Nnimmo Bassey is a Nigerian architect, environmentalist, activist, author and poet. He was one of Time magazine’s Heroes of the Environment in 2009. Mr Bassey is the Director of the Health of Mother Earth Foundation (HOMEF), an environmental think tank and advocacy organisation.
There has been a protracted debate over the application of genetically modified crops into the food system of the country. These debate has birthed two groups, pro-GMO and anti-GMO. The former is for while the latter is against the application.
However, in this interview with PREMIUM TIMES‘ Ebuka Onyeji, Mr Bassey speaks on the dangers and health implications of consuming GM foods. He also explained the threat GM crops will pose to the country’s agricultural system if fully adopted among other sundry issues.
PT: What are GMOs?
Bassey: Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) are organisms whose genetic materials had been altered by inserting materials from unrelated species. Basically at that level of alteration, new organisms that do not and can not occur in nature are produced. It involves cross specie manipulations and exchange of materials. For example you take a genetic material from a tree and put in a fish or in an animal and vice versa or you take a genetic material from a human and put in a plant to achieve certain objectives. Biotechnology is actually an ancient thing, it has been used in making yogurts, bread and local brews; but the concern is about modern genetic engineering, modern biotechnology in particular where crops are genetically modified through modern genetic engineering.
PT: Your organisation has been campaigning against GM crops and foods. What really are your concerns?
Bassey: Our concern is not limited to food, it’s not just about what is on the plate; it’s also what happens in the environment and affects the totality of what supports our existence. We believe that an unhealthy environment can not produce a healthy population. When you lose biodiversity, you are losing capacity to produce a healthy environment or a resilient environment or to allow people to produce food that will best support them. Genetic engineering of any specie has the tendency to reduce diversity. Maybe, there are hundred varieties of maize, and you genetically engineer one and release it to the environment, it is going to cross pollinate with other varieties and once this dominant artificially generated trait enters into the ecosystem it will bring other varieties in a position where they can be affected by disease or by pests or by something that was attracted by that new element that has been introduced, thereby eliminating the capacity of other varieties to survive.
PT: So how would you rate the safety of GM foods for consumption?
Bassey: First of all I believe modern genetic engineering in agriculture is totally unnecessary, its like a solution looking for a problem. There is nothing they (GMOs) do that normal crops do not do. They don’t yield higher than normal crops and this is very easy to see. In USA, almost all the corn are genetically engineered but the bulk of the corn variety in Europe are not. There, agricultural practises are almost the same but there is no much difference in the yield. Now the health problems caused by GM foods comes from two major angles and these are two major reason why crops are engineered. They are engineered to withstand the herbicides produced by the companies who manipulate the seeds because nobody makes the seeds ab initio. Now when the herbicide is sprayed across the field and these GM seeds are planted, every other thing dies including the organisms in the soil. A lot of things will be killed in the process including useful soil nutrients. Some of these herbicides will penetrate the crops. Though they won’t kill the one you planted, but it’s already there. And when you eat these foods, the chemicals will now be transmitted into the human body. That is why there is a concern about diphosphate which is one of the major component in Mosanto’s herbicide, one of the most popular in the world today. Lots of research have shown that this is something to really be worried about, but the GM industry has this peculiar way of pushing back the argument. When someone argues against GMOs, they will say he is being emotional, unscientific and cannot back arguments with facts. What they have forgotten is that science is not neutral, people make hypothesis based on what they want to achieve and they pursue it. Useful science must be in the service of the society. It must meet the needs of the society, it must not harm the society. The purpose of the people who make these seeds is just to sell their chemicals and seeds. It’s purely business and not charity, it’s not helping anybody. It is just meant to control and dominate the food system. Again, these seeds are manipulated to make the plant itself a pesticide. So when you eat a plant like that you are actually eating a pesticide. Who wants to eat a pesticide?
PT: But International organisations such as World Health Organisation (WHO), Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) and the World Bank have approved and certified GMOs as very safe, what do you have to say about this?
Bassey: These organisations are good and well recognised. I agree. But sometimes they are circumscribed by certain interests. They are not neutral in some cases. What they do does not align with popular interest around the world.
PT: Are there proven side effects from consuming GM foods?
