Sunday, 7 February 2010

GM crops in Nigeria: true or false?

It is timely to find out the official policy of the Nigerian government on Genetically Modified (GM) crops? This has become necessary in view of the crass ignorance of the average Nigerian on what GM crops are; and, if Nigerians are ignorant of what exactly GM crops are, then how sure are we that these controversial and in some instances dreaded crops are not already here in Nigeria.

Again, some ubiquitous Nigerians have many uncanny ways and some of these include trading on banned and counterfeit products. They go all out, and even against extant laws of the country to buy and import into the country items they know too well are dangerous and disruptive to the economy and the environment such as used refrigerators, old cars and machinery, fake drugs as well as despoiled food items such as rice and many others. This situation is further complicated by our porous borders and gullible security agents manning them.

It is on this premise therefore, that I seek to discuss GM crops in Nigeria and possibly find out what the official position of government is on it.

GM crops are crops or seedlings that have undergone genetic modification in the laboratory. This includes the introduction of a well-characterized gene or genes into an established genetic background or between species. A product of biotechnology or crop engineering, the resultant features include the ability of the crop to now grow and flourish in difficult terrains or barren farmlands; for example, they become drought resistant crops in arid soil or salt proof in high salinity farmlands.

In year 2000, the Times magazine had discussed the work of the Swiss biologist Ingo Potrykus who led the team that engineered the “golden rice”. The rice, a flagship product of Biotechnology (in the words of Dick Taverne’s essay in Prospect Magazine, 2007) was to start a new green revolution to improve the lives of millions of the poorest people in the world. It was estimated to help remedy vitamin- A deficiency, the cause of 1-2million deaths a year, and could save up to 500,000 children a year from going blind. No other scientific development in agriculture in recent time is thought to hold such promise.

Only a decade after their commercial introduction, GM crops were already in cultivation in well over 100million hectares spread across 22 countries by over 10million farmers. About 9 million of of this number are resource-poor farmers in developing countries, mainly India and China. Most of these small-scale farmers grow pest-resistant GM cotton. In India alone, production has tripled over the past 3 years to over 10million hectares. This cotton has proven to benefit farmers because it reduces the need for insecticides, thereby increasing their income and also improving their health.

However, beyond all these attributes, features and claims, there are deep rooted fears amongst the enlightened world that GM technology is most unsafe and harmful to the environment, and that it only lines the pocket of the big agricultural companies. Though GM crops are in abundance in parts of Europe, they are also effectively banned in most countries. Indeed, EU regulations, based on the precautionary principle, provide safeguards against “contamination” of organic farms by GM crops; they require any produce containing more than 0.9 percent GM content to be labeled as such, with the clear implication that it needs a health warning and should be avoided.

However, in view of the extant food security woes in Africa, for example, in parts of West Africa, the average rate of application of NPK fertilizer is reported to be an abysmal 13kg per hectare; should GM crops be relied upon and allowed to close up the food supply gap and flourish in Africa?

Factors responsible for poor fertilizer use have included cost and scarcity of the product when needed by farmers. The implication has been the heavy post harvest losses calculated at 50per cent for fruits and vegetables and 30per cent for root crops and tubers. Compared to the entire continent, recorded loses include 22kg of Nitrogen (N), 2.5kg of Phosphorus (P) and 15 kg of Potassium (k) per hectare per year through soil mismanagement. This is equivalent to US$4 billion worth of fertilizer (at United States prices) and likely US$30 billion at African fertilizer prices.

Also, sadly; with climate change now ravaging the continent, people are becoming increasingly affected as worsening droughts in particular is ruining the lives and livelihood of many households and have continued to hamper farming activities. Water mismanagement, inappropriate land use, as well as poor knowledge of anti-drought measures have continued to constrain the soil’s productive capacity to produce food. Consequently, local livelihoods are being jeopardized while increasing poverty for thousands of farmers expands.

GM crops on the other addresses these loops as they reduce reliance on agrochemical sprays, saves energy, uses less fossil fuel in their production and reduces the emissions of greenhouse gases; and by improving yields, they make better use of scarce agricultural land. These have been confirmed by different studies and reports which reveal that the “environmental impact” of pesticides and herbicide use in GM –growing countries had been reduced by 15 per cent and 20 percent respectively.

