Our focus in this presentation is on modern biotechnology in crops and animal species. Traditional biotechnology is as old as agriculture and quite harmless. We are not also looking at hybridisation of crops or animals. We will also not advance into any detail on the area of nanotechnology, or the newer and probably more worrisome, synthetic biology.
A cardinal principle to consider whenever there is to be an intervention that would have impacts on the planet’s biodiversity is what is termed the Precautionary Principle enshrined in the Cartagena Protocol (adopted in 2000) of the Convention on Biological Diversity. It requires that at a minimum every nation should exercise a precautionary principle when it comes to the introduction of GE crops or organisms into the environment. In simple terms, this principle requires that we tread the path of caution whenever there is doubt about genetically engineered organisms or products. This protocol deals with living modified organisms (LMOs) that may have adverse effects on the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity, It takes “into account risks to human health, and specifically focusing on transboundary movements”. The term “living modified organisms” is what is usually termed genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
With regard to genetically engineered foods and organisms, proponents claim that there is substantial equivalence between the genetically engineered crops and the natural counterparts. Substantial equivalence as the term implies suggests that there is no serious differences between the two groups.
However, this claim is not supported by fact. If the substantial equivalence concept were to be substantiated in fact, there would be no need for patenting of the engineered crops or organisms.
Second, if the products were equivalent to natural species, then makers of GE foods and crops would be bold enough to clearly label their products knowing that there would be no objections by consumers.
Proponents of GE crops and products clearly know that their products have significant and yet to be fully understood environmental, social and cultural implications. Thus they seek to con consumers by not labelling their products.
As the earlier presentations must have already covered, genetic engineering entails the moving of DNA materials from one life form to another. This movement can overrun traditional and natural means of reproduction that occurs within species and make the crossing of species boundaries possible. Thus, DNA materials from plants can be inserted in animals or fish. These actions are made possible by the use of gene markers and other processes that raise new issues as such could entail the use of antibiotics and that would suggest implications when such antibiotics are used for medical purposes. Resistance to the drug can result.
We should point out at this point that GE plants or animals can often not be identified by visual examination. With exception of fish or animals engineered to have an absolutely unnatural outlook, the differences between GE crops or animals are not overtly physical. This is an important point to make, and to keep in view.
To illustrate the peculiar problem this raises, we will consider how rabbits were introduced into Australia. Note that rabbits can be identified by visual observation from dogs and cats. Yet, once rabbits were released into the Australian environment it was impossible to recall them.
Once a GE crop or animal is released into the environment it becomes impossible to recall them, no matter how loud your bull horn may be!
Now, in 1859, Thomas Austin imported 24 rabbits from England to Victoria, Australia for an interesting reason. According to him, “The introduction of a few rabbits could do little harm and might provide a touch of home, in addition to a spot of hunting.” [1]
Forty years later, farmers were already abandoning their properties because of a rabbit plague. The rabbits had moved from pets to pests! As the years went by, plants and trees were chewed away by a combination of cattle and sheep rearing and the activities of rabbits. Severe sandstorms began to happen and entire homesteads were buried by dust and children lost their lives in the storms. There were attendant health issues. To control the rabbits people resorted to shooting, trapping, poisoning, fencing, etc.
By 1951, almost one hundred years later, biological control of rabbits was introduced through the use of the virus-disease myxomatosis. This resulted in reducing the rabbit population from about 600 million to about 100 million. Remember that only 24 rabbits were introduced.
Lessons from the rabbit story:
1. Exotic species introduce unintended ecosystem effects
2. They bring in risks that my not have been foreseen
3. Once introduced into the ecosystem, GE organisms cannot be recalled
GE organisms have more serious impacts than mere exotic species. Because they mimic natural relatives, they cross breed with these and thereby contaminate the biodiversity. The result is biodiversity erosion as the GE organisms have aggressive and dominant traits. The implication of this is that a diverse ecosystem could be reduced to single specie, and if a disease that cannot be handled attacks this specie, the ecosystem would suffer catastrophic losses. This is one critical argument against these organisms.
There are many other concerns with regard to the cultivation of GE crops, for example. They thrive best as monocultures and depend largely on inputs such as pesticides and chemical fertilisers. They pose a direct threat to our traditional agriculture and the knowledge accumulated over centuries of interactions with our environment.