Bassey: Yes! there are a lot of research and publications where guinea pigs are used to test these things because what affects guinea pigs is most likely to affect humans. It can affect internal organs and cause tumours. It can affect fertility rate and so many other things. The most common is allergen, it can make people get allergic. People say Americans don’t fall dead in the streets because they are eating GMOs. But you have to ask questions about the health system in the U.S. Do we have the same here in Nigeria or in Africa? What are the possibilities of people choosing what they want to eat. If I want to eat garri, I get the eba on my plate and I just deal with it. I don’t put salad inside it or add anything else, it’s just eba and my soup which I don’t even chew, I swallow it. But Americans, just like Indians, China and other places eat pieces of different things, so the impact of GM foods will be huge on Nigerians and Africans than in these other places. We are just taking an unnecessary gamble with our health in our already highly incapable and challenged health system. It’s just adding more to our problems from food that we can avoid, it’s like calling for a disaster.
PT: Promoters of GMOs argue that its not a threat but a compliment to the normal conventional system; proffering solutions in areas where there are challenges that can not be solved through conventional ways. So with the forgoing in mind, don’t you think applying GMOs will help our already challenged agricultural system?
Bassey: We have challenges, that is true. But the question is what is the best solution. Are we going to think that GMOs are the silver bullet? They say it is going to compliment, but the problem is that there will be no coexistence between GMOs and natural crops of the same variety because GMOs are going to impact the natural variety and they will lose biodiversity thereby loosing resilience. And when you lose biodiversity you lose food security. If you pick any variety of crop you are not going to find that same variety everywhere, what you will see will be mixed.
GMOs are not natural and they can not coexist with natural crops. If they are natural, there is no need for those who produce them to hold patent rights. You hold a patent to something that is unique and different from others. We have ecological challenges, that is true. But they forget that there are native species that we need to protect and propagate to tackle some of these challenges. Our department of agriculture in schools and the research institutions should not lose sight on local varieties, they should research on them and provide ways of growing them in better ways and manage them. Why we have so much desertification in the north is not because our desert is spreading but because of the way we manage our vegetation. The southern Niger republic is greener than Nigeria. We need to bring better practices. And I’m happy the government is proposing the green wall that will go from Timbuktu to Dakar, the Sahel of Africa. If that wall is planted with native species that are economically useful to the communities and provided with adequate water, and farmers are provided support to protect them, then it will thrive. I’ve been to Southern Burkina Faso where farmers use local technology in planting, they trap soil water and use organic matter to fertilise the soil. We can learn all these things from Mali, Niger and other countries. It’s not about GMOs. These genetic engineering does not begin and end in food. How come in Nigeria, it’s only food that we are talking about. We are concerned because the regulatory system in Nigeria is completely defective.
PT: But why do you think GMO is not the best solution?
Bassey: There are already existing solutions as I mentioned earlier. GMO is about business. And increasingly, the seed companies are now coming together and this will bring about concentration of food power in few hands; and then these companies are more powerful than any government in the world; and these companies can get any government official to dance to their tune and then of course officials in government agencies will pretend to be autonomous whereas they are the apron springs of cooperate interest.
We are at a very big risk of making ourselves recolonised through GMOs. The solution is agro-ecology. In 2008 there was a report issued by the United Nations, World Bank and other agencies, the recommendation of the report called “science at the crossroad” was that the future of food supply in the world depends on small scale farmers and that is because they do and support agriculture that works with nature. Fighting against nature is a waste of energy because nature will always triumph.
PT: Which one is better: GM foods or normal foods? And what are the reasons for your answer?
Bassey: Normal crops are 100 per cent safe and better, they are suitable. The beauty of nature is that it grants different locations to specific kinds of food. That is why we have different types of foods in all parts of the world. When you go to a lab and try to create a uniformed code for food, when there is a disaster you can not control it. Food is culture and that is why it is called agriculture.
PT: Do you think the application GMOs in Nigeria will monopolise the food system? What are your reasons?