Energy-intensive cultivation is being replaced by no-till or low-till agriculture. As at today, more than a third of the soya bean crop grown in the US is now grown in unploughed fields. Apart from using less energy, avoiding the plough has many environmental advantages. It improves soil quality, causes fewer disturbances to life within it and diminishes the emission of methane and other greenhouse gases.

But whatever the merits are, there are oodles of dreadful demerits of GM crops. And one salient argument that is yet to be defeated is the fact that GM crops are “one-off-seeds” i.e. the seeds cannot be preserved or stored for replanting in the following farming season. This therefore imposes on the farmers the task of yearly purchase of the seeds at enormously high costs. How many poor farmers in Nigeria or other places in Africa can afford to go through this ritual yearly?

There are also other concerns such as the environmental threats, particularly those to biodiversity. It is feared that the takeover of natural environments by GM crops could easily lead to mass gene alteration in the entire ecosystem and that this could be counterproductive.

These arguments remained the crux of a class debate amongst nine African scholars on environment while on a residency program at Brown University, USA last fall. We had debated that regardless of the so called abundant benefits that GM crops are evil and are capable of impoverishing Africans in the long run. This was based on our fear that it would erode indigenous or local seeds from Africa; and make the already impoverished small holder farmers and peasants perpetually dependent of imported seeds.

This argument also raised other fears, such as those that claim that once traditional farmlands have been exposed to GM crops, the entire landscape subsequently becomes the exclusive dominance of GM crops as no other crop would be capable of doing well in such farmland. Though this fear still remains hypothetical; empirical analyses in this regard may not even be necessary as people commonly prefer organically produced food because it is neither a quick-fix solution for world hunger nor an exploitative endeavor.

As a country with large population; the most populated in Africa; the official policy of the Nigerian government on GM crops need to be known. Is it here already, or is it yet to arrive? Certainly, we need to know what the position of the Nigerian government is on this matter.

But whatever it is, there is enormous need for citizen education on the pros and cons of GM crops to enable at least an understanding and awareness creation. This has the potential of assisting us, particularly the farmers from deceit and deception by those with ubiquitous uncanny ways.

