Feeding GMOs to school kids? (18/1/2005)

Excellent article from Nigeria:

The GMO debate is complex, and it is crucial to have in mind the different aspects and consequences of letting GM food enter into our country without scrutiny. We must begin to ask more questions about what foods we buy from the shops and consider the implications of GM seeds contaminating our farms and overrunning local species.

Feeding GMOs to school kids?

This Day (Lagos), January 17, 2005
By Nnimmo Bassey

LAGOS - The saying that the best way to a man's heart is through the stomach has become a virtual snare to an unsuspecting world. Many people take for granted that any food they buy off the shelf is safe for consumption. Indeed as long as the package looks beautiful, many are content to accept its content.

Arresting a man through the stomach has gradually turned into a grand enterprise to hold entire peoples to ransom. It is a simple case of taking control of what crops are available for cultivation and what foods are available in the markets. It is also a question of cultivating tastes that are basically new to local preferences. The situation now is that whoever controls the seed already has a hook in your nose.

The recent announcement that school feeding programme is to be introduced in some states of Nigeria courtesy of the World Food Programme would ordinarily be thing to cheer if you do not understand the larger scenario. Of course this is not the first time school feeding programme is being introduced in sections of Nigeria, or Africa for that matter. Many such programmes are currently being run in some East African countries. One of the problems is that the bulk of the foods now being fed to these children are of the genetically modified varieties. The school feeding programme is such an innocent scheme, and many would ask what is wrong with Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) after all?

GM crops: a decade of failure

GMOs have been introduced in the world significantly since 1996, but so far over 95% of all GM crops cultivated are only in four countries: the US, Canada, Argentina and China. The enthusiasm of biotech industry has faced enormous controversy worldwide about the health, environmental and socio-economic impacts of these new crops. Despite the promises made by biotech corporations, the first decade of GM crops has been a resounding failure. Biotech corporations promised that GM crops were safe, that they would provide better quality and cheaper food, that they were environmentally sustainable, that they would improve agricultural production, and that they would feed the hungry. None of these promises have materialized. Developing countries are already experiencing serious problems with GM crops. In several parts of India and Indonesia for example, farmers have complained that Monsanto's GM cotton has not delivered on the company's claims of higher yields and improvements in the livelihoods of farmers. Cotton growers in India have a tale to tell on this.

The challenge of GMOs for Africa

Today, Nations in Africa and the 2/3rd world are coming under increasing pressure to open their borders to the influx of genetically modified crops. Proponents of these engineered crops include the giant corporate investors and patent owners Monsanto and Sygernta. The government of the USA is also very pushy about the need to spread GMOs across the world. This push is primarily done through the activities of USAID and USDA. The UN World Food Programme has also become increasingly engaged in the spread of GM crops through its food aid scheme.

Resistance to GMOs in Africa at governmental level made the headlines in 2002 when Zambia rejected GM food relief at a time the country was experiencing critical food shortages in parts of the country. The decision of the government was based on the serious concerns over negative impacts of health of its already vulnerable population, and in the environment. A cynical world looked at the government of Zambia as insensitive and wondered why the people of Zambia should be sentenced to starvation rather than eat scientifically engineered foods.

Nevertheless, the government stood firm in rejecting the crops. Zambia managed at the end to overcome the crisis without GM food showing to the entire world that even in periods of food crisis a country can cope without GM food aid. How did this happen?

One of the lessons learned from debates on hunger, food aid and GMOs is the fact that contrary to the claims made to Zambia in 2002 that GMOs were the only solution to the food crisis, the reality showed that there is always alternatives and choices. When we speak of hunger in a country it is often the case that the problem is localised in certain regions while other regions may actually have surpluses. This means that hunger is not caused by lack of food or none availability of food but the lack of access to such foods. This means that what the WFP and other donor agencies ought to do in the first instance is to ascertain the strategic food situation in a given country before reaching a decision on the best solutions. The argument would be that this is usually the case. Our contention then is that the matrix must be reviewed to accommodate local supplies as a primary alternative.

The reintroduction of schools feeding has come at a time when Nigeria, the giant of Africa, is so enamoured to the idea of GMOs without any critical debate on their acceptance or desirability. The USAID for instance signed a memorandum of understanding (MUO) on GMOs with the Nigerian government at the opening of a consultative meeting in Abuja last year. We do not need to add that the very act of signing the agreement at the opening ceremony clearly indicated that the battle for our stomachs is almost considered off-limits for debate and discussions.