These and other reasons are the bases for resistance to the introduction of GE organisms in many parts of the world. It should be said at this juncture that the technology is largely spread by stealth – pollute, compromise and legalise. It gets accepted where the ecosystem is already contaminated beyond remedy.
Some of the claims used to push genetically engineered organisms by their promoters include:
1. That GE crops produce higher yields than their natural relatives
2. That GE crops require less pesticides, because some of them produce pesticides
3. That GE crops are more nutritious
4. That GE crops are the only way to feed the ballooning population of hungry Africans and would increase food production for the growing world.
5. GE crops/organisms are “under control” by scientists and biotech industry who developed them
6. Increase in yields would reduce the demand for agricultural land
7. Less water is needed to grow them
8. Poor farmers would be core beneficiaries
The claims of the modern biotech industry have remained consistent over the years even though they have been largely and constantly discredited. Friends of the Earth International researches and publications [3] and the work of other NGOs have clearly shown that the claims of the industry are nothing but myths. The myths persist because of corporate capture of policy institutions and governments.
• The myth of higher yield. Groups such as the Union of Concerned Scientists of the USA have shown that GE crops at best have equal yield with natural varieties. In other words, they hold no advantage in this area. This is so despite the fact that the industry starts off with the best seeds available. We must keep in mind that this technology works in monocultures and is not amendable to the mixed cropping and small scale farming that characterise African agriculture.
• The myth of less reliance on agrochemicals. The industry claims that with GE crops farmers use less pesticide, herbicides and other toxic chemicals. The truth is that farmers have to contend with increasingly resistant weeds called super weeds, and stronger pesticides are needed to annihilate super bugs.
• The myth of substantial equivalence with natural species. The biotech industry claims that their drops are substantially equivalent to natural varieties, but if this were so there would be no need for patents. Patents indicate that the products are not natural, but fabrications of the industry.
The myth of being more nutritious may well be one of the most audacious claims of the biotech industry. Their efforts at grabbing the market require new ideas. Rather than having people eat fruits for vitamin A and others, they claim that the way out lies in engineering enhanced levels of the vitamins into staple crops. The sad truth, as was shown by researchers including Ma Wan-Ho [4], is that a person would have to eat 5 kilograms of genetically engineered golden rice in order to derive an equivalent amount of vitamin A that one can get from eating two carrots. According to Vandana Shiva, The problem is that vitamin A rice will not remove vitamin A deficiency (VAD). It will seriously aggravate it. It is a technology that fails in its promise. [5]
In order to push genetically engineered crops into Africa, the promoters of the technology work hard to ensure lax Biosafety laws, ignore the Africa Model Law on Biosafety and ensure a reign of lack of transparency while truncating participation.
The biotech industry and allied governments continue to critically erode our collective genetic diversity through modern biotechnology, or genetic engineering. They have succeeded so far because authorities tend to believe that anything technological must be good and must be exploited. This thinking has worked against the setting up of strict rules and allowed weak regulation of the sector to our collective detriment.
Issues being fought over in the CBD include monitoring and identification, labelling of products and liability regimes. Efforts are being made by some international agencies to ensure that national biosafety laws in African countries are weak and the environments open for contamination.
In Nigeria the push for the introduction of GE crops and products has been supported by some people whose job was to legislate for strict controls. On 9 December 2009 a Public Hearing on the Biosafety Bill was organised by the Joint Committee on Science and Technology and Agriculture of the House of Representatives in Abuja. It is also instructive to note that whilst government ministries, agencies and other pro GMO groups were informed of the date for the hearing, through a written letter, three weeks beforehand and therefore had ample time to summit their memoranda on the draft bill, ERA/FoEN, other groups and the generality of the Nigerian public were informed of the hearing, a week to the hearing, through a newspaper. One thing was evident from the start of the debate, the organizers, were unanimous in their conviction that GMOs must be introduced in Nigeria. This position was evident not only in the tone of honourable Members of the House in their respective welcome remarks, but also by speeches and goodwill messages from mainly biotech research-based organizations that took the podium on invitation from the Chairman of the House Committee on Agriculture, Hon. Gbenga Makanjuola. According to Makanjuola (sponsor of the bill), “biotechnology was a technology that could not be stopped and must be accepted by Nigerians.”