Haiti: Social Entrepreneurship to the rescue

Earthquakes have been reported to hold the notorious record of at least 8 million deaths during the last millennium. This figure however does not yet include the recent devastating destruction and death tolls wrought in Haiti by the Tuesday, 12th January 2010 earthquake, which measured 7.0 on the Richter scale. For the people of Haiti, the last couple of days have been truly horrific.
Accounts by Bill McGuire shows that often, it is exceedingly difficult to get across to someone who has never experienced the sheer, mind-numbing terror of being caught in a major earthquake. Even in California, where the population is constantly bombarded with information about what to do in the event of a quake, coherent, sensible thought ceases when the ground starts to tremble.
Following the Loma Prieta quake that struck northern California in 1989, a survey by the United States Geological Survey revealed that only 13 percent of the population of Santa Cruz sought immediate protection, while close to 70 per cent either froze or ran outside. This is a perennial problem with earthquakes; however well informed the people, when the ground starts shaking and the furniture starts flying across the room, blind instincts takes over and people just run out into the street instead of diving beneath the nearest piece of heavy furniture or sheltering under the lintel of a convenient door way, the result is the high casualty rate as was the recent case in Haiti.
Earthquakes are immensely destructive, mainly because most cities in regions of high seismic risk are dominated by buildings that are simply not built well enough to withstand the severe ground shaking of a major quake. Modern construction methods in California follow stringent building codes that ensure they can withstand quakes that would be devastating elsewhere, and this policy has borne considerable fruit by dramatically limiting death, injury, and damage during major quakes in the last 20 years.
The Richter scale measures the actual wave energy. It is logarithmic, so just using the numbers one to ten; it can accommodate everything from the frequent daily tremors (albeit unnoticed in seismically active areas) to the most destructive earthquakes recorded. To date, the largest has been on the coast of Chile in 1960, which measured 9.5 on the scale.
The difference in energy between each point on the scale is a factor of 30. So, for example, a factor 7 quake is likely to be much more destructive than a factor 6. Ironically, many of the personal records of Charles Richter, the Californian seismologist who gave his name to the scale and who died in 1985, were destroyed in a house fire following the magnitude 6.6 Northridge earthquake near Los Angeles in 1994.
Even so, the Northridge earthquake that struck southern California in 1994 is credited with losses totaling $35 billion, largely accruing from damage to older structures. Other earthquake-prone countries also have in place building codes designed to minimize damage due to ground shaking, but often these codes are simply not enforced. The terrible legacy of such a lack of commitment by government and local authorities became all too apparent when magnitude 7.4 quakes struck the Izmit region of Turkey in 1999, obliterating 150,000 buildings and taking over 17,000 lives.
In January 2001, a severe earthquake shook the Bhuj region of Gujarat state in northwestern India, flattening 400,000 homes and killing about 100,000 people. Many of the deaths resulted from the traditional construction methods used in the region, which involved the building of homes with enormously thick walls made of great boulders held together loosely with mud or cement, beneath heavy stone roofs. When the ground started to shake these buildings offered little resistance, collapsing readily to crush those inside.
In 2003, a moderate earthquake in southern Iran took 26,000 lives in the city of Bam, as the traditional mud brick building put up little or no resistance to the ground shaking, while in 2005 more than 80,000 died in huge quake in Pakistan.
The United Nations put the death toll from the earthquake in Haiti at between 45,000 and 50,000 with tens of thousands more injured. Though vulnerable to extreme events such as cyclone; Haiti has never been noted for destructive earthquake of this magnitude. But on its major inaugural arrival the earthquake has ripped apart the lives and livelihood of millions of people in one of the poorest nations in the world. And on its track has left impacts yet to be surpassed by the dangers posed by it extensive coastline of 1530 km such as sea level rise.
Haiti, the second largest Caribbean Island, is situated 77 km southeast of Cuba. It occupies the western third of the island it shares with the Dominican Republic. It is a mass territory of mountainous land which stretches between the Atlantic Ocean in the North and the Caribbean Sea in the South. Haiti also comprises several islands surrounding the main territory.
Haiti's regional, historical and ethno-linguistic position is unique for several reasons. It was the first independent nation in Latin America, the first post-colonial independent black-led nation in the world, and the only nation whose independence was gained as part of a successful slave rebellion. Despite having common cultural links with its Hispano-Caribbean neighbors, Haiti is the only predominantly Francophone independent nation in the Americas. It is one of only two independent nations in the Americas (along with Canada) that designate French as an official language.
As Haiti reels under the pains of the earthquake it becomes germane to appraise and applaud the effort of the international community in coming to its aid. This is against a background of teething problems relief workers are currently passing through in trying to save lives and bring succor to the people of this very poor country.
Particularly, relief workers have faced difficulties trying to distribute aid to Haiti as planes bringing emergency supplies struggled to land at the airport in Port-au-Prince. Some were forced to circle in the air for hours because of a lack of landing space at the overcrowded airport. Other aircraft had to be diverted to Florida or Santa Domingo in the Dominican Republic. The US military air traffic controllers in charge of the relief effort have no control tower or radar, and there are shortages of fuel and even staircases to access planes. The Haitian government said there was no room on ramps for planes to unload their cargo and that some aircraft on the ground did not have enough fuel to live.
Aid distribution was further hampered because roads were blocked by rubble and smashed cars, and normal communication were cut off. There are so much concrete and debris everywhere. This is too badly damaged to handle cargo. The US has sent about 3,500 soldiers, 300 medical personnel, several ships and 2,200 marines to Haiti with the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson to serve as a “floating airport” for relief operations by its 19 helicopters.
Aid has continued to trickle in despite a total collapse of the country’s infrastructure. Prime Minister of Great Britain Gordon Brown had called for the World to respond as the British Government pledged £6 million aid and set up the Disaster Emergency Committee, which launches and coordinates responses to major events overseas. The committee has raised over£40 million from the UK public and corporate bodies since it raised fund appeal.
The US President Barack Obama promised $100 million for the relief effort and the International Monetary Fund a further $100 million. Countries such as Brazil, Israel and Canada etc. have also made strong impacts in providing clean drinking water and medical attention in addition to other rescue operations. The Nigerian government has also announced a $1million donation.
It is however expected that the plethora of social entrepreneurs and other social change agents currently helping to provide relief in Haiti will consider the necessity of remaining behind in Haita, a little longer after this period of emergency to achieve sustainable re-building of what has been destroyed. This could manifest in the evolution of a new building code that will support the development of earthquake resistant or resilient buildings as currently being promoted by Build-Change led by my GSBI 2007 colleague Elizabeth Hausler in Bangladesh.