Some other African countries, including Nigeria, have draft biosafety laws in the pipeline, but some are convoluted and have contradictory provisions because of a lack of clarity on the issues related to this new crop of crops. Another problem we have noticed in Nigeria is that our government ministries are working on different agendas with regard to the issue of GMOs. This ought not to be so. A government must have one face and head in one direction. You cannot make good progress headed in two different directions at the same time.

The arguments for GMOs have been swallowed line, hook and sinker by the overriding powers in the Nigerian government (powers wielded by such persons as the chairman of PDP would say on whose table the buck stops). But we must be concerned. We cannot accept every imported argument at face value. The Cartegena protocol on Biosafety to which the Nigerian State is a party includes and emphasises the critical provision called the precautionary principle. That principle essentially warns the world to be cautious about GMOs. Zambia used this approach in 2002 when they decided to protect its people from potential threats derived from the consumption of GM food aid. The exercise of this precaution is in the sense that until the arguments against GMOs are reasonably settled everyone should be free to decide on what to do with these products.

The fact is that even in the USA where the government is so much in support of GMOs, rigorous testing is not done. This is allowed because of the obvious need for corporate interests to prevail. The health of the population takes second place.

The dangers of the "Africa 21st Century Green Revolution"

For us in Africa and related regions, the game is getting thick and dangerous. We hear so much of the mouthing of Millennium Development Goals (MDG) of the UN as being capable of eliminating poverty (abject or otherwise) from our shores. The UN Secretary General called in July 2004 for a new "Africa 21st Century Green Revolution" as a key element needed for Africa to cope with hunger and poverty. A reading of the blueprint shows that the plan includes the promotion of GMOs as the solution to the challenge of hunger in the developing world. What is amazing to opponents of this posture is that proponents of GMOs keep on recycling discredited arguments and many governments accept them as sacrosanct.

The hype about the so-called new Green Revolution needs to be examined beyond its power as a slogan. How successful was the first Green Revolution? Who were the beneficiaries? It is known that the first green revolution focussed mainly rice and wheat to the detriment of farmers and people who depended on other varieties (for example: millet and sorghum). The so-called MDG or new Green Revolution has a limited scope and focuses on a few commercial crops.

The first green revolution was based on hybrid seeds that were purchased from the hands of seed companies. The new one will be dependent on modification of genes and farmers will be even more hooked to seed manufacturers or patent "owners". With proposed technologies such as the "terminator seeds" farmers cannot hope to save seeds for the next planting season. Continuous trips must be made to the seed shops!

In the first green revolution struggle for land was lost to the rich and powerful as the poorer farmers were squeezed and/or bought out. Today's scenario portends a worse picture. Take for one the arrival of farmers from Zimbabwe. While one is not against transnational business, it is worrisome that our government already thinks that a handful of farmers would take up to 5% of Nigeria's total land mass. It is conceivable that their arrival will exacerbate the already explosive land hunger in parts of Nigeria. A massive introduction of GMOs and the concomitant contaminations through cross pollination is also an ominous likelihood.

A people are in deep trouble when they lose their food sovereignty. It may indeed be worse than the loss of political sovereignty. Genetically modified seeds are controlled by a few corporations and poor farmers will not come out from under their thumbs. The time has come for the people to take a close look at the issues involved in the debate and to take a good look at the labels (where there are any) on the foods we buy off the shelf.

Feeding our children on GMOs?

What we are saying is that the WFP feeding programme must not be allowed to become a way by which our children are hooked unto a feeding pattern that is only sustainable with imported GM foods. The uncertainties over the health impact of GM food are enough reason to prevent our children from being used as guinea pigs, particularly when there are alternatives available. Big food companies in Western Countries for example have removed GM ingredients from children food, due to the consumer requests. Why should the same standards not be used with our children?

The GMO debate is complex, and it is crucial to have in mind the different aspects and consequences of letting GM food enter into our country without scrutiny. We must begin to ask more questions about what foods we buy from the shops and consider the implications of GM seeds contaminating our farms and overrunning local species.

Bassey is the Executive Director of Environmental Rights Action.

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