In 2009 the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) complained about GE products from India, Brazil and China entering the US market on key grounds including: expected health impacts and environmental impacts. These are two of the serious grounds that countries around the world have based their rejection of agricultural modern biotechnology. As already mentioned the precautionary principle in the Cartagena Protocol of the CBD was drafted to take care of the uncertainty inherent in genetic engineering.
The false ground on which GE crops are being promoted is that they are the solution to hunger in Africa because such crops yield better than normal varieties and can be manipulated to have higher levels of nutrients such as vitamins that our people lack due to dietary regimes. There are also arguments that GE crops rely on less pesticide as some are engineered to kill target pests. It is said that such crops need less agro-chemicals. Critical research has shown that these claims do not hold water. It bears repeating that the Union of Concerned Scientists in the USA issued a report in April 2009 showing that the higher yields claim is fatuous. At best, the scientists said, GE crops yields are similar to those of normal varieties. As for some GE crops being pest resistant, it has also been seen that non-target pests sometimes get hit thus diminishing our biodiversity.
Although the Nigerian Biosafety bill is still in its draft form, GE products are already on our market shelves and genetically engineered crops are already on field trials and may indeed be out in the environment.
The Nigerian Root Crops Research Institute (NRCRI) Umudike got the nod of the Ministry of Environment to conduct field test with what they called “super cassava” – a variety engineered to have enhanced levels of vitamin A. There were protests over the approval calling to question the use of Nigeria as a dumping ground for tests concocted in laboratories from outside the country and pretending that these are home-grown ideas and experiments. Our institutions will continue to fall prey to foreign manipulation as long as they depend on foreign bodies, with foreign agenda, for funding.
The GE cassava project went ahead despite the protests and the Federal ministry of agriculture is busy promoting their so-called cassava bread without telling Nigerians that the cassava is genetically engineered.
In 2008, after three years of solid work, over 400 scientists, 30 governments from developed and developing countries, as well as 30 civil society organizations concluded an epochal work under the International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD). About 60 countries endorsed the report at a meeting in Johannesburg in April of that year.
The Assessment process was initiated by the World Bank in partnership with organizations such as the FAO, GEF, UNDP, UNEP, WHO and UNESCO and representatives of governments. The IAASTD examined the potential of agricultural knowledge, science and technology for reducing hunger and poverty, improving rural livelihoods, and working towards environmentally, socially and economically sustainable development. The report concluded that modern biotechnology would have very limited contribution to the feeding of the world in the foreseeable future. The conclusion was that a viable food future lies in the creative support of ecological agriculture in which small-scale farmers will continue to play a major role. Initially participating biotech industry sector pulled out of the IAASTD when they couldn’t impose their agenda on the study team.
The biotech industry and their backers have over the years vigorously resisted the labelling of GE products and would rather have them sneaked into peoples plates without their knowing. A minimum that a regulatory system should require in this matter is the mandatory labelling of GE products as such to enable consumers make informed choices and decide if they want to to eat them. This is the ethical thing to do. But the biotech industry does not want this. The argument of the industry is that GE crops and products are substantially equivalent to natural varieties.
Major players in the biotech industry, such as Monsanto, maintain a battery of lawyers who snoop around and sue farmers for infringing their patent rights even when they (Monsanto) should actually be held liable for having their seeds contaminate the farms of farmers who choose not to cultivate GE crops.
Talking about this biotech industry giant brings to mind the specious philanthropic thrust that is seeking to open the African environment to GE crops and products. The Alliance for a Green Revolution for Africa (AGRA) sponsored by the Rockefeller Foundation and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has vigorously denied on various occasions that they intend to use modern biotech tools in their tackling of hunger in Africa. Their denials have met scepticism and the recent revelation that the Bill Gates Foundation was making investments in Monsanto should send clear signals to perceptive Africans and African governments that this Alliance is based on the platform of philanthropic capitalism. This is one sustained means of pushing GE crops and products into Africa.
The other route through which GMOs are pushed into Africa has been through food aid as well as uncontrolled commercial imports. The food aid route became public in 2002 when Zambia exercised her right to choose what sort of foods to allow into her territory and rejected genetically engineered maize as food aid. Zambia was vilified and pressured but refused to buckle. Questions were asked as to why hungry people should choose to stay hungry rather than eat GE products. There were similar pressures on Angola and Sudan in 2004 when they experience food shortages. In some cases nations asked for milled maize as food aid as whole grains could find their way into the environment and contaminate local varieties. We note here that Zambia rejected GE food aid, weathered the storm and produced a bumper harvest the following year. In fact, while the debate raged in 2002 there were good harvests in other regions of Zambia and aid in cash could have assisted the nation to purchase and move such foods to needy areas. Truth is that food aid is big business. The type of aid given is not merely dictated by the fact of hunger.
