OPINION / SPEECHES

STOPPING THE FALSE NUTRITIONAL KITE BY NNIMMO BASSEY

Date Posted: October 11, 2013

By NNIMMO BASSEY

Email: nnimmo@homef.org




A Paper presented by Nnimmo Bassey, Director, Health of Mother Earth Foundation (HOMEF), at a Workshop on Stopping the False Nutritional Kite & Understanding the Convention on Biological Diversity organised by HOMEF and held at Protea Hotel Apo Apartments, Abuja on Tuesday 08 October 2013.

Adequate nutrition is a critical need for any people. As experts tell us, optimum nutrition is not determined by the quantity of foods that we consume. It is more a factor of the nutritional value or quality and mix of what we eat. Thus we can have people that are malnourished from eating too little and others that are malnourished despite the fact that they eat too much food.

With this premise we seek to examine the policy factors and pressures that affect our nutritional status. With particular focus on Africa we have to assess what are our challenges and why are we in the global spotlight, especially in the light of recent papers such as the one from the World Bank (Africa can Feed Africa) and the Development Policy Forum (Helping Africa To Feed Itself). There is a plethora of discussion papers and policy briefs on the Africa hunger question. We are examining what this interest portends.

Eyeing the African Bowl

The question of agriculture, food and hunger in Africa has occupied scholars, politicians and business people over the past decades. Not surprisingly the searchlight has come from persons and organisations located from outside the continent. They sometimes appear to be like visitors that grief more than the bereaved, as an adage says.

The continent has been the picture of a place of endemic hunger whose problems are escalated by weather variability and violent conflicts, and for good reason. Agricultural production is also impacted by water availability, soil degradation, energy costs, dwindling natural resources, biodiversity loss and rising inequalities. Environmental pollution and overall quality of the environment affects food production, wholesomeness, availability and access.

Droughts and floods have created special food challenges on the continent. Food shortages are often tackled through food aid – a process that has its own inbuilt problems especially where the aid is utilized as a political tool. One very glaring flash point of hunger politics was when Zambia had a food deficit in 2002 and the USA through the WFP insisted on sending non-milled genetically engineered (GE) maize as food aid. That offer was rejected by Zambia for fear that the maize would get planted and contaminate the their environment.

An approach for which food aid provides a ready vehicle is that of direct introduction of GE crops into Africa countries. The process of flooding the African continent with GE crops has been painfully slower than the biotech industry and their backers would wish. The process has been slow partially because African nations prefer to toe the precautionary path because fears about the negative impacts of the technology have not been allayed.

Today, agricultural policy makers in Nigeria are claiming that the country will lag in food needs simply because we have not embraced modern agricultural biotechnology. Top leaders like the Minister of Agriculture has been quoted as saying that four African countries have taken the Agricultural GE path and that Nigeria cannot be the last to jump on the bandwagon. In this push we are reminded that South Africa, Egypt, Sudan and Burkina Faso are already enjoying the GE boom.

Although the minister’s claim cannot be accepted as a compelling reason for adopting the technology there are even threats that the country would be flooded with GE foods by 2015 – the new magical year on these shores.

African nations facilitate the grabbing of their lands by foreign nations and companies for agriculture even when it is known that the produce from the lands would be sent back to the home countries of the so-called investors. To such countries, the attraction is that they are able to attract direct foreign investment which economists of certain bent present as a measure of the health of such economies and a means of boosting growth irrespective, more or less, of what the investment entails.

The Silver Bullet

Externally driven policies aim to sell not just ideas but products. These are more of efforts to open up space for business investment. And we cannot begrudge them for doing that. Every seller aims to sell and it is the duty of the buyer to decide what to buy or overlook. Because the sellers in this case wish to sell technologies, they often forget that agriculture is not merely about filling stomachs but also very vitally about culture even as the name itself suggests.

A silver bullet that solves every problem is manifestly anti-culture because culture thrives in diversity. Industrial agriculture especially when based on GE is not just about monocultures but an agriculture systems that are essentially expressions of monoculture because they are based on the principle of narrowing down species to certain types they use as tools to dominate the market. The silver bullet, the one solution fits all, is that tool.

