by Nnimmo Bassey
A time like this demands and permits only sober consideration of where we are coming from, where we are and where we are heading. The world is virtually shut down due to the ravages of a virus. This is no time for grandstanding or for anyone to claim that they have anything under control.
Interestingly, the virus is not a new organism. It has been around.
It appears the consternation is one of many new variants that have emerged. If the new variant has jumped to humans from bats, the virus would serve as a strong rebuke for the reckless ways that humans have degraded habitats of other organisms on the planet. If it has emerged from some biological weapons laboratory, then the virus shows the evil genius of humans and warns us that the distance between riding a tiger’s back and being devoured by the mouth of the beast is short.
We are in precarious times.
Things Can Go Deeply Wrong
While scenario planners may have foreseen a pandemic of the scale that coronavirus has provoked, it comes as a total surprise to the average person. We can use analysis of the state of our biosafety and agricultural technofixes as a template to consider the current situation in our world and balance the unpredictability of what could happen next.
We have had fair warning that things can go deeply wrong if humans continue to toy with the genetic makeup of living organisms – especially in efforts to concentrate power and profit. Nature is alive and active. She is not dormant, and she always responds to the manipulations of men. And so, when humans engineer crops to make them act as pesticides, Nature offers super pests or superbugs. When toxic herbicides are produced to kill all other crops except the ones genetically engineered to withstand them, Nature responds by offering superweeds.
In either case, humans get trapped in needless and unwinnable battles against Nature. Today many farmers in the United States are suing Monsanto/Bayer over their exposure to one of the most notorious of these herbicides, Roundup Ready. They are suing because they claim the glyphosate in the herbicide caused them to suffer from cancers. These herbicides are freely available for our farmers in Nigeria without any warnings.
Toying with Nature
Extinction technologies are also entering the fold. As genetic engineering has progressed to the point of being able to edit the genetic makeup of organisms without having to engage in the trans-species transfer of genetic materials, the focus has turned to killing off undesirable species and clearing the way for preferred species to thrive. For example, it has been proposed that gene drive[i] mosquitoes be released in Burkina Faso and possibly Uganda.
While modern biotechnology promoters like the National Biotechnology Development Agency (NABDA) and the regulator, National Biosafety Management Agency (NBMA), feel confident that they can handle any sort of technicalities in both the mainstream and new fields of extreme technofixes, we are deeply concerned that their grandstanding would not stop the purveyors of these technologies from weaponizing them.
The NBMA in its short lifespan (2015 to date) has authorized 11 field trials of genetically modified (GM) crop varieties including those of regional staples – beans, cassava and maize. So far there have been two commercial releases. There is also evidence to suggest that they are field-testing a variety of rice without any sign of formal authorization. The implications of these moves are disturbing not just for Nigeria, but for Africa.
The current pandemic has often been described as warfare. The subtle implication is that the virus could very well have origins as a biological weapon. Whether it is a biological weapon or just an anomaly in Nature, some of the governments most affected by the outbreak have had to rely on the armed forces because they are the only institutions that can mobilize the number of resources needed to tackle the scourge.
Do we have a military that can mobilize to tackle a biological attack or accident in Nigeria?
Mutual Support ... but Also Self-Preservation
We are in precarious times indeed. It is a time when fear and panic are freely propagating terror among populations. We see the generosity of men on display as some donate needed medical supplies and as health workers expose themselves to great risk to help the sick. We hear calls of mutual support and care among nations.
In the midst of all that, though, we also see the drive for self-preservation that brings out an uncooperative side of peoples and nations. We see this through the closing of national borders and the promotion of national interests above all else. What we are seeing seems to say that when the tire hits the tarmac, it is everyone on his or her own.
For the few days that humans have been forced to be quarantined or restricted by lockdowns, Nature has begun measures of self-healing. The air is getting fresher in some cities and water bodies are becoming clean again. Aquatic ecosystems are coming back to life just because humans have been restrained to their habitats or homes.
Time to Rethink and Reimagine
Do we have to wait until a disaster before we rethink our ways? Do we need a total breakdown of our biosafety before we wake up to the fact that when disaster unfolds propaganda will not erase the challenge? These are some of the questions we need to ask ourselves.
Nigeria took the wrong step by setting up a biotechnology promoting agency before setting up a biosafety agency. Worse, the two entities are legally connected, and separating the two has become a herculean task. The truth is that this situation will only be resolved through legislation and through having a biosafety agency that is neutral, regards the opinion of citizens and accepts the basic biosafety plan of precautionary principle.
In the global north, genetically modified organisms (GMO) have been permitted under the condition that they are labeled. We have painstakingly explained that because of our socio-cultural setup it is impossible to effectively label GMOs in Nigeria. Genetically engineered beans have already been released into the environment. We know that no one will use GMO labeling on their products so citizens can make a choice between eating akara or moi moi made from this variety of beans.
Genetically modified cotton has already been introduced into the environment. Our people will eat cottonseed cakes and oils without the slightest inkling that they are consuming GMOs. Where is the choice? We have surveyed the markets for imported GMO products, and several have been found, proudly displaying National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC) approval numbers. Did these products pass through the approval processes before they were sold to our people?
African biosafety regulators should humbly accept that they are not infallible and that humans do not have a full understanding of the intricate webs of Nature. Biological weapons facilities are sometimes forced to shut down for decontamination exercises when accidents occur before they dare to reopen. We cannot keep running blind-eyed to technologies that portend so much danger – especially when viable and proven alternatives exist.
[i] A gene drive is a tool that forces certain genes to be in a species' population. Gene drives do this by greatly increasing the chance a certain gene is passed on to an organism's offspring.
Caption: Ghanian farmers stage a protest against costs and environmental hazards of GMO seeds for crops.
Nnimmo Bassey is author, poet and director of the ecological think-tank, Health of Mother Earth Foundation (HOMEF), Nigeria. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org