“Nigerian Agriculture, Zimbabwean Farmers and, Gentic Modification” Nigeria World, Friday August 6, 2004

We need foreign direct investments (FDI) in Nigeria. In the globalization era, only few would question the need for FDI as part of Nigeria’s strategic economic policy. The Obasanjo government has been passionate about FDI at least on propaganda basis. The unprecedented number of presidential trips associated with the pursuit of FDI attest to government’s desperation. But we know that investors, being the business people they are, make their investment commitments on hard and verifiable facts. The least of all things that can influence external investor decision is a mobile president. How does that account for glaring insecurity, non-existent infrastructure, epileptic power supply, corruption in public and private sectors, election rigging, rumours of coups, religious and civil conflicts, executive vindictiveness, legislative ineptitude/instability, and a constantly threatened judiciary? These are undeniable features of our polity. Should the President depose to an affidavit of assurance and comfort to the contrary, that would amount to perjury save for section 308 of the constitution. Even if he travels the entire length of the globe, there would be nothing concrete to show in the area of FDI for as long as this polity continues with business as usual and anything-goes type of democracy. Investors are like flies. Give them an enabling environment; they will come at the smell of it and without invitation.

In the pursuit of FDI, the Obasanjo administration has shown some desperation. One gets the feeling that this extreme anxiety stems from a late realization that time is fast running out. There is paucity of evidence of the much-talked-about dividend of democracy five years after the return of civil rule. In 1999, Nigerians helplessly accepted, with little or no option, the “wisdom of retired generals” in anointing one of their own to the exalted office of President. Nigerians legitimated that imposition by our symbolic votes. Given the backdrop of events leading to the 1999 date, our options, if any, were circumscribed. A return to June 12 was no longer feasible. Insistence upon a truly civilian presidency that Ekwueme offered made the military constituency (with the exception of a rare few) uncomfortable for reasons best known to them. They were determined to deal with the devil they knew than the angel they did not know. What the rest of us thought did not matter. The need to appease the South West was also a factor we were not matured enough to ignore.

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We were rather desperate to put the past behind and accept a “soft-landing approach” to our yet another attempt at democracy. For some, the fact that Obasanjo was fresh from prison and had just escaped the executioner’s visit by a stroke of divine intervention was enough to persuade them that he, more than any one else, was in a position to realize that failure of leadership is not an option. Five years after, the question is whether this group of people has been proven wrong or vindicated. Why is this government now in a hurry to do all things at all costs and to undermine all cautions in the process? Why did it spend its first four-year term quarrelling with anyone that dared to disagree with it? Now it justifies those wasted years as part of the learning process.

The wooing of Zimbabwean farmers, who are facing displacement under the Mugabe land reforms, exemplifies government’s anxiety for FDI. The circumstances of these farmers’s interest in Nigeria raise some concern. Before the Mugabe land reforms, Nigeria was not anywhere in their calculation as an investment haven. How I wish that Nigeria was found attractive irrespective of, and before the land reforms. That would have been quite encouraging. Why is Nigeria in contention at the time of distress and not at ordinary time for the farmers? Could the sudden interest in Nigeria not be likened to a quest for investment asylum pending the resolution of the ongoing crisis or change of guard in Zimbabwe? Why is Nigeria whose President was an active participant in the resolution of the Zimbabwean crisis positioning itself to benefit from the crisis that it was mediating? Or is there a Charles Taylor approach to this form of FDI? Are we making Nigeria attractive as a bait to lead the bull out of the china shop?

Surely, that is not the way Nigeria is being perceived. Our President’s integrity has been questioned in some quarters, especially in the Southern African region, on account of Nigeria’s seeming complicity and interest in the investment opportunity offered by Zimbabwean farmers. Given Nigeria’s hitherto respected role in mediating the Zimbabwean crisis, honestly, I think that keeping a respectable distance from these farmers would have been a path of honour. Many would argue that there is no sentiment in business. Agreed. But that does not change my position given that critically appraised, the benefit of these farmers to Nigerian agriculture, should they choose to invest here, may not be as persuasive as it is being hyped. Enduring FDI can be better achieved at avoidable political and other potential costs such that we risk with our romance with Zimbabwean farmers.

Apart from the political backdrop of Zimbabwean farmer’s interest in Nigeria, we need to be concerned about how their hi-tech agriculture would impact our traditional and local agricultural practices. The federal government and other state governments have bought into the rhetoric of the need to increase Nigeria’s food production. But do we really need external hands to boost our agricultural output? I do not think so. But that is a matter for another day. Let’s remain focused for now. From the late 20th century, agricultural production has benefited immensely from the phenomenon of genetic engineering or genetic modification (GM). This involves the manipulation of genes within and across different organisms to achieve some desired ends. It also involves the modification of existing genes or the creation of new ones and their incorporation into different organisms. Through genetic engineering, the wonders of modern agriculture are simply fascinating and phenomenal. GM renders crop varieties of all sorts such as those that are pest or draught resistant, high yielding, quick maturing, etc.

