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3-Food: Feeding GMOs to School Kids in Nigeria?

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TITLE:  Feeding GMOs to School Kids?
SOURCE: This Day, Nigeria, Opinion by Nnimmo Bassey
DATE:   14 Jan 2005

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Feeding GMOs to School Kids?

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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