With this understanding we can see why the shift is now not about how hungry Africans are, but how stunted and malnourished the majority of us are. This is where the industrialised purveyors of GE have shifted the narrative to why Africans who are not adept at eating balanced diets can be made to do so by genetically engineering crops to enhance the nutritional contents.

The truth is that just like other hyped benefits of GE, this is another false kite flown for profit and domination of our market as well as overturning our biological diversity. The reality is that nutrition is not something you manufacture in the laboratory. Nutrition is from eating wholesome food.

There have been many experiments aimed at enhancing nutritional values of crops through genetic engineering. The most famous was the hastily acclaimed golden rice that was genetically engineered to have heightened levels of vitamin A. That experiment was not so successful because independent scientists revealed that one would require eating 9 kilograms of that cooked rice a day to obtain the same amount of vitamin A that could readily be obtained from eating two carrots.

In other parts of Africa genetically modified bananas are being field tested for enhanced nutritional benefits. It is a wholesale assault on Africa staples.

In 2006 Ventria genetically engineered rice by introducing synthetic human proteins from human breast milk and saliva. The purpose? The rice was genetically engineered to fight diarrhoea related dehydration in children. When we consider that dehydration in children can be easily combated with oral rehydration therapy it becomes obvious that some forms of GE are simply not needed. In fact, it was reported that some of the children on whom the rice was tested in Peru before authorisation had complications and some died. One of Ventria’s top scientists involved with the project had to face criminal investigation and a professional ethics complaint for feeding the children with GE rice that was not approved for use anywhere in the world. Interestingly the engineering was done purposely for use in poor developing countries.

While pushing for the acceptance of the GE rice, Ventria had” claimed that their genetically modified rice could save up to two million children annually. Similar arguments are made daily by Monsanto and Bill Gates, who have teamed up to make developing regions grow GM food. While studies are ongoing, it’s becoming increasingly clear that GM crop production increases the use of devastatingly toxic pesticides and herbicides and decreases yield over time, not least of all thanks to nutrient depletion of the soil and pollution of water and local areas. Effects on people and animals —the farmers who apply the pesticides; the locals and animals who drink the local, polluted water; and the consumers who eat the food—look grim as well.”

The huge grant from Gates Foundation went to the John Innes Centre in Norwich where Professor Giles Oldroyed, the leader of the research team said "We believe if we can get nitron fixing cereals we can deliver much higher yields to farmers in Africa and allow them to grow enough food for themselves."

Back home, perhaps we will get to know at this workshop whether the GE cassava field-tested at the National Root Crops Research Institute (NRCRI), Umudike has already been released into the environment/market. And perhaps also get to know what else is in the pipeline. However, we learn from reports of when a group of fellows from the pro-biotech group Biosciences for Farming in Africa (b4fa) visited the institute that the institute is really in a tight romance with agricultural modern biotechnology.

A report in Daily Trust stated, Dr Kenneth Ekwe, the assistant director at NRCRI, said ‘that if Nigeria can effectively explore the crop and give greater attention to its production through the introduction of biotechnology, by-products of the crop which are well used in many areas of life, can favourably compete with oil as foreign exchange earner. ‘On the need to introduce biotechnology into cassava farming in the country for export purposes, experts at the Umudike institute compiled a compendium titled 'Root and Tuber Crops - Research for food security and empowerment' and explained with emphasis that, "biotechnology provides a means of designing crops for specific environments which is a major departure from traditional agriculture. There is therefore need for genetic engineering to be applied to improve cassava production as well as the enhancement of nutrient availability, pest and disease control."’

When information on the Super Cassava experiment leaked in 2009, Environmental Rights Action/Friends of the Earth Nigeria issued a call for the project to be halted. The points raised in the call are worth recalling today and we quote at length:

The NRCRI application letter sent to the minister of Environment, Housing and Urban Development, dated November 14, 2008, leaves many questions unanswered and it is surprising that any kind of approval would be accorded it. The Institute said it would work closely with an unknown office it termed "Nigerian Biosafety Office," an indication that the NRCRI may not be fully informed about the structure of the biosafety regime in the country. Other areas of concern in the application are a number of loopholes such as:

1. The genotype line the NRCRI intends to insert is a “single trait” even though it added that “no traits have been stacked at this time” clearly indicating that this is an incomplete application.