The USA Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has faced a running battle as consumers resist the introduction of genetically engineered (GE) salmon which contains a modified growth hormone gene, for sale to US consumers. Although the fish was first conceived in the 1990s it has not found acceptance by the public.
One variety engineered by AquaBounty is an Atlantic salmon with a Chinook salmon growth gene inserted into its DNA. It is then reinforced with a growth gene from a third fish, an ocean pout. This growth gene is inserted in a way that makes the fish grow faster than unmodified salmon.
Critics fear that “the fish will escape and contaminate wild populations of salmon, and that the fish requires much wasteful transport since it would be cloned in Canada, grown in Panama, and then flown back to the U.S. for consumption.” They also see the whole scheme as utterly unnecessary and would only serve the interest of the company producing it, by helping it secure the control of the salmon market. [6]
Opposition to this GE fish has come from a wide range of groups including a group of 40 Representatives and Senators from both the US Congress and Senate who have called on the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) not to approve the GE salmon intended for human consumption. They are questioning the approval process and the lack of adequate public consultation.
Scientists at a company in the UK have produced suicide mosquitoes that would help fight dengue fever and possibly malaria. The male mosquitoes are genetically engineered to be sterile so that the reproduction by fever causing female mosquitoes would be impaired. This is done by giving the male mosquitoes lethal genes that cause the fever causing larvae to die.
Millions of mosquitoes have been released in parts of Malaysia, Brazil, and the Grand Cayman island in the Caribbean on trial runs.
The genetically modified (GM) male mosquitoes were released in Pulau Ketam, a fishing village south of Kuala Lumpur in an attempt to kill Aedes mosquitoes which spread dengue fever.
Environmental groups that opposed the plan posed this question: “Like all GM organisations, once they have been released in the wild, how do you prevent them from interacting with other insects and producing mutants which may be worse than the Aedes mosquito?” The warrior mosquitoes were also released in 2009 in the Grand Cayman, an island in the Caribbean.
Analysts see these experiments as record-setting in scientific history as the first release of GM insects that could bite humans. They note that: “What’s scandalous about this field trial is that it was largely conducted in secret. Few people on Grand Cayman knew the mosquitoes were genetically modified. The local population was largely kept in the dark.
“When the trials were made public a year after the first release of the insects, the locals wondered whether they’d been bitten by these potentially dangerous Frankenstein mosquitoes. Understandably, they felt taken advantage of. “I believe that we are the guinea pigs here,” wrote a disgruntled islander on the website of the Cayman News Service. Another asked: “Are we considered so dim-witted and unlearned that we cannot participate in our own environment? Were we considered to be a calculated risk?” Nongovernmental organizations like GeneWatch, a British NGO, have condemned the experiments with GM mosquitoes.” [7]
Government should prohibit the genetic engineering of our staples as the exercise puts the future of our agriculture at jeopardy. With the many species and varieties available naturally, attacks by pests or diseases affect some while others thrive. When the varieties are lost through genetic engineering an attack on that trait could a catastrophe, a disaster. We must keep in mind that biological attack could also be done through this opening. We mention here also the so-called terminator technology that seeks to produce seeds that do not germinate so that farmers keep buying seeds yearly, held at the jugular by seed traders and overturning our agricultural practices and systems.
Modern biotechnology portends danger to species because it promotes cross species breeding and manipulation that nature does not normally promote. For example genetic materials can be introduced from animals into plants or fishes to create new “products.” Overall, genetic engineering picks the best crops and introduces dominant traits that the engineers or sponsors desire the organism to have. Once the product interacts with the environment and crossbreeds with similar or related species, all acquire the introduced dominant traits and the wide varieties previously in the environment is reduced to one. The genetic erosion posed by genetic engineering is a serious threat to the preservation of species and varieties of life forms on earth.
There is no controversy in the fact that human actions have caused a great loss of genetic biodiversity. This has implication not to the health of the environment but directly also on the health of humans and their communities.
