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Emerging technologies and the politics of hunger – Part 2

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Continued from yesterday
Nanotechnology involves the manipulation or building of structures at nano or very tiny scale. Robots like drones which are used to autonomously plant seeds, tend the crops and harvest them. Satellite imaging, weather tracking and possibly geoengineering can come into play. 3D Food Printing – There are ongoing research on printing of foods so that you can have the food you need with a combination of specifications at the press of a button. These would offer digitalised nutrition and customised food designs.

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A History and a future
From the signing of the National Biosafety Management Agency Act in 2015, things have taken a predictable downward spiral in Nigeria. Indeed, the dangerous slide probably began with the establishment of the National Biotechnology Development Agency (NABDA) in November 2001 on the strength of a National Biotechnology Policy adopted in April 2001. [12] Setting up an institution such as NABDA without a regulatory agency in place meant that Nigeria was a playing field for promoters of modern agricultural biotechnology without any oversight over the processes. Probably recognizing that they could not openly pursue their mandate, the agency became a major driver concerning what sort of regulatory agency should be put in place. And when NBMA was finally birthed, NABDA, the topmost official promoter of the technology assured itself a seat on the board of the regulatory agency. It can be said that NBMA is a baby of NADBA. As expected, this agency teamed up with an infamous company to obtain the early approvals for the official entry of GMOs into Nigeria.

Whereas the mandate of NABDA is the “promotion, coordination, and deployment of cutting-edge biotechnology research & development, processes, and products for the socio-economic well-being of the nation.” Its vision shoots first at “food security” before mentioning “job/wealth creation, affordable healthcare delivery, and sustainable environment.” The major campaigns and advocacy of these twin agencies have been on modern agricultural biotechnology or promotion of GMOs which they loudly proclaim as safe as though they were professing a religious doctrine and not a science prevalent with uncertainties and guided by precaution.

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The point we are making is that NBMA was principally set up to legitimize the aspirations of NADBA. The maiden State of Biosafety in Nigeria report issued by Health of Mother Earth Foundation shows how key principles of biosafety, including the Precautionary Principle, have been downplayed. It also shows how public consultation and opinion received scant attention in this crucial sector. HOMEF’s market shelves surveys conducted annually since 2018 show that there are several products with genetically engineered ingredients in our markets for which there are no approvals from the regulatory agency. We also note that there is no clear sync between agencies regulating foods that get to our market shelves and to dining tables.

Recall that Nigeria was once a frontline state for the liberation of Africa from vestiges of colonialism. The nation has now become the soft entry point of risky technologies, agrochemicals and manifestations of agricultural neocolonialism into the continent. The Bt. cotton variety that failed in Burkina Faso is the same variety approved for cultivation in Nigeria indicating how much thought and rigour goes into the process here.

Dangers Ahead
The modern agricultural biotechnologies we are discussing are mostly the basic varieties involving the transfer of genetic materials from one specie to another to accord certain traits such as to be herbicide tolerance or being pesticidal. Emerging food technologies such as gene editing do not require cross species manipulations but can edit genes in a particular species with the aim of forcing certain traits or even triggering extinction. Gene editing can readily be weaponized and should be a concern for our national biosecurity.

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It is mindboggling for Nigeria to expand the scope of her biosafety regulation to cover gene editing and synthetic biology when the handling of the elementary versions has generated serious doubts and worries. The NBMA Act 2015 was amended in March 2019 to open the way for gene editing and synthetic biology applications by inserting their definitions in the Act. This was followed by Gene Editing Guidelines prepared and adopted by NBMA. The guidelines offer a peculiar process that allows some gene edited products to be approved without going through the rules governing the approval of GMOs if the agency reckons that the product does not contain any recombinant DNA. Meanwhile the Act, as amended, declares that no one would engage in gene editing without the approval of the regulatory agency. We note that the determination that the product has no recombinant DNA will be made by NBMA who would then allow gene editing to proceed unregulated and unhindered. More troubling is the fact that such approvals can be given within 21 days of the application being submitted to the NBMA. This approach of the NBMA if allowed to stand will completely expose Nigeria to grave risk.

Time to Retrace Steps
It is not too late for Nigeria to get out of the biotech hole before it turns into a bottomless pit. The so-called guidelines for gene-editing and extreme GMOs are dangerous and needless – just as the permission of GMOs has always been in Nigeria. We are at a time in this nation when simple mechanical equipment are not maintained; where refineries refine zero barrel of crude oil while guzzling humongous amounts of money; where for a nation of so many millions we barely manage to generate 4000 megawatts of electricity. We are in a nation where research and educational institutions are crying for basic equipment and receive scant attention. We are unfortunately in a nation wracked by corruption and insecurity. The flagship biotech laboratory in the country is in a temporary cabin. We do not need to add risky technologies that clearly pose a security threat to our peoples and environment.

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As we have said elsewhere, the purpose of introducing the so-called definitions into the Biosafety Act was to create a crack in the door so as to open Nigeria to vested interest promoting the easy-to-weaponize and extinction-driving gene editing technology. NBMA has again shown itself to be determined to lead Nigeria and Nigerians on a path of no-return. This agency should be called to order. At no time should Nigerians be used as guinea pigs or laboratory rats. [14]

Who is feeding the world? Who is feeding Nigerians? Who will feed us into the future? It is time for us to recognize the facts of our best interests and support agroecology, small holder farmers and provide their basic needs including infrastructure, storage/processing facilities and extension services. It is time to halt and completely overhaul the biosafety architecture in Nigeria and invest resources towards ensuring that our farmers get out of poverty and hunger and do what they have always done and struggle to continue to do.

Concluded.

Presentation at HOMEF’s Biosafety Conference held on 13 April 2021 in Abuja, Nigeria.

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