GM approach to agriculture is different from conventional breeding which is mainly based on traditional landraces or organic crops using low-input farming methods. Traditional farming system in Nigeria is based on organic farming. It has not been tampered, for the most part, by the façade of GM which remains a contentious technology for reasons I will broach shortly. Given the hype surrounding Nigeria’s romance with Zimbabwean farmers, the government is gullibly excited that the farmers are bringing hi-tech agricultural practices different from our traditional models. We need to know how much of Zimbabwean farmers’ expertise is GM-based.

It may interesting for those who are falling over one another in the scramble for Zimbabwean farmers to know that according to the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), existing technologies, excluding GM, are adequate to produce enough food to meet global population growth. Indeed, there is no evidence of yield increase in genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in comparison to their non-GM counterparts. Instead, GM has been associated with yield drags. Nigeria’s increasing population should be seen in the context of global population projection and it is not a strong enough reason for Nigeria to embrace FDI investment in agriculture without adequate scrutiny. Population growth has been slowing down since 1960s. The world is expected to hit a population climax at 7.7 billion in the year 2040, after which there is an expected decline of a long term to 3.6 billion (approximately less than two-third of the current population) by the year 2150. The truth is that contrary to proponents of GM and failed Green Revolution would have us believe, there is more than enough food to feed the global population. What needs addressing is structural injustice at global level and visionary leadership at Nigeria’s national level. Agriculture, more than a coup d’etat-prone military, holds the key to national security, and extra care must be taken in embracing FDI in agriculture. Of all areas, this is not one that Nigeria needs to get right and cannot afford to compromise. There is no shortcut to years of neglect of agriculture in Nigeria, definitely not through FDI or Zimbabwean farmers.

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Assuming that the government is right about its expectations from Zimbabwean farmers, are we prepared for the consequences of GM if that is what they have to offer that we do not have? Hi-tech agriculture, especially through GM, is a controversial subject. The impact of GMOs, especially in relation to health and the environment is a matter of ongoing scientific inquiry. The World Health Organization (WHO) remains ambivalent on the subject of GM food. Given the trans-national and integrated nature of corporations involved in GM in the agricultural, chemical and allied industrial sectors, GM, like the failed Green Revolution, has boosted a chemicalized approach to agriculture through the use of external chemical inducers. Agrochemicals have been associated to cancer and many other illnesses, which Nigeria’s globally acknowledged wobbly public health system is ill prepared to tackle.

It is interesting to note that despite their pioneering inroads in GM, North America and countries of the European Union are in disagreement with regard to the level of caution required for the introduction of the technology. The EU has been unequivocal about its skepticism over the potential negative health and environmental impact of this technology. This accounts for its reluctance to sanction full commercial exploitation and introduction of GM food into its food supply. The US, Canada, and lately, Mexico, Argentina, and Brazil appear to be less inclined, arguably because of their comparative advantage and national interests. Not long ago, Zambia, rejected GM food aid in spite of its food crisis. Notwithstanding the good intensions of charitable donors, there were external corporate interests willing to capitalize on Zambia’s food crisis as a backdoor for the introduction of GM food. It is generally known that most food aids, GM or not, find their way into traditional farmers’ fields and invariably contaminate non-transgenic stocks.

Perhaps the greatest concern over GM is the tendency of GM crops to contaminant non-transgenic or organic ones. In Canada and United States, for instance, organic farmers are under serious threat and stress of contamination of their farms/crops by GM breeds. Organic farmers’ groups are currently litigating a number of cases of contamination in the two countries; some of them, through class action suits. This development is quite important. Organic farming is a lucrative business. Since the health and environmental ramifications of GM food supplies remain indeterminate, many are prepared, as a matter of caution, to pay extra for organic varieties in order to avoid GM food. This requires a higher degree of pubic awareness than we have in Nigeria.

There are many ways in which contamination occurs. Sometimes this can be through transportation, natural and artificial seed dispersals and cross-pollinations. More often than not, owners of GM seeds have no control over these processes. Ironically, the proprietors of these seeds, like the Monsanto Group in the United States and Canada, have turned round to sue farmers who have benefited from the unsolicited or accidental presence of a proprietary crop variety in their fields. In one Canadian case, Monsanto, the global seed giant, succeeded against a Canadian farmer, Mr. Percy Schmeiser and his farming enterprise. The Canadian Supreme Court has just resolved Schmeiser’s appeal in favour of Monsanto. It represents a classical example of how our traditional farming methods and farmers’ rights can be undermined by the so-called hi-tech agriculture and corporate gene giants.

Another way traditional farming methods can be threatened by GM is through the latter’s proprietary nature. GMOs or GM crop varieties are regarded as inventions under patent law. As such, the “inventors” have exclusive proprietary rights over them. This means that other people cannot exploit the seeds except with the consent of the owners (patent holders) or their authorized agents. This is achieved through licensing agreements and payment of royalties. GM modification facilitates monopoly over agricultural processes and practices in the hands of mainly multinational seed and agro-chemical and allied corporations. Indigenous and local farmers and their communities are often at the mercy of the proprietors of GM technology by depending on them for preferred seed varieties.

Through their high yields and other customized and commercially viable traits, GM seeds are quite attractive to less discerning traditional farmers who are willing to forgo their traditional landraces. By so doing, these farmers undermine traditional agricultural practices and the use of methods adapted to local conditions. Unbeknownst to many, traditional approaches to agriculture have been yielding sustainable harvest increases in the upward range of two to three folds since the 1980s. Uncritical embrace of GM is capable of causing irretrievable damage to traditional agricultural practices, especially its communal nature, knowledge sharing and seed exchange practices. GM undermines the uninterrupted natural breeding and experimentation that goes on in the traditional farmers’ fields. The potential for global crop failure is real in the face of hi-tech and chemicalized agriculture.

As recently as 1998, a new form of GM called “terminator technology”, which is yet to be approved for commercial exploitation, was patented in the United States. This form of GM is designed to render sterile seeds. In order words, it predisposes plants to genetically switch off their ability to germinate a second time. This is radically antithetical to the natural meaning of seed as a genetic copy propagation material. Simply stated, the idea is that small scale farmers would be expected to just buy these seeds, plant them, and consume or sell the harvests. They would then return to the proprietor of the GM seed at the next planting season for fresh seeds which propagate only once and no more. Terminator form of GM is ostensibly being suggested as a solution to the phenomenon of genetic contamination. However, terminator technology, also known as genetic use restriction technology (GURT), is merely a smokescreen for seed monopoly. It is a device to ensure farmers’ dependence on external players in the agricultural and allied sectors for seed supply on yearly basis.

In an era of unprecedented terrorism, including bio-terrorism, potential agro-terrorism and external political arm-twisting, Nigeria may have to reconsider how much of its ability to feed itself it is willing to mortgage at the expense of unbridled desire for FDI. Pertinent questions are: what is the nature of the hi-tech agriculture that the Zimbabwean farmers are bringing to us? Do we not have those in our several universities and colleges of agriculture? What can we do to translate research in our universities to industrial exploitation in accordance with our national interests and priorities? Why has making this connection remained elusive in Nigeria?

The neglect of agriculture can no longer be allowed to continue. We have every imaginable agrobiodiversity any country could wish to have. I believe that we are quite capable of putting these into industrial exploitation in a sustainable manner, without necessarily embracing GM. That way, we would leave our larger biological diversity intact, our environment safer, the health of our people better, and generally ensure an enhanced food security and by extension, national security. I do not suggest that we shut off interest in GM. We can improve upon our expertise on GM through our Universities and research institutes. They can be supported to pursue research in GM in the laboratory and greenhouse as a national strategic and security initiative. Even without GM, already our self-sufficiency in livestock production is fast becoming real. We do not need GM to feed ourselves as a nation or to generate substantial export from agriculture that is capable of contributing significantly to our GDP. Ironically, non-transgenic or organic agricultural exports are not cheap. They provide higher income because of their safety and health ramifications. Our near exclusive dependence on oil, a depleting and irreplaceable natural resource, is a national security blunder. We have comparative advantage in organic farming that is yet to be tapped. Can we compromise that at this stage?

On the legal front, what is the state of our intellectual property (IP) laws? Intellectual property is a mechanism for the allocation rights, privileges and rewards over knowledge or other creative endeavours. As far as I know, apart from recent and related international agreements that Nigeria has ratified, our IP laws in substantive areas, excluding perhaps copyright, are still based on the colonial regime. That regime did not take into account the need to protect informal indigenous knowledge and traditional practices, particularly in the areas of health, biodiversity conservation, and agriculture. We need to have an inward looking approach to our IP laws and practices, even though IP matters are fast becoming global, as opposed to national, regime. The idea here is to think globally while acting locally.

During the military administrations of Babaginda and Abacha, a group of IP lawyers formed a lobby for the revision of Nigeria’s IP laws based on the work of the Law Reform Commission on the subject. They were frustrated. Five years into a new democratic regime, our legislators, many of whom are lawyers, do not consider IP matters a national priority. How serious could Nigeria be in its drive for FDI when we go about it as an end in itself, instead of a means to an end? We need to articulate our national interests and stakes in the pursuit of FDI. We need the appropriate laws, vision and foresight. Why, for example, are we desperate for FDI in hi-tech agriculture without any policy on GM, and no interest in an IP regime that empowers local knowledge?

Truly, we need FDI, but we must put laws, regulations and policies in place with the right strategies for our national security, survival, and sustainability. The questionable quality of service, outrageous tariffs, the cat and mouse game between the regulatory agency and the new telecom companies exemplify how messy things can be if we continue to put the cart before the horse. Agriculture is too important a sector to toy with, no matter how desperate the government appears to be to catch up with wasted years. America’s strength today does not lie only in its military might, but in its ability to feed itself. This was a lesson the old Soviet Union ignored to its peril. We need a robust national debate on GM at both the National Assembly and in the court of public opinion. Before then, there is a need for public enlightenment on the subject. We must be careful to ensure that the external sponsors of GM technology do not hijack such debate. The more informed the Nigerian people are, they better and stronger the polity. Let’s debate the pros and cons of external interest in our agriculture, a subject critical not only to food security but also one that touches on aspects of our national security.

 

 

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