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Pondering On Our Seeds, Food And Biosafety

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Colonialism, neocolonialism and neoliberalism are deeply implicated in the disruption of food systems and in the introduction of plants and animals that are not found in nature. We note that colonialism was a geopolitical tool utilised to ensure extraction of resources and labour from subjugated territories. In terms of agriculture, the major approaches included growing crops mainly for export to the home base of colonial powers. These were appropriately called cash crops. They literally shifted the control of local agriculture from the communities to distant market forces and at the same time deprecated community values.

The approach of moving agriculture from meeting the needs of the producers can be seen in the manner by which a bulk of genetically modified (GM) crops are cultivated for animal feed and for industrial purposes.

Today, governments willingly sacrifice national interest in order to attract positive relationship with corporations and international financial institutions. The mindset that promotes this subservient disposition clearly ignores cultural values, indigenous knowledge and the pressure on our people whose natural socio-ecological support systems are eroded.

Over the years, our farmers selected, preserved and shared the best seeds. Our people built socio-economic systems that promoted human dignity and community cohesion. They built knowledge and values that respected other beings and species with the understanding of our deep interconnectedness as citizens of the planet. Today, seeds have become a global commodity and means of control.

Many protagonists of the erosion of our dignity and right to life hide under the cloak of science to conceal colonial intent of control, subjugation and denial of the right of choice. The worst form of slavery happens, it is said, when the slave does not perceive that he is a slave and celebrates what he thinks is freedom within his wretched condition. It also happens when the slave master accords some powers to heads of slave gangs and watches them inflict injury on their fellow slaves.

In considering the matter of seeds, food and biosafety in Nigeria, we are confronted by the display of a sophisticated lack of knowledge by highly schooled professionals who insist that whatever they say must be accepted as truth. These highly placed players pose a grave threat to Africa and not just Nigeria. There was a time when our country was a bastion of support for the liberation of Africa from colonial subjugation. At a time when the struggle raged in the southern parts of Africa, Nigeria was considered a frontline state in the struggles for liberation. Today, when it comes to biosafety and the protection of biodiversity, Nigeria has rapidly become the soft under belly of the continent, the gateway towards a re-colonisation of the continent. This state of things is celebrated by GMO promoters who have foot soldiers in the corridors of government, research institutes and increasingly, in the media.

In the past four years, Nigeria has witnessed the influx of GMOs and products derived from these novel organisms. The claim of safety premised on the arguments of GMO promoters that there is no scientific evidence that such products can be harmful to humans or to the environment does not recognise the highly circumscribed nature of the tests, conducted often, under the control of the promoting industry.

In a recently decided case in the USA where a gardener was awarded millions of dollars for having cancer after being exposed to the chemical glyphosate (once described as a carcinogen) in Bayer/Monsanto’s herbicide Roundup, industry hatchet jobbers insisted that the decision made by the jury was not acceptable because none of them is a scientist!

Must we all be molecular biologists before we can reject GMOs and insist on natural seeds and foods? If a scientist tells me that cigarettes are good for my health – as they did for several years – should my response be an applause, an Amen? If an engineer or architect swears that a collapsing building is safe, should I move in and begin to decorate it? Or would painting it over with graffiti or poetry change the status of the building?

Over the past four years, we have repeatedly heard highly ‘educated’ promoters of modern agricultural biotechnology in Nigeria claim that the taking of a rib from Adam to create Eve was biotechnology. In other words, that creation was by biotechnology. This claim was repeated at the recently held public hearing at the House of Representatives on the attempt by NBMA to expand its law by inserting definitions of extreme forms of biotechnology, including synthetic biology and gene drives. The claim could be interpreted as blasphemous or as an indication that GMO promoters are playing God or that the act of genetic engineering is a form of worship. The claim that creation was by biotechnology is a shameful low that should not be heard from the lips of highly placed government officials.

We are concerned because new techniques deployed in genetic engineering have risks beyond the ones posed by first generation modern biotechnology. Gene drives have the capacity of driving species to extinction – a direct and irreversible threat to biodiversity. While the world is grappling with understanding the implications of these technologies and what governance mechanisms to adopt, our Nigerian regulators and some lawmakers are pushing to open the way for them to be tested here probably based on their unverified claims that Nigeria has the most qualified practitioners as well as the best equipped laboratories in Africa.

It is time for the Nigerian government to fund our research institutions and agencies so that they actually carry out researches that support our seeds, agriculture and food systems. We cannot continue to be a testing ground for risky technologies developed elsewhere. So far, it is doubtful if any of the permits issued in Nigeria is for a variety genetically engineered in Nigeria. They are more likely all engineered elsewhere and brought here to be tested

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