2. The application acknowledges that insect agents such as wasps and honeybees can disperse cassava pollens. They claim that once the pollens emerge they will be removed before pollinators reach them. Ants are also known transport cassava seeds. These is a clear admission that should these GM cassava be eventually approved our cassava biodiversity will be severely eroded.

3. The application asserts that the source of the transgenes "is not likely to affect the safe conduct of a confined field trial." This is clearly an uncertainty.

4. The applicants also stated, "there are no expected changes in toxicity or allergenicity by the intended changes." This claim does not eliminate the risk.

5. NRCRI intends to use the antibiotic neomycin phosphotransferase II (npttII) in the transfection process. Antibiotics in modified crops when consumed, can lead to antibiotic resistance making treatment difficult in case of illness.

• Nutrition enhanced plants are usually engineered to make molecules that are biologically active in animals. According to research scientists, the transfection process of making GM crops causes random mutations that can alter the already unpredictable plant metabolism and this causes unforeseen interactions between overproduced metabolites from introduced enzymes and normal plant metabolism. These pose serious risks.

• There are clinical implications if our diet is altered with biologically active compounds and can seriously affect human development.

• This is also another fundamental problem with the development of this 'improved' new variety of vitamin A cassava. The big question is, how much of it does an adult eat to get this vitamin A? Its know gainsaying that there are several better, cheaper and already proven solutions. Even IITA had also developed cassava varieties in Nigeria, which it said, have been introduced throughout Africa's cassava belt. Also confirming this was Emmanuel Azaino, who in a recent interview with the Punch Newspaper, revealed that that IITA has developed 10 varieties of cassava for Delta State, in Nigeria. The Ministry of Agriculture officials in Nigeria confirmed that there are over 40 hybrid varieties of cassava that have the capacity to resist the cassava mosaic disease, the very problem that GM cassava is being produced to solve. Only about 10 of these varieties have so far been made available to farmers. Even the World Bank has admitted that rediscovering and using local plants and

• Conserving vitamin A rich fruit and vegetables has dramatically reduced the number of VAD threatened children in inexpensive and efficient ways. So why the push for this GM Cassava?

• The Danforth Center made it public knowledge that "We need to start making plans for how these product developments are going to be carried out in our countries of interest and how these products are going to meet the regulatory requirements of those countries." They were looking for countries that have big markets for their products. Nigeria, one of the world's largest producers of cassava tubers - with over 34 million metric tons produced annually since 2004 and consumed by millions of people, became their spot.

• It also appears that there is a systematic attempt at breaking down Africa's regulatory resistance to GM crops. Their strategy received a boost when on the 9th of January 2009, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation awarded the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center a $5.4 million grant. According to the report "the funding will help the center secure the approval of African governments to allow field testing of genetically modified banana, rice, sorghum and cassava plants that have been fortified with vitamins, minerals and proteins. These crops are mainstays in the diets of millions in developing countries around the globe". It is incredible that the Gates Foundation is giving out whopping sums of money openly, for the lobbying of African governments, to open up their environment for GM crops. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation are the brains behind the Alliance for Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA). Their strategy and objectives are thinly veiled.


With all these concern raised in 2009 and having received no responses to allay those fears it is very likely that we are already living a nightmare simply because some researches must dance to the drum beats of some donors.

Nutrition is not a one-dimensional thing. There are the social, environmental and cultural aspects of agriculture that cannot be ignored in food production and nutrition.

The Love of G8

At their meeting in May 2012, the G8 declared among other things that they would “seek to maintain strong support to address current and future global food security challenges, including through bilateral and multilateral assistance, and agree to take new steps to accelerate progress towards food security and nutrition in Africa and globally, on a complementary basis” Note that they said they would take new steps and the process would be accelerated through agricultural research to achieve the objective of food security and nutrition in Africa. The globally, was probably added as an edge rounder or softener.