Bassey: Yes, introducing GMOs especially when it comes from institutions that Nigeria respect will completely overtake and destroy normal varieties. If IITA that is experimenting on GM cassava develops food that will be introduced to the market, farmers trust IITA and they will say give us IITA stem and before you know it will spread all over the country and all over the tropics. It’s a big threat to our food system because the nature of the GM cassava is not the same as the natural cassava or any other natural food around it. Now we already have super weeds, super bugs, super insects in America and then of course if you engineer a crop or pesticide to kill a particular pest, then other pests will appear, there is always a balance in nature. When you destroy a natural process, it will affect something else and of course when you keep spraying these herbicides, you will start having weed resistance and you will have to use a stronger herbicide to kill the weed that you provoked because nature is fighting back, trying to survive and you are killing organisms in the soil. A tea spoon full of soil contains billions of organisms and you destroy them thinking nothing will happen. GMO is a biodiversity erosion and you can not debate it.
PT: Promoters of GMOs argue that its critics are Agro-allied industries whose products are threatened by GM seeds. Has there ever been a platform where pro and anti-GMO groups come together to place these arguments side by side in a bid to find a common ground?
Bassey: The argument about whether our arguments are backed by scientific facts is just useless and a clever way to avoid responding to the issues. Each time HOMEF and other organisations send objections to advertised applications by the National Biosafety Management Agency (NBMA), our objections are written by scientists, by geneticists. We review them before it’s submitted. We are not frivolous about these arguments and this campaign. GMOs are something we are strongly against and our conviction is based on evidence. When the agency receives objections, they will acknowledge it then the next day they will approve. They don’t consider our arguments. The promoters of GMOs are not the only ones who study genetic engineering. There are some people who study and are opposed to it, there are also people who study and see nothing wrong with it for whatever reasons. And as to whether there has been a forum where the two sides meet; yes of course. Three years ago, there was a biotechnology conference convened by the ministry of environment with the ministry of science and technology and agriculture. All of us were there, we all tabled our points and there were experts from the African Union and ECOWAS. The ECOWAS official there that day stressed on the precautionary principle which is the core part of regulation of GMOs. When there is a doubt in anything you do, pause first until you remove that doubt and that is what regulators should be doing. We are saying before anything can be adopted we have to know how safe they are and be sure that we have the freedom to choose what to eat. Don’t ambush me to eat what I don’t want to eat and this is what is going to happen in Nigeria with regards to maize, cassava, cowpea and the rest of them. There is no choice.
PT: So do you think Nigeria has adopted GMOs?
Bassey: In 2015 we introduced the NBMA; and less than a year after, we have already issued permits on GMO foods. This should be the fastest agency in the world to do that. It is almost like a GM permitting agency rather than regulatory agency. There are many illegal GM foods already in Nigeria in the supermarkets which are not labelled as GM. In 2006 there was a release of liberty link GM rice that were found in Europe and other parts of the world which is yet to be approved, we just decided to check if its in Africa and we found it in Nigeria, Ghana and Sierra-Leone by just going to an open market and randomly picking rice, its like looking for a pin in a haystack and we still found it. This shows the prevalence of illegal foods already here. There are many illegal things already, so forget about adoption because we are not serious with regulation. You know about WACOT company case which brought GM rice worth $9 million dollars into the country, they were told to repatriate it and the ministry of environment went to the FEC to announce how well they are regulating biosafety and they were applauded. But while this is going on, the NBMA advertised that the same company is planning to bring in GM corn in the country and they gave them three years permit to bring in anything they want; so on what basis can that be done? Just by one fact sheet by the EU showing variety of corns approved at a lab in Zurich saying this is what the EU has approved? This is not enough for us to issue permits. That EU approves doesn’t mean we approve, they have their own laws and we have ours. They have to be tested here first, they have to be subjected to our own environmental conditions before you can approve. Our agencies fast track the issuance of these permits, they even fast track the process by giving just one week to regularise. The law says if you want to import GM product you must give notice for 270 days and not 7 days. Before you even get the permit from the agency to bring in any product you have to get a certificate from NAFDAC to say that this is safe before NBMA will approve but in the case of WACOT, we wrote a letter to NAFDAC to know if they certified the products before the approval was issued. But till today they have not replied to out letter.
PT: What do you make of Nigeria’s regulatory agencies in handling GMO issues?
Bassey: I think they don’t have the capacity to manage and assure Nigeria of biosafety, they don’t have a good law. The law needs to be reviewed or repealed. Give Nigerians a law that assures strict liability for those who want to use us as guinea pigs. We need a better law for the regulatory agencies, better equipment for testing and risk assessment. NAFDAC needs to be revamped and customs needs to be checking properly things that come into the country. Nigeria is very porous and anything can go in. We are unprotected.
