Conned with Corn
By Nnimmo Bassey
* Nnimmo Bassey is Executive Director of Environmental Rights Action
and Friends of the Earth Africa GMO campaign co-ordinator. An ERA/TWN
African Conference was held 21-23 March 2005 on Genetically Modified
Organisms in Lagos, Nigeria and drew the attendance of over 50
participants from 16 countries. It focused on the enormous and
unrelenting assault and the real threat of a GMOs invasion of Africa.
The conference brought together civil society groups, government
representatives, scientists and academia from Nigeria, Africa, and
The onslaught of the biotech industry is a modern day scramble for
Africa, with genetically modified crops being promoted as the miracle
cure to hunger and poverty with little analysis of their long term
impact. The people of Africa and their governments must show
solidarity, ask questions, and act.
The scramble for Africa is getting hotter today than it may have
been during the Berlin Conference at which she was partitioned. The
partitioning of Africa sowed the seeds of discord and conflict that
we are reaping today. Today, certain concepts have been painstakingly
constructed and foisted on the continent. And this has been done in
order to have Africa so compromised that she would simply just beg to
be colonised once more. We are talking about the onslaught by the
biotech industry on the innards of this continent.
The siege is on. Many people imagine that the pressure on Africa to
accept genetically modified grains or other crops as food aid ended
with the widely known case with Zambia in 2002. That emblematic case
rightly showed that every country has the sovereign right to
determine what type of food to eat, irrespective of whether it is
purchased in the market or is donated as aid. And it demonstrated to
the world that the predicted catastrophe of Zambians starving never
happened. The country thereafter recorded food surpluses, besides the
fact that in the heat of the crisis the shortage was limited to
sections of the country and there were supplies in other regions of
traditional crops like cassava and millet that simply needed to be
procured for the needy areas.
Genetically engineered food has been presented as the ultimate
weapon against hunger in Africa and the world. This is also seriously
suggested in the United Nation's Millennium Development Goals (MDGs),
meaning that this may be the direction efforts will be concentrated
in the years to come. African leaders have largely been co-opted into
thinking this way because they are warned that since the so-called
Green Revolution train left Africa standing at the station they
should not miss the gene train. It has been noted that the Green
Revolution required extensive chemical and equipment inputs and
although food production increased in some areas, small scale farmers
were marginalised, the environment took a beating and on the
aggregate hunger was boosted in the world.
The next major push has manifested in the presenting of Monsanto's
genetically engineered cotton (Bt Cotton) as the solution. This
cotton variety, which has been engineered to withstand certain pests
and to be suitable for use of certain herbicides, has been planted in
India, Indonesia, South Africa, etc. The biotech industry touts these
as huge successes, but there are many reported cases where farmers
have recorded lower yields, and have gone into debt. The manifold
cases of failure of Bt Cotton are so well documented that we may not
need to go into details here. Suffice to say that industry's
underhand push and shove has been vividly illustrated in the bribery
scandal that rocked Indonesia where a prominent biotech industry
bribed as many as 144 serving and retired government officials in
order to have approval for the commercial cultivation of the variety.
Last year, some governments in West Africa pledged to embrace this
same variety of cotton. The next point of call of the proponents of
Bt Cotton is Tanzania. All these efforts have been made under the
direction of the USAID, one of whose major goals is promoting the
spread of GMOs in the world and pointedly working to "integrate GM
into local food systems."
The push into Tanzania gathered momentum in 2002 when USAID began
meeting with Tanzanian scientists to describe the potential of
engineered foods. Some of these USA advocates were also the
architects of the Memorandum of Understanding signed with Nigeria in
2004 for a biotech programme managed by the International Institute
of Tropical Agriculture (IITA), Ibadan, Nigeria.
The interesting thing about the Tanzanian case is that although
cotton production was suspended in the southern part of Tanzania
because of the spread of redball cotton disease in 1968, the country
is currently experiencing cotton production surpluses. When this is
coupled with the record low cotton price in the market, it becomes
hard to see what arguments could be pushed for the genetically
engineered variety of cotton.
Barring a change of heart, the government of Tanzania has already
buckled under intense pressure and the country is set to join
Tunisia, Zimbabwe, Egypt, Burkina Faso and Kenya in conducting
confined field trials (CFT) for genetically modified crops. These
so-called field tests will eventually open the nation's doors to
genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
As already noted, food aid is one of the main vehicles for putting
GMOs on the platter of the world. Do we call that charity? Not so.
One issue about some of these food aids is that citizens in the
recipient country may not even know that their country receives food
aid. In 2003 Nigeria received 11000.6 Metric Tons of soy meal as food
aid from the United States, under the US title "Food for Progress".
Taking into account that around 60% of soybeans in the US is
genetically modified we strongly suspect Nigeria has been receiving
GM products without any prior information to the Government, and with
our population completely uninformed on this. In 2004 the country was
billed to receive 10,500 tons of rice.