A New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition that emerged from that G8 meeting was celebrated at a “Nutrition for Growth” summit hosted by the UK government in June 2013.It was an event that saw countries like Nigeria scrambling to become members of the alliance.

A Fact Sheet on the Alliance issued by the White House informs that

In 2012, the United States leveraged its presidency of the G-8 to deepen the global commitment to food security through the establishment of the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition. At the G-8 Summit hosted by President Obama at Camp David, African heads of state, corporate leaders and G-8 members pledged to partner through the New Alliance and, working with the African Union and Grow Africa, lift 50 million people out of poverty in sub-Saharan Africa by 2022. Development partners, African governments, and international and local private companies committed to specific policy reforms and investments that will accelerate the implementation of country food security strategies under the Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Program, and sustain inclusive agriculture-led economic growth. By partnering with the private sector during its first year, the New Alliance has already leveraged more than $3.7 billion in private investment in African agriculture. The New Alliance has also expanded over its first year. G-8 leaders this year welcomed the addition of Benin, Malawi, and Nigeria to the New Alliance, joining existing members Burkina Faso, Cote d’Ivoire, Ethiopia, Ghana, Mozambique and Tanzania who have negotiated rigorous Country Cooperation Frameworks for accelerating investment that include policy reforms, private investment intentions, and donor commitments to align predictable assistance flows behind recipient country priorities.

Critics of the G8 initiative saw their major pull as being “the $3 billion of private sector investment, across the entire agricultural chain of production. In total 45 multinational companies plan to invest, most of which are based outside Africa, including agribusiness giants Monsanto, Cargill and DuPont. Swiss agrochemical company Syngenta is to invest over $500 million to develop seeds for local farmers.”

In a blog I co-authored with Kirtana Chandrasekaran in the Guardian we argued that Alliance was a flawed project and that it wrongly “prioritises unprecedented access for multinational companies to resources in Africa. To access cash under the initiative, African governments have to make far-reaching changes to their land, seed and farming policies.”

Kicking small-scale farmers (who are actually the biggest aggregate investors in agriculture) aside in favour of agribusiness will mean more land grabs on the continent, more displacement of smallholder farmers, deeper poverty and more hunger.

Nutrition that depends on purchasing power of citizens will obviously remain a pipe dream.

Nutrition is a political matter

Nutrition, as we have laboured to show is a political matter. Agricultural policies are clearly driven by political worldview of leaders and nations. When Zambia rejected GE maize in food aid in 2002 it was a political decision. The nation decided to pay the price of suffering levels of deprivation because they placed a higher value on preservation of their biodiversity, which they understood correctly as being vital for future resilience and independence.

Industrial agriculture does not promote intense mixed cropping but rather intensification of monocultures. This is necessarily so because the crops must withstand certain herbicides or pesticides and also fit particular mechanical harvesting mechanisms.

The world uses an estimated 7000 crop varieties for food. Over the years, modern large-scale farming, through dependence on monocultures, continues to reduce the number of crops used for food and food products and today less than 100 species of plants comprise 90 per cent of the world’s total food crops. This is a direct threat to nutrition.

The case for an agriculture that yields food while ensuring biodiversity conservation cannot be better stated than has been done by Jack Heinemann when he wrote: “The diversity of agriculture adds resilience to world food production just as wheat genetic diversity adds resilience to global wheat production. Diversity predisposes us to survive the crises we have yet to encounter. Large-scale industrial agriculture consolidating under the control of a small number of mega-corporations is a monoculture, not just a force creating monocultures.”

The claim that GMOs are the key to meeting food and nutrition needs of the world’s population is nothing more than a market sales pitch. To start with, a full one third of global agricultural production is wasted. Food wastage adds to the problems of climate change from the process of production, transportation, refrigeration and finally through release of greenhouse gases in dumps. Moreover, a lot of food is used in fuels production or fed into machines – with a series of other implications.

It is obvious that for Nigeria to achieve food security, enjoy food sovereignty and achieve good nutritional levels, we must support our local small-scale farmers with ecologically sound tools and needed extension services. Our farmers can assure us of the right mix of foods through higher productivity if supported with adequate rural infrastructure that would not only enable them to reach the farms but also the markets.