PT: Your organisation has repeatedly kicked against commercialisation and confined field trials and shipment of GMOs in Nigeria, can you briefly explain more on this?
Bassey: Like I said before, fast tracking of applications should not subvert the peoples’ voice. There should be public participation in this and when they throw away our objections, they should explain to us clause by clause why they rejected our arguments. They can’t just be silent. What they do is just acknowledge receipt of our letter and the next thing you will see is that they will make approvals. Nigerians have the right to know why their opinion is being treated shabbily. We have a very bad legal environment to protect Nigerians in terms of biosafety and biosecurity and we are at great risk of loosing biodiversity or exposed to an untold health defect and impact and there will be no remedy.
PT: Why you think the opinions of Nigerians are not well sort regarding issues of adopting GMOs and what do you have to say about awareness campaign on GMOs?
Bassey: It is unfortunate that Nigerians don’t have enough information on these things and that is the place of the media, civil society groups and farmers. But there is little to what we can do. We need to invest a lot in creating awareness about these issues. When Brekete radio did a program on GMO here in Abuja, people were really alarmed by what they are hearing. They don’t really know what is happening.
PT: What kind of impact will GMOs have on Nigerian farmers and our agricultural system?
Bassey: It will take over everything. Just as citizens will be eating what they don’t know, farmers will be planting seeds that they don’t understand and two things will happen: farmers will come to understand that these are not seeds that they can preserve after harvest because the productivity will keep on diminishing over the years instead of improving. Before, you just have to pick the best seeds but on this, no matter how good the seeds are, the yield is going to decline. The farmers will know they need more inputs to get more outputs so its going to be a burden on farmers. They tried BT cotton in South Africa and it failed woefully and farmers went into penury. They have to abandon the farms. Burkina Faso which is our neighbour tried BT cotton and it produced poor quality fibre. So the government had to abandon it. This is the same variety we want to bring into the country. What they are saying is that it did not work there because the genetic gene inserted was in a wrong geo-plant . Now if there was a problem in insertion, it shows that what they presented as a precise science is actually not precise because when you tamper with nature it will fight back. GMOs do not have a long history and if there is a disaster everything will be wiped out. The agro-chemical companies will tell you that farmers will not have any problem if they apply the herbicides as specified in the packets, now how many Nigerian farmers will apply it strictly and scientifically according to specification on the packets.
PT: What is your take on labelling of GM products?
Bassey: It is just like labelling cigarette packets that it kills but people still choose to smoke. So labelling GMOs alone shows there is a problem though it gives people choice on what they eat but labelling will not work in Nigeria. This is our position because you can not label akara. Nobody is going to put up a signboard that he or she is selling GMO corn, akara, moi-moi or beans. We have to understand the socio-cultural context which we operate. We have to see the way we live. What happens in the U.S. and Europe may not be good for us just like we don’t have the same environment, the same whether, the same seeds and same plants. Almost all the seeds that we are bringing in are not developed here in Nigeria. GM cassava is developed in a lab in Switzerland; the corn GM is developed in the U.S.
PT: How best do you think the government can handle issues on GMOs and food security for Nigerians?
Bassey: The African Union produced a model law for biosafety which African countries are supposed to adopt and modify. But what we are having is far cry from what was agreed years ago. And it is because of dependency on the West. We are still under neocolonialism with colonial thinking of agencies of government dependent on aid which doesn’t build independence. We depend on so called expertise and technology and finance all the time while we waste our own resources. The struggle for independence has not been won sufficiently in Nigeria and Africa. It is a continuous struggle. We are talking about food justice. We need to know what we are eating and be proud to eat what we produce. The future of this nation will continue to depend on the small scale farmers. We need to help them grow in terms of rural infrastructure, storage facilities, processing facilities among others, putting a good marketing and pricing formula. This is the area to invest in. Teach young Nigerians agro-ecology, how to grow crops on principles that work with nature. But what we have is bio labs here and there. Where are the labs teaching us how to grow things in nature. Nigeria have to invest 10 per cent of the annual budget in agriculture. The point is that once you allow GMO into the environment, you can not withdraw or call it back. When you release lethal organisms into the environment ,you can not recall them. The precautionary principle is such a cardinal principle in terms of biosafety regulation.