People around the world have been vocal is calling for caution in
the introduction of genetic engineering in food crop propagation. The
biotech industry with their powerful lobby has stoutly resisted
compliance with the precautionary principle enshrined in the
Cartagena Protocol on Bio-safety. The precautionary principle as the
name implies requires that countries apply caution when considering
or opening doors to bringing GMOs into their environment. One of the
reasons for this is that the safety of GMOs has not been
The biotech industry thrives on subverting the ability of people to
protect themselves and their environments. They do this through
deliberate contamination and illegal release of genetically modified
crops into the environment. In fact, when environments are acutely
contaminated, nations have no option but to legalise the illegality.
Many suspect that this may have been the case with Brazil. Also, many
reports from North America show that when conventional and organic
farms are contaminated by genetically modified neighbours, the
innocent farmers are made liable and are forced to pay compensations
to the polluter instead of the other way round. This is cowboy
The argument usually put forward as a response to the insistence on
caution is that GMOs have not harmed anyone. But how can we know that
GMOs have not harmed anyone if there are no serious studies on the
populations consuming it? How do we prove damage to human health when
there is little or no serious research over the toxicological, long
term impacts of GM food? How do we know whether an allergy is caused
by a GM crop where adequate tests have not been developed to prove
the link between the GMO and the allergy? The large number of
questions existing over the risks of GM crops clearly show that the
world is not ready for its release until the questions are properly
An example of this need is the attitude of the European Commission,
which is about to start new studies to examine the potential
"cumulative long-term effects" genetically modified (GMO) crops might
have on human and animal health in the longer term. This is coming
eight years after the EU first allowed biotech crops. If the European
Commission is now commissioning such studies, it shows that we still
have a lot to learn from the risks of GMOs. And if that is the
approach taken by Europeans, we have every reason to pause and think.
But, the biotech industry is like a bull set loose in a china shop
and needs all the controls possible. Recent reports of contamination
of food supplies with illegal varieties should worry everyone. We
refer to the case of Latin America where corn varieties with StarLink
which are not authorised for human consumption have been found in
food aid sent there in 2002 and also in 2005. Where they cannot deny
the presence of the illegal grain the response of the biotech
industry has been that the illegal corn is okay for consumption. No
Africa received huge quantities of corn from the USA as food aid.
From reports Africa was the top worldwide recipient of US corn as
food aid in 2004. Three African countries, Angola (62.400 MT),
Tanzania and Burundi (28.000 MT) were among the top five. Other
African countries included Uganda (20.900 MT), and Kenya (13,600 MT).
We recall here that after the refusal of GMO grains by Zambia and
Zimbabwe the shipments of food aid to these countries in 2003 and
2004 dropped to zero.
The push continues even though proponents like the USAID recognises
that GM corn sent to Africa as food aid "would be expected to perform
poorly in African growing conditions" and is "not well suited for
planting" . Despite this, the maize keeps coming to Africa. If one
country rejects it, it is channelled to another.
We have many reasons to worry. Another reason is that the industry
does not have GMOs under control and the risks to health and
environment are unknown. A few weeks ago it became public that an
untested experimental crop, from Swiss agrochemicals multinational
group, Syngenta, called Bt10, has been illegally planted from 2001
until 2004 in the USA. This illegal variety contains antibiotic
resistance marker genes, which the British Medical Association
recommended not to commercialise due to the potential risks for human
health. The EU, Japan and South Korea have already protested against
this and are taking measures to test the grains in order to isolate
and destroy the illegal variety. All Syngenta could say is that their
1000 tons of Bt10 food entered the EU accidentally. Initially
Syngenta had claimed that Bt10 and Bt11 (an already commercialised
variety of GM cron) were virtually identical, and therefore there
were no risks, but later on it was verified as false since Bt10
contained antibiotic resistant marker genes, while that was not the
case with the Bt11 type. What other areas have confused the biotech
What measures are taken by our Governments in Africa? Africa
continues to be the biggest corn food aid recipient, not only of
grain, but also corn soy blend and cornmeal. Are we going to continue
to let our population be at risk and consume these GM products?
Genetic pollution is not comparable to oil or other environmental
pollution. Chemical pollution may finally dissipate after a thousand
or so years, but genetic pollution on the other hand grows
exponentially with time. They simply do not diminish. The problem
With the huge contamination of the world's corn and soya stock and
the risk that it may become irreversible, the biotech industry is now
seriously working on commercialising GM wheat and rice. Indeed it is
reported that China may release GM rice into the market in the next
year. With the bulk of rice in Nigeria coming from Asia, it is a
matter of time before GM rice from China floods our supply lines.
This is inevitable, unless something is done, and quickly too.
Just to think about all this makes us feel really scared about the
food that is placed on our plates, and the seeds that we may be
planting. If we blindly follow the biotech agri-business path we are
bound to find that all traditional food crops will be genetically
engineered in no time and as we have seen already, when the plague
hits, the chance of recovery will be slim.
This is the time for everyone, Nigerian, Tanzanian, Togolese,
Camerounian, or Swazi to stand up and defend our collective right to
live in dignity and to choose what seeds to plant and what foods to
eat. We cannot afford to place our future in the hand of an industry
that has lost control of its Frankenstein. Our governments, if they
represent us, must begin now to ask questions, and to act. Tomorrow
will be too late.