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No Gambles: Safe food is a Human Right

Safe Food is a Human Right

Should science not be in the public interest and in service of society? The answer to that is obvious and it is a YES. Science has to be in the interest of society. Is all science in the interest of society? Again, this question attracts an easy answer and that answer is NO.

Must a people utilize a technology based on unproven or mythic promises? Indeed, must we use a technology simply because it exists or because we can acquire it? Does domesticating a technology, such as modern agricultural biotechnology, make its utility inevitable? Do nations shy away from utilising the technology that produces atomic bombs merely for lack of access to the technology or for reasons of safety and survival of humankind? Where does public participation begin and where does it end with regard to decisions that are matters of life and death?

If we are malnourished what must be done? Can food aid solve the challenge of food shortages in the North East when the root causes fester and lurk under every shrub or clump? Why are fisher folks in our Niger Delta creeks depending on imported frozen fish?

These questions are raised to remind us that there are many issues surrounding the matter of our food and the challenge of agricultural modern biotechnology that require clarifications and in-depth interrogations.

On 13th November 1996, the World Food Summit hosted by the United Nations, the world affirmed that all humans have a right to access to safe and nutritious food in a manner consistent with the right to adequate food and freedom from hunger. The provisions for the right to life in our constitution and other global covenants speak of the right to food that is safe and nutritious.

As we begin our conversations on the state of biosafety in Nigeria, let us state that the fundamental way to ensure safe, nutritious food is through the promotion and support of food sovereignty. This is the way to ensure sustainable food production. Food sovereignty is the right of peoples to safe and culturally appropriate food produced through methods that are ecologically sound and sustainable. It is critically the right of our peoples to define their own food and agriculture systems. It allows communities to control the way food is produced, traded and eaten. We understand that the best food security can be attained through food sovereignty. Any other understanding of food security leaves open the gates for dumping of inappropriate foods and products with the singular end of filling hungry mouths and stomachs. It essentially erodes a people’s sovereignty and promotes food colonialism.

The media has an enormous responsibility to inform the public about issues that fundamentally affect their safety – especially with regard to the sort of food or things that we eat. It is a sacred duty to lay open basic information and to encourage public participation in policy issues surrounding our food systems. We have a biosafety law, the National Biosafety Management Agency Act 2015, that is not only permissive in favour of the biotech industry, but is adversarial or against the public interest. This is illustrated by the fact that the Act only requires NBMA to hold public consultations at its discretion as in its Section 26(1). We believe that holding public consultations on plans to release genetically modified organisms should be a legal and binding requirement and not left to the whims of the Agency. Section 25(2) of the Act also allows NBMA to decide whether to advertise applications to introduce GMOs in national or local newspapers.

The ‘public enlightenment’ events held by promoters and regulators of biosafety in Nigeria merely suggest that our people are misinformed about the risks that GMOs pose. What our people need is accurate information from all sides of the issues so that they can make informed decisions and demand for or reject risky technologies. Assurances that NBMA will not allow dangerous GMOs into Nigeria are nothing but mere platitudes if the claims are not backed by open, neutral and unstilted adjudications.

How much do we know of the GMO beans that will soon be unleashed on Nigerians? And what does the public know of GMO cassava experimentations/release in Nigeria? What about the approval of GMO cotton that failed in Burkina Faso for commercial release in Nigeria? Burkina Faso’s cotton production is regaining its former productivity since the government decided to jettison the GMO variety and return to planting natural cotton. Why is Nigeria being pushed blindly into a failed venture? We cannot be fooled when we are told that a permit for commercial release and placement in the market is the same as a permit for trials to be conducted.

As the conversations begin, let us all keep in mind that this is a matter of security, cultural heritage, freedom from neo-colonialism and a human right to life. We are talking about food. And food is a human right.

(Welcome words by Nnimmo Bassey, Director of Health of Mother Earth Foundation (HOMEF), at a Media Training on Biosafety hosted by HOMEF at Abuja on 24 May 2017)

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Biosafety is No Gamble

Dead people cannot speak against judicial or other decisions. Likewise, Dead people cannot be compensated if their demise was triggered by some poison they unknowingly ingested. These and several other considerations are markers on the pathways of justice. They underscore why we cannot shut our eyes to the laws that leave yawning gaps for transgressions. They illustrate the reasons why we cannot and should not stomach permissive laws that endanger our food and agricultural systems. 

The Nigerian Biosafety Management Agency (NBMA) Act came into force on 18th April 2015 after the then President Goodluck Jonathan put his signature on it. On Thursday 28th April 2016, NABMA wrote a letter to HOMEF and ERA/FoEN (Ref: NBMA/ODG/050/1/68), acknowledging receipt of our copious objections to the applications from Monsanto and the National Biotechnology Development Agency (NABDA) to conduct confined field trials of two maize events and of another application from Monsanto for commercial release and placement in the environment of GMO cotton. In the letter of acknowledgement of receipt of our objections NBMA said they have “noted” our objections and pledged to “review the application holistically and take the best decision in the interest of Nigeria, to avoid risks to human health, biodiversity conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity. The socio-economic impacts would also be well considered before taking final decision on the application.” The agency then thanked us for our views.

Two days later, on Sunday, 1st May 2016, NBMA issued permits to the two applications made by Monsanto and its government agency partner. It is clear to us that our objections were not considered.

Two things. We have an agency that approved applications for introduction of GMOs into Nigeria in less than a year of its being constituted. The speed with which the new agency approved Monsanto’s application breaks all records of similar processes anywhere in the world. The speed of approval raises questions over the readiness of the agency to tackle the delicate and serious issue of modern agricultural biotechnology – a contentious technology that has foisted tales of woes on citizens as well as farmers in other climes, a technology that opposes the basic tenets of our agricultural and food systems. Secondly, the speed shows a disdain for public consultation and participation in the serious approval processes. These are some of the issues that we have invited you, legal luminaries to examine in this roundtable.

As we discuss the issues surrounding biosafety, we hope you will focus particularly on the NBMA Act 2015 and see if the Agency as constituted is wired to serve the best biosafety interests of Nigeria or if it should be dramatically reviewed or even repealed. In particular, we hope that you, as legal experts, consider if there are issues of conflict of interest in a setting such as that of NBMA where board members are promoters of the risky technology and are also applicants that have benefited from the very first application to have come before the Agency. We wish to be advised if such a construct does not obstruct avenues for justice, fairness, probity and equity in our collective struggle for a food regime that ensures that we are not turned into guinea pigs by those pushing to colonise our food systems and expose us to avoidable risks.

As we engage in our dialogue, let us all keep in mind that this matter has implications that is intergenerational and lapses have consequences for Nigerians yet unborn. Laws are not cast in concrete. The right to safe and nutritious food is a universal right. GMOs challenge that right with the creation of novel organisms, dependence on toxic chemicals and abridgement of the rights of farmers to preserve and share seeds and to stay free from contamination by genetically engineered seeds.

A defective law cannot provide justice. It cannot protect our biodiversity, ensure biosecurity or secure our very life. We cannot gamble with our biosafety and biosecurity.

We have come to the roundtable. Let the dialogue continue.

(Welcome words by Nnimmo Bassey, Director of Health of Mother Earth Foundation (HOMEF), at a Lawyers Roundtable on Biosafety hosted by HOMEF at Abuja on 25 April 2017)