There must also be a total ban of any sort of application of agricultural genetic engineering outside of laboratories – especially no such tinkering with our staples without full and open consultation and prior informed consent of our farmers and peoples in general should be allowed.

Enhanced and supported traditional knowledge and local food production are the key to secure and nutritious food future. It is time to stop flying the false nutrition kite powered solely by the profit and colonising and control motive.

As we speak the signals about the assault on African seeds and agriculture are not good. There arte two urgent incidents at the COMESA level that are cause for alarm. The Council of Ministers of the Common Market for East and Southern Africa (COMESA) at their September 2013 meeting approved a COMESA Seed Trade Harmonization Regulations, 2013 without any consultations with citizens or farmers.

Secondly at the same meeting, the COMESA adopted ‘Draft Policy Statements and Guidelines for commercial planting of GMOs, Trade in GMOs and Emergency Food aid with GMO content.’ According to the African Food Sovereignty Alliance, AFSA, “the COMESA Policy aggressively promotes the wholesale proliferation of GMOs on the African continent by way of commercial plantings, commodity imports and food aid and flouts international biosafety law.”

South and East Africa may seem a mere part of a huge continent, but this is a political move that is set to crawl all over the continent. Farmers of Africa unite! It is time to push back all these false kites being flown over our agricultural skies.

Ends

References

1. World Bank. Africa Can Feed Africa. http://web.worldbank.org/WBSITE/EXTERNAL/COUNTRIES/AFRICAEXT/0,,contentMDK:23298955~pagePK:146736~piPK:226340~theSitePK:258644,00.html

2. http://www.odi.org.uk/sites/odi.org.uk/files/odi-assets/publications-opinion-files/6265.pdf

3. The rice was engineered with enhanced with the organic compound beta-carotene

4. BBC. 15 July 2012. British GM crop scientists win $10m grant from Gates. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-18845282

5. Anthony Gucciardi. March 2nd, 2012. Sorry Gates: GMO Crops Shown to be Ineffective at Fighting World Hunger. http://naturalsociety.com/gmo-crops-proven-to-be-ineffective-at-fighting-world-hunger/

6. Anthony Gucciardi. November 4th 2011. How Biotech Corporations and GMO Crops are Threatening the Environment and Humankind Alike. http://naturalsociety.com/how-biotech-corporations-and-gmo-crops-are-threatening-the-environment-and-humankind-alike/

7. Lisa Garber. January 18th, 2013. Flashback: Genetically Modified Rice Made with Human Genes. http://naturalsociety.com/flashback-the-rice-made-with-human-genes-2/

8. BBC.15 July 2012

9. XXX

10. Eyo Charles. 29 August 2013. Why Nigeria cannot Export Cassava Now – Experts. http://allafrica.com/stories/201308290704.html?viewall=1

11. ERA/FoEN. 6 March 2009. Nigeria Does Not Need Genetically Modified “Super Cassava.” http://www.gmwatch.org/index.php/news/archive/2009/10769-nigeria-does-not-need-gm-qsuper-cassavaq

12. Camp David Declaration. May 18/19, 2012. http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2012/05/19/camp-david-declaration

13. White House June 18, 2013. http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2013/06/18/fact-sheet-new-alliance-food-security-and-nutrition

14. Global Agriculture. 21 May 2012. Concern as G8 Relies on Agribusiness to Fight Hunger. http://www.globalagriculture.org/whats-new/news/news/en/25747.html

15. Jack A. Heinemann. 2009. Hope not Hype: The future of agriculture guided by the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge , Science and Technology for Development. Penang, TWN. Page x

16. See more on food wastage at "Food Wastage Footprint: impact on natural resources" summary report can be viewed here: http://www.fao.org/docrep/018/i3347e/i3347e.pdf

17. The International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge (IAASTD) Report, Agriculture at Crossroads (2008) clearly showed that the food future lies in the hands of small-scale farmers and not industrial monocultures and certainly not on agricultural modern biotechnologies.



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