Nnimmo Bassey is an environmentalist and one of those advocating against Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs). He spoke on the recently approved GMO BT cotton in Nigeria.
Is Nigeria ready for GMOs?
Absolutely no. Nigeria is not ready for GMOs. Nigeria does not need to be ready for GMOs because we don't need them.
Some academics have said those campaigning against GMO do so out of ignorance; is that the case?
I think people who make such claims are actually those that are declaring their own ignorance because there are many reasons why we should all be worried about GMOs. There are environmental, ethical and socio-cultural issues pertaining to the technology.
Moreover, there are lots of GMO products in the market that nobody is regulating or stopping from reaching our market shelves and dining tables. Some of those products are labelled and are in the markets and shops right here in Abuja.
Recently, we carried out a market shelf survey and we found that these products are in shops in cities, including Abuja, Kano, Calabar, Enugu, Benin City, Port Harcourt and Lagos. We were looking for products that are labelled and clearly shown to have GMO ingredients. Of course we found them all over the place. They are imported and shipped into Nigeria and our people are eating GMOs without knowing what they are eating.
Some of the products we found are things that children love, and the implications for their health are enormous. They include biscuits, cereals, mayonnaise and things used in making ice cream and cake. Some of the products are types of vegetable oil. They are out there in the market. Those promoting GMOs are fear mongers; screaming that we cannot feed ourselves because of ballooning population, whereas the matter of food availability is not addressed by the GMOs they are promoting.
In fact, it is problematic that, the arguments used in promoting GMOs have always been the same over the years since 1996 when the first GMO was released.
What are the arguments?
It's been said that GMOs have higher yield simply because they are made in the laboratory. This is not borne out of fact and reality. It has been shown that genetically modified maize in the USA does not yield higher than their conventional counterparts in Europe, for instance. There are several factors that affect crop yield and food availability. GMOs are not the answer.
The other argument is that GMOs reduce the quantity of chemicals used on farms. Isn't that a joke? Most GMOs, like the maize varieties being brought into Nigeria, are engineered to receive doses of herbicide. They are especially designed to withstand certain chemicals while other crops or plants would die off. It makes production a bit faster and easier and sometimes they spray the farm towards the harvest period to cause the crops to dry faster, making it easier for harvesting with machines.
Now, the issue is when you have a chemical that kills every other thing, the weed themselves will start to resist it; they also try to build resistance, and in the US and some other places, they already have what they call super weeds. These super weeds resist the herbicides, making it necessary for farmers to resort to stronger doses of the chemicals. These chemicals eventually wash off the farms into rivers thus affecting the marine ecosystem.
They also affect soil micro-organisms and of course we have micro-organisms inside our bodies! When we ingest these artificial things, they also affect those organisms in our gut system and they can cause a lot of issues in our bodies.
Nigerians should be worried because some of these GMO are being said to cause kinds of cancer and the courts in the USA are awarding victims millions of dollars. A couple affected by Monsanto's weed killer, Roundup, has just recently been awarded $2bn in damages. That chemical is all over Nigerian markets. Tell me, where will poor Nigerian farmers get justice when the calamities begin?
So what is wrong with BT cotton?
BT cotton is a cotton that is engineered to act as a pesticide to kill the ball worm that often attacks cotton. The problem with this is that some of the worms develop resistance to the cotton. In other cases, secondary pests, or non-target pests, emerge thereby necessitating the use of pesticide.
BT cotton is failing in India and Pakistan. It failed as a small scale farmers crop in South Africa in a place called Makhatini Flats where they were trying to show that smallholder farmers can grow the cotton and become prosperous. The experiment failed spectacularly because after supporting the farmers for a couple of years they were left to take up the cost of inputs and they simply could not. The farmers were left to swim or drown and they all literally drowned. Only big scale farmers are still cultivating that GMO cotton in that country.
Then also in Burkina Faso, BT cotton was grown for some years and then it was banned in 2016 when farmers incurred losses due to the poor quality of the cotton. It was found that the quality was not as good as the natural cotton that they were growing before and so the government banned the crop to avert national economic disaster. The farmers stopped growing the cotton because they were still using chemicals as against all the promises they were sold. Quality of products and levels of income are recovering since Burkina Faso returned to growing natural cotton.
Shockingly, it is the same failed variety that was brought to Nigeria. The same year Burkina Faso stopped planting GMO cotton; that's when Nigeria started approving them for commercial placement in the markets here. HOMEF, farmers and several civil society groups sent strong objections to the regulatory agency to no avail. Our objections are very cogent and written by experts, including relevant scientists.
What are the consequences?
GMOs have social consequences; they have economic consequences. When you grow GMOs engineered to withstand particular chemical herbicides, like Monsanto's Roundup Ready, it is only possible in mono cropping. You cannot engage in mixed cropping because any crop not engineered to withstand the chemical herbicide will die. That is the kind of GMOs that are being brought into Nigeria.
Our farming system is based on complex usage of our RCG biodiversity. Our farms are not green deserts. They are not chemical receptacles. Monocultures and large-scale farms will put pressure on our family farmers and children in the villages will become farm hands or security guards or casual hands on the farms as their parents will be squeezed off their lands. GMOs are set to exacerbate the problem of hunger, increase social inequality and related problems in our society.
When we are talking about genetic engineering tampering with nature is not something to say, well it has no consequences because every GMO that you have is an unnatural organism and cannot be found in nature. They are by definition and in reality unnatural. They are not same with natural organisms. Their not being equivalent to natural crops is the reason why their designers have patent rights to them.
The way forward
We don't need GMOs in Nigeria. What we need is a farming system where farmers are adequately supported and assured of good farm gate prices for their harvests. We need well- funded research institutes where students learn the best techniques of agroecology, local knowledge and local technologies.
Our researchers can study GMOs in their laboratories and build knowledge in that direction. We need good rural infrastructure, storage and processing facilities. Government should not waste resources funding propaganda that seek to promote a failed and risky technology that is a potent driver of species contamination and possibly extinction.