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9-Misc: Conned with corn - GMO struggle in Africa



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TITLE:  Conned With Corn
SOURCE: This Day, Nigeria, Opinion by Nnimmo Bassey
DATE:   22 Apr 2005

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Conned With Corn

The scramble for Africa is getting hotter today than it may have been
during the Berlin Conference at which she was partitioned. The
partitioning of Africa sowed the seeds of discord and conflict that we
are reaping today. Today, certain concepts have been painstakingly
constructed and foisted on the continent. And this has been done in order
to have Africa so compromised that she would simply just beg to be
colonised once more. We are talking about the onslaught by the biotech
industry on the innards of this continent.

The siege is on. Many people imagine that the pressure on Africa to
accept genetically modified grains or other crops as food aid ended with
the widely known case with Zambia in 2002. That emblematic case rightly
showed that every country has the sovereign right determine what type of
food to eat, irrespective of whether it is purchased in the market or is
donated as aid. And it demonstrated to the world that the predicted
catastrophe of Zambians starving never happened. The country thereafter
recorded food surpluses, besides the fact that in the heat of the crisis
the shortage was limited to sections of the country and there were
supplies in other regions that simply needed to be procured for the needy
areas.

Genetically engineered food has been presented as the ultimate weapon
against hunger in Africa and the world. This is also seriously suggested
in the United Nationís Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) meaning that
this may be the direction efforts will be concentrated in the years to
come. African leaders have largely been co-opted into thinking this way
because they are warned that since the so-called Green Revolution train
left Africa standing at the station they should not miss the gene train.
It has been noted that the Green Revolution required extensive chemical
and equipment inputs and although food production increased in some
areas, small scale farmers were marginalised, the environment took a
beating and on the aggregate hunger was boosted in the world.

The next major push has manifested in the presenting of Monsanto's
genetically engineered cotton (Bt Cotton) as the solution. This cotton
variety which has been engineered to withstand certain pests and to be
suitable for use of certain herbicides has been planted in India,
Indonesia, South Africa, etc. They biotech industry touts these as huge
successes, but the farmers have recorded lower yields, have gone into
debt and some have been forced to commit suicide! The manifold failure of
Bt Cotton is so well documented that we may not need to go into details
here. Suffice to say that industry's underhand push and shove has been
vividly illustrated in the bribery scandal that rocked Indonesia where a
prominent biotech industry bribed as many as 144 serving and retired
government officials in order to have approval for the commercial
cultivation of the variety.

Last year, some governments in West Africa pledged to embrace this same
variety of cotton. The next point of call of the proponents of Bt Cotton
is Tanzania. All these efforts have been made under the direction of the
USAID one of whose major goals is promoting the spread of GMOs in the
world and pointedly working to "integrate GM into local food systems."

The push into Tanzania gathered momentum in 2002 when USAID began meeting
with Tanzanian scientists to describe the potential of engineered foods.
Some of these USAID advocates were also the architects of the Memorandum
of Understanding signed with Nigeria in 2004 for a biotech programme
managed by IITA, Ibadan, Nigeria.

The interesting thing about the Tanzanian case is that although cotton
production was suspended in the southern part of Tanzania because of the
spread of redball cotton disease in 1968, the country is currently
experiencing cotton production surpluses. When this is coupled with the
record low cotton price in the market, it becomes hard to see what
arguments could be pushed for the genetically engineered variety of cotton.

Barring a change of Heart by the government of Tanzania has already
buckled under intense pressure and the country is set to join Tunisia,
Zimbabwe, Egypt, Burkina Faso and Kenya in conducting confined field
trials (CFT) for genetically modified crops. These so-called field tests
will eventually open the nationís doors to genetically modified organisms
(GMOs).

As already noted, food aid is one of the main vehicles for putting GMOs
on the platter of the world. Do we call that charity? Not so. One issue
about some of these food aids is that citizens in the recipient country
may not even know that their country receives food aid. In 2003 Nigeria
received 11000.6 Metric Tons of soy meal as food aid from the United
States, under the US title ìFood for Progressî. Taking into account that
over 80% of soybeans in the US is genetically modified we strongly
suspect Nigeria has been receiving GM products without any prior
information to the Government, and with our population completely
uninformed on this. In 2004 the country was billed to receive 10,500 tons
of rice.

People around the world have been vocal is calling for caution in the
introduction of genetic engineering in food crop propagation. The biotech
industry with their powerful lobby has stoutly resisted compliance with
the precautionary principle enshrined in the Cartagena Protocol on Bio-
safety. The precautionary principle as the name implies requires that
countries apply caution when considering or opening doors to bringing
GMOs into their environment. One of the reasons for this is that the
safety of GMOs has not been unequivocally proven.

