Nigeria’s Latest Food Sovereignty Struggle: The World is Watching

Lauren Tate Baeza | 08.10.2016

The biotechnology brigade has underestimated the power of the people.

More than just a “vocal minority,” global GMO resistance movements are securing wins. They’re introducing social protections such as tariffs, labor laws, and international agreements – all of which help give states the agency to be diligent and discerning in their dealings with the biotech industry.

The battle for food sovereignty is peppered with victories for the opposition. While polarizing discourses are common, social and biophysical scientists have strengthened the claims of GMO resistance movements by revealing that GMOs aren’t reducing hunger or poverty, despite industry claims. As supporters of the movement for food sovereignty, it’s helpful to remember that people are organizing (and winning!) around the globe, the impacts of which are far-reaching

Indeed, the anti-GMO movement has successfully managed to limit the GMO economy despite neoliberal hegemony – which is quite the feat.

Deregulation and globalization of the agricultural economy is risky for nations with developing economies. As a result, many nations have called for binding protocols that protect their sovereignty – including provisions that account for perceived risks to public health, biosafety, rural economies, and peasant communities. The West African nation of Nigeria is no exception to this trend of heightened regulation – especially in the Global South. However, the nation approved its first GM commercial crops in May. In response, the nation has been rocked by anti-GMO food sovereignty movements throughout the summer.

On May 1, 2016, the Nigerian government — specifically the National Biosafety Management Agency (NBMA) – granted Monsanto two permits allowing the introduction of GM crops – one permit for Bt Cotton and another permit for two types of GM maize.

Resistance movements coordinated by local food sovereignty activists such as Gbadebo Rhodes-Vivour and Nnimmo Bassey mobilized immediately – and it’s caught the attention of organizations locally and internationally. Three organizations spearheading the countermovement in Nigeria include Health of Mother Earth Foundation, Nigerians Against GMOs, and Friends of the Earth International. Though the anti-GM movement in Nigeria is broad-based, this summer’s round of action has focused on two aspects of the recent approvals: (1) health concerns related to glyphosate, the major component in Roundup weed-killer which the maize crops are genetically modified to withstand, and (2) nepotism among Nigeria’s biosafety regulatory committee members and Monsanto employees. This powerhouse of movement members penned a series of articles and open letters in opposition, leading to mounting public outcry against the NBMA.

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Monsanto, coming to the defense of the NBMA, responded in an email sent exclusively to Premium Times, a popular Nigerian online news source which published many articles authored by anti-GMO movement leaders in recent months. The article, Nigeria deploys genetically modified cotton, maize despite safety concerns, published on June 8, was especially scathing and may have been the final catalyst for their response.

In their June 11 email, Monsanto representatives defended the safety of glyphosate, citing approval by the United States’ Food & Drug Administration (FDA) as evidence. The resistance movement once again responded in print on June 13, arguing that the United States FDA relies on studies produced by biotech industry scientists and engineers – a glaring conflict of interest. The letter points to external studies by the International Agency for Research on Cancer that attribute genotoxicity and oxidative stress to glyphosate, as well as research indicating DNA damage and increased risk of developing Non-Hodgkin lymphoma among exposed humans.

The Abuja Declaration on the Release of Genetically Modified Organisms in Nigeria responds to the approval of commercial GMOs in Nigeria. The Declaration was ratified by 100 associations, amounting to an impressive coalition of various nonprofit and civil society organizations, agencies, and religious groups.

These organizations gathered May 23-25 at the Reiz Continental Hotel in Abuja for a conference, Just Governance: The Nigerian Biosafety Law, GMOs, and the Implications for Nigeria and Africa. Attendees came together to discuss alternatives to GMOs, highlighting organic agriculture and agroecology. Panelists attributed hunger to poor distribution and infrastructure as opposed to the assumed inefficiency of African soils and traditional seeds. On the contrary, the potential for Nigerian food sovereignty was discussed at length, as speakers pointed to arable tracts of land along the Nