of the bag but that was the proprietary name of the GMO itself. Last year, we conducted a casual survey in ten Nigerian towns just to find out what was in the market. The towns were Lagos, Abuja, Port Harcourt, Enugu, Benin, Uyo, Kano, Katsina, Onitsha and Aba. We found up to 30 different varieties of GMO products or products made with GMO ingredients in the markets. The products were mostly cereals like cornflakes, biscuits and things that children mostly eat. We wanted to prove that there are GMOs in this country and not authorised by the government, not regulated, but already in the shelves and people are eating them.
Any law against GMO in Nigeria?
There is a National Biosafety Management Agency Law which was signed by President Goodluck Jonathan shortly before he left office in 2015. That’s the law that is supposed to regulate GMO in the country. The head of the agency, if you Google, keep saying, that his job is not to stop GMOs but to make sure that GMOs are safe. If someone has that kind of mindset, it is very difficult to say that the agency is serious about restricting that technology in this country.
What kind of crops genetically modified are available in Nigeria going by your findings?
The GMO that is available in Nigeria which were either brought for field trials or ready to be released to the market are cottons and cowpeas which is actually beans. In other countries where there are GMOs, the products are labeled but you cannot label akara, moimon which are made from beans. Our system is not like in the US where the foodstuffs are well packaged with labels, indicating where the products whether banana or anything came from.
But here in Nigeria, bananas and oranges are not labeled. We just buy and eat. If you buy a corn on the road side, whether roasted or boiled, nobody is going to tell you whether it is GMO or not. We have GMO corn, cassava. The GMO in cassava is engineered so that the starch can last longer. It is not a question of whether it is going to last longer or bring more money to the farmers but to keep the starch longer probably, for industrial purposes. A lot of GMO corn is being imported. Millions of tons of GMO corns are being imported into this country. In September 2018, some consignments were at the port in Lagos and ordered to be repatriated by the agency monitoring GMOs in the country. Within the same period, they also approved that thing which they say should be taken out of the country.
How do you get the seedlings to plant? Can you buy them in the open market?
You have to buy the seeds from the company every year. Some of the GMOs seeds may not even germinate. Even if they germinate, their quality will be greatly reduced. They are almost like hybrid seeds. If you cultivate hybrid seeds, you have to keep buying them, If you cultivate their seeds, you have to keep buying them every year, these seeds are useless. Farmers are tied to the apron strings of the industry.
The food shortage problem in Nigeria is not because our farmers are not producing enough but because we don’t have rural infrastructure; we don’t have storage facilities; we don’t have processing facilities. We are not paying our farmers enough resources to enhance their productivity. Farmers can barely survive. We don’t have extension officers that go to the villages to tell farmers when to plants their crops and also tell them what is happening and how best to enhance their outputs. That is so much restricted. It is as a result of the Structural Adjustment Policy of former military president, Ibrahim Babangida, in the late 80s and early 90s which destroyed agriculture in Africa/ it is the same thing going on now through GMO.
What is the latest on the variety of GMO cassava set to be introduced by the International Institute of Tropical Agricultural (IITA)?
The field trial on GMO cassava must have been concluded by December 2018. By now, they must have submitted their findings to the regulatory agency. Of course, the agency does not say no to anything. It is like a commercial agency that is just ready to accept applications as far as you pay the fees. You can even pay to fast track the approval and they will quickly approve for you and you go ahead. The variety that IITA is producing is a technology that has not been tested anywhere else in the world. So, Nigerians will be the guinea pig, laboratory rats.
How about the effects of cross pollinations occasioned by GMO crops?
Because of cross pollination, we may just end up having just one variety of yams. If you introduce GMO crops to the open field, it is going to contaminate local varieties. Pollinations can travel very far, for kilometres. You are going to have two cross pollinations. In the United States, they were having cross pollinations resulting in cases of farmers who never planted GMO crops having their crops contaminated by neighbouring farms through cross pollinations. The owners of the patents, that is the GMO companies, sued the farmers whose farms they contaminated for using their technology whereas those farmers never wanted GMO crops at all. It is immoral to have patent on life. They have team of lawyers going around like policemen because they want to make as much money as possible. They contaminate you and still sue you.
What are the health implications?
The cultivation of GMO for whatever reason; whether as a pesticide or to be resistant to herbicide has the capacity to affect soil micro-organisms. There are billions of mico organisms in the soil and they have their functions to keep the eco-system working. When you spray these dangerous chemicals, they are against life. Their origin is from orange agents which Morsanto produced for the US Army to use in Vietnam to destroy forest so that the Vietcong will not have anywhere to hide . It is from that technology that they are now producing the herbicides that kill other things except the crops. The crops are engineered to withstand the chemical. Apart from killing useful crops on farms, it is going to wash off into streams and the river system and destroy the ecosystem. It affects the fish and other living organisms. So, you are having a major ecological war against the ecosystem both on land and water and in the air. It is a technology that should be restricted to the laboratory until such a time in the future when it may be necessary or proven to be safe when all these side effects could be properly taken care of. Right now, as long as they go along with these chemicals, they are compounding the problem of bio-diversity.
There are GMOs that are designed like beans. If you eat that beans, you are actually eating insecticide because it is an insecticide. It is designed to kill an insect. The idea is that if you design a crop to withstand a certain insect, that crop is a pesticide. If you eat that crop, you are eating insecticide and pesticide is not food. There are insects like the boll worm which eats cotton and dies. There are some maize that are designed to stand some stem boring insects, if they eat it, they die. Anything that kills a living organism can also affect human beings because we have organisms living inside every part of our bodies.
In all of these, what is your advise to the government?
We don’t have a crisis of food in the country. If you don’t have insurgency in the North East, farmers will be there, producing enough. My advise to the government is to maintain the peace, provide rural infrastructures, extension officers to villages and help farmers with storage facilities. Let there be processes to add value, so that you don’t just have raw materials. Give loans to farmers. Let them have the finance. Farming should be subsidised as it is done all over the world. Rich countries subsidise farmers. In Europe, each cow gets a subsidy. If farmers don’t have subsidies, they won’t produce as much as they are currently producing. Rather than subsidising petroleum marketers who are busy churning out fabulous figures of petroleum products that they import, the government should subsidise our farmers who feed our people.
Our small scale farmers are doing fabulous work because they intercrop, use multi-cropping, have soil cover by planting beans and other things to keep the soil naturally fertile and absorb carbon. They are fighting global warming. When you use industrial system with GMO, you are creating more problems for the climate. With GMO, you grow just one crop and kill everything because nothing grows on it. You end up killing everything else. With a lot of fertiliser and other inputs, you can plant on the soil through intensive cultivation. The thing is that you are tied to artificial fertiliser whereas our local farmers use organic fertilisers by getting waste from sheep, goats, chickens, etc to fertilise the soil. In that case, you have a system that can sustain itself whereas GMO is not sustainable. It needs injection of finance, chemical and displacement of small scale farmers.