The biotech industry thrives on subverting the ability of people to
protect themselves and their environments. They do this through
deliberate contamination and illegal release of genetically modified
crops into the environment. In fact, when environments are acutely
contaminated, nations have no option but to legalise the illegality. Many
suspect that this may have been the case with Brazil. Also, when organic
farms are contaminated by genetically modified neighbours, the innocent
farmers are made liable and pay compensations to the polluter instead of
the other way round. This is cowboy justice.

The argument usually put forward as a response to the insistence on
caution is that GMOs have not harmed anyone. But studies have shown
allergic reactions in some cases and deaths have been recorded in animals
fed on certain varieties.

The biotech industry is like a bull set loose in a china shop and needs
all the controls possible. Recent reports of contamination of food
supplies with illegal varieties should worry everyone. We refer to the
case of Latin America where corn varieties with StarLink which are not
authorised for human consumption have been found in food aid sent there
in 2002 and also in 2005. Where they cannot deny the presence of the
illegal grain the response of the biotech industry has been that the
illegal corn is okay for consumption. No apologies.

Africa received huge quantities of corn from the USA as food aid and the
presence of StarLink corn varieties real. From reports Africa was the top
worldwide recipient of U.S corn as food aid in 2004. Three African
countries, Angola (62.400 MT), Tanzania and Burundi (28.000 MT) were
among the top five. Other African countries included Uganda (20.900 MT),
and Kenya (13,600 MT). We recall here that after the refusal of GMO
grains by Zambia and Zimbabwe the shipments of food aid to these
countries in 2003 and 2004 dropped to zero.

It is well known that the local population received these GM corn as
grain they would inevitably save some grains for planting, thus
compromising the native stock, exposing the population and their
biodiversity to danger. The push continues even though proponents like
the USAID recognises that GM corn sent to Africa as food aid ìwould be
expected to perform poorly in African growing conditionsî and is ìnot
well suited for plantingî . Despite this, the maize keeps coming to
Africa. If one country rejects it it is channelled to another like the
case of Tanzania and Burundi which since 2003 the corn food aid grain
shipments continue to grow.

We have many reasons to worry. Another reason is that the industry does
not have GMOs under control and the risks to health and environment are
unknown. A few weeks ago it became public that an untested experimental
crop, from Swiss agrochemicals multinational group, Syngenta, called
Bt10, has been illegally planted from 2001 until 2004 in the USA. This
illegal variety contains antibiotic resistance marker genes, which the
British Medical Association recommended not to commercialise due to the
potential risks for human health. The EU, Japan and South Korea have
already protested against this and are taking measures to test the grains
in order to isolate and destroy the illegal variety. All Syngenta could
say is that they planting of 1000 tons of Bt10 food entered the EU
accidentally. They claim that Bt10 and Bt11 (the approved type) and
virtually identical. What other areas have confused the biotech industry?
United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) fined Syngenta $375,000
for this illegal release.

What measures are taken by our Governments in Africa? Africa continues to
be the biggest corn food aid recipient, not only grain, but also corn soy
blend and cornmeal. Are we going to continue to let our population be at
risk consume this GM products without even knowing about them?

Following the scandal of the illegal release of Bt10 corn, The European
Commission is about to authorise studies that would tell it the potential
ìcumulative long-term effectsî genetically modified (GMO) crops might
have on human and animal health in the longer term. This is coming eight
years after the EU first allowed biotech crops. If the European
Commission is only now considering commissioning such studies, it goes to
show that both human and animals may already have had their health
greatly compromised. And if that is the situation in Europe, we have
every reason to pause and think.

Genetic pollution is not comparable to oil or other environmental
pollution. Chemical pollution may finally dissipate after a thousand or
so years, but genetic pollution on the other hand grows exponentially
with time. They simply do not diminish. The problem expands.

With the huge contamination of the worldís corn stock almost irreversible
right now, the biotech industry is now seriously working on
commercialising GM wheat and rice. Indeed it is reported that China may
release GM rice into the market in the next one year. With the bulk of
rice in Nigeria coming from Asia, it is a matter of time before GM rice
from China floods our supply lines. This is inevitable, unless something
is done, and quickly too.

Right now researchers have made an application in Nigeria for the testing
of genetically modified cassava. Note that we are talking only of crops
and not of animal species as that is another ball game entirely.

Just to think about all these makes us feel really scared about the food
we that is placed on our plates, and the seeds that we may be planting?
If we blindly follow the biotech agri-business path we are bound to find
that all traditional food crops will be genetically engineered in no time
and as we have seen already, when the plague hits, the chance of recovery
will be slim.

This is the time for everyone, Nigerian, Tanzanian, Togolese, or Swazi to
stand up and defend our collective right to live in dignity and to choose
what seeds to plant and what foods to eat. We cannot afford to place our
future in the hand of an industry that has lost control of its
Frankenstein. Our governments, if the represent us, must begin now to ask
questions, and to act. Tomorrow will be too late.

-Bassey is the Executive Director of Environmental Rights Action/Friends
of the Earth, Nigeria




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