1. Europe has 169 regions, 123 provinces and 4,713 municipalities that have declared themselves GMO-free.
2. In six EU countries, GMO-free zones cover almost the entire country: Poland, Greece, France, Austria, Switzerland, and Italy.
3. Germany has 190 municipalities with a ban
4. Switzerland has a moratorium in effect until 2013
5. Ireland has declared itself a GMO-free zone.
6. Nearly all Australian states have adopted moratoria against GMOs
7. Thailand has banned GMO field trials and does not allow commercial plantings
8. Five states in India have banned GM cultivation
9. Some local Japanese governments have banned or restricted GM crops
10. Five provinces in the Philippines are GMO-Free zones
11. Venezuela has declared itself GMO-free
12. GMO-free initiatives in the U.S. include five counties in California that have moratoriums in place
13. Alaska in 2006 adopted a state law requiring labels on GM fish
14. Many states in the US have introduced bills to label GM seeds, foods, etc. Most are pending in committee. [8]
We note that recently many countries have been taking steps to protect their agriculture from pollution through modern biotechnology and to secure the safety of their national food systems. Some examples:
1. Benin Republic has maintained a moratorium on GMOs over the past 10 years.
2. Peru approved the law banning GM production for 10 years. [9]
3. The Mexican States of Tlaxcala and Michoacán each passed legislation banning the planting of genetically modified corn to protect natural plants from further contamination of transgenes. [10]
4. China has said that GMO is not a priority following public debate and outcry over safety concerns of GMO food. [11]
5. In the United States: GM crops banned in the California counties of Mendocino, Trinity and Marin.
6. In New Zealand: No GM foods are grown.
7. In Germany: There is a ban on the cultivation or sale of GMO maize.
8. In Ireland: All GM crops were banned for cultivation in 2009, and there is a labeling system for foods containing GM to ensure that such foods are identified as such.
9. In Austria, Hungary, Greece, Bulgaria and Luxembourg there are bans on the cultivation and sale of GMOs.
10. In France: Monsanto’s MON810 GM corn had been approved but its cultivation was forbidden in 2008. There is widespread public mistrust of GMOs that has been successful in keeping GM crops out of the country.
11. Madeira the autonomous Portuguese Island requested a country-wide ban on genetically modified crops last year and was permitted to do so by the European Union (EU).
12. Switzerland banned all GM crops, animals, and plants on its fields and farms in a public referendum in 2005, but the initial ban was for only five years. The ban has since been extended through 2013.
Nigeria does not need GE foods or crops because we cannot afford the ecological and health impacts. Unfortunately some of these products have been sneaked into our markets and with lax regulations our people are eating them without being aware of the fact.
In 2007 and 2008 when ERA and colleagues in Friends of the Earth Africa conducted tests on imported rice in Ghana, Cameroon, Nigeria and Sierra Leone we were shocked to find illegal GMO rice in the markets in Ghana, Nigeria and Sierra Leone. There are various vegetable oils on market shelves that have GE elements in them.
Although marketers of these products are resisting labelling, it is essential that consumers read the labels on products that contain corn and vegetable oils before purchasing them.
The biggest potentials of GE crops are those of polluting our environment, exposing our people to health risks and of course subjugating the agriculture sector to the apron strings of biotech seed companies.
Independent scientists have shown that GE crops and foods have direct health impacts.
These are the reasons why the push to erode the continent’s biodiversity through genetic engineering and monoculture must be resisted.
Most of the GE crops currently being commercialised end up as animal feed in the global north while the toxic impacts are in the global south. Examples are the soy deserts in South America that feed the cows of Europe.
We conclude by noting that GE crops are actually engineered to tolerate herbicides produced by the companies who made them. Thus farmers buy herbicide tolerant seeds from the companies that made the herbicides. This is simple business sense. You get hooked and the company controls you farming processes. Findings are that many of those herbicide tolerant crops are learning not to tolerate the herbicides. This results from resistance in the crops. The appearance of some weeds broadly categorized as super weeds confirm this. Farmers have to use iuncreasingly stronger herbicides against resistant crops.
The report of IAASTD [12] we referred to earlier clearly shows that the future food needs of the world will be met through small-scale family farming and not modern biotechnology. This is the time for farmers and agricultural producers to come together for the push to secure the future of the continent. Government has a duty to support small-scale, mid-scale farmers/farming, provide the space for education, research and support of agro-ecological agriculture and block the entry of toxic technologies and actively support the human right to food.

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