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March against Poison: Nigerians say no to GMOs and seek a repeal of the Biosafety Law

Hundreds of Nigerians marched against the introduction of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) into the country on June 7, 2017. The march was coordinated by Health of Mother Earth Foundation (HOMEF) in collaboration with the Civil Society Legislative Advocacy Centre (CISLAC), Women Environmental Programme (WEP), Climate Transformation and Energy Remediation Society (CLIMATTERS) and the Save Nigeria Group.

The march was aimed at increasing awareness on the dangers of genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) and to make the demands on the Nigerian National Assembly and the Government to repeal the existing Biosafety Act; nullify the permits granted to Monsanto for field trials of maize and the commercial placement of Bt cotton on the market. The citizens also called for a total ban on GMOs in Nigeria or at best restrict them to the confines of laboratories of research institutions.

The people insisted that Nigeria's food challenges can be tackled effectively with natural crops and increaswd support for our farmers rather than opening arms wide for a technology that has notoriously failed and proven to pose severe risk to  human, animal and environmental health is far from the solution.

According to the Director of Health of Mother Earth Foundation, “GMOs do not give greater yield and are not more nutritious than natural crops. They have increased the use of toxic chemicals and thrive in monocultures while they deprive farmers the right to save and re-use seeds.”

The response of the leadership of the Nigerian Biosafety Management Agency (NBMA), has remained consistent, tending to allay fears rather than dealing with the concerns of the public. Their position that Nigeria will regulate the use of GMOs based on science and not sentiments does not in any measure respond to the known negative impacts of GMOs. We believe that sentiments cannot be wioshed away. We are human and not laboratory rats. The science of GMOs must consider its ethical, moral, cultural, soci-economic and other ramifications. Science itself has shown that it is limited in its very own processes. It must be in the public interest. As was explained by a Molecular geneticist, Dr Ify Aniebo, in a recent lecture at an HOMEF event, scientists do not have total control of the direction of the new genes which are introduced into plants’ DNA. The normal functioning of cells gets impaired and several novel proteins are produced which cause severe health complications. This is one reason for the increase of chronic and other diseases since the introduction of this technology. Apart from allergies, birth defects, liver diseases, neurological and gastrointestinal disorders, the processes can result to mutation which is one of the long term impacts of this technology. Glyphosate, an active ingredient of Monsanto’s Roundup chemical which accompanies the use of GMOs was announced to be carcinogenic by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) of the World Health Organization in March 2015. Despite strong denials by the biotech industry, the harms posed by this toxic chemicals cannot be wished away.

Supporters of this technology in Nigeria keep saying that other countries have taken to genetic engineering and Nigeria must not be left out. Nigerians are perplexed by this cheap position. They ask: Are we seriously going into a potentially deadly technology because other countries are using it? Do we have the capacity to contain the impact of these crops on our health and the environment? Have we stopped to ask why there is yet so much controversy over this technology since its introduction and why 6 out of the 8 industrialised countries, (G8) have banned the cultivation of GMOs?  

GMOs do not only present threat to human health and the environment; the Nigerian economy is also at stake on this issue. A large percentage of our agricultural exports are to the European Union. However, we will recall that they rejected 24 of our food products in 2016. The European Union food safety authority had likewise rejected beans from Nigeria in 2015 because it contained between 0.03mg/kg and 4.6mg/kg of dichlorvos pesticide when the acceptable maximum level was 0.01mg/kg. At least 19 EU countries already have a ban on GMO products. If Nigeria accepts GMOs we would lose any trade edge with many countries.

A patriotic approach to the food challenge in Nigeria will be to engage in rigorous and independent research to certify the safety of GM seeds in terms of short and long term impacts on humans and the environment; to consult with the people, especially the farmers, to know how best to support them to improve agricultural productivity and to make decisions based on proven facts in resonance with the culture and needs of the indigenous people.

Other actions that can address our food needs include, increased support for organic farming, access of farmers to loans and grants, provision of extension services, storage and processing facilities and good infrstructure to ensure access markets.

The letter submitted to the Senate President which was jointly signed by Nnimmo Bassey, the Director at Health of Mother Earth Foundation; Mariann Orvwuje, coordinator of Friends of the Earth Africa’s Food Sovereignty Programme (FSP); Gbadebo Rhodes-Vivour, Convener of Nigerians against GMOs and Jackie Ikotuonye, Country Representative, Bio-integrity and Natural Food Awareness Initiative stated that a repeal of the Nigeria Biosafety Management Act will resolve the biosafety challenges facing the nation.

The letter also characterised the  Act as having failed in its duty to secure our biosafety because it has proven within a few months of its ceation to be a law merely for permitting the entry into Nigeria of GMOs.

Several issues need to be addressed and these include the composition of the board of the Regulatory Agency. The group strongly object to the Nigerian Biotechnology Development Agency’s (NABDA) presence as board member of NBMA. Critics see this as "a classic case of conflict of interest that cannot be permitted, especially concerning the sensitive of issue biosafety and biosecurity”

The Act does not specify clearly how large-scale field trials would be contained and regulated to avoid contamination of surroundings or farms. It does not ensure the implementation of the precautionary principle (essential feature of the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety (CPB)) that entitles our government to decide against approval or for restriction in cases of incomplete or controversial knowledge and does not have provisions for strict liability and redress. NBMA keeps telling Nigerians that the mere fact of having a biosafety Act is an adherence to the Precautionary Principle. In terms of labelling, we all know that mere labeling of GMOs will not work in our context as road-side food sellers would not label the corn they roast or the akara (bean cake) that they fry. The need to consider our peculiar contxt cannot be ignored.

The coalition made the following demands on the government:

  1. A nullification of the permits issued to Monsanto and NABDA on Sunday 1st May 2016 and call for an investigation of the process and circumstances leading to the granting of these permits by NBMA to Monsanto and NABDA in disregard to the complaints of millions of Nigerians. Nigerians should not be used as pawns or as guinea pigs in a commercial gambit to open the country to toxic technologies in furtherance of blatant commercial interests.
  2. A close surveillance of our markets and farms to halt illegal entry of GMOs into Nigeria and into our food supply.
  3. A ban of all toxic agrochemicals – especially those identified as probably carcinogens.
  4. A halt to the assault on our agriculture through genetic modification of our staple crops including cassava, maize and beans, among others. We urge that Nigeria should be circumspect about technologies that aim to contaminate our environment, destroy our agriculture, culture and rupture our socio-economic fabric and assert unbridled controls over our agriculture and foods.

The Senate Committee Chairman on Ecology and Climate Change, Senator Bukar Ibrahim and Senator Abu Ibrahim meet and addressed the march on behalf of the Senate President. The director of Health of Mother Foundation (HOMEF), Nnimmo Bassey and Rhodes Gbadebo Vivor made submissions of the demands of the protesters to the senators on behalf of the coalition.

Senator Bukar Ibrahim responded to the demands and said that the lawmakers are also very much concerned about the safety of Nigerians as regards GMOs and Biosafety. He pledged that the concerns outlined will be looked into with appropriate actions taken to protect and preserve the lives of the people.

Following the response, the senate representatives were assured of our readiness to work with the National Assembly to repeal and replace the NBMA Act 2015 with one that can protect our biodiversity and ensure biosafety and biosecurity in Nigeria.

A participant in the protest march, Shehu Akowe, summed up the day by saying, "The solution to the challenge of feeding the growing population is with Nigeria and not the biotech corporations and their official surogates. African nations must look inwards to seek ways by which to improve on their food production and to make decisions that are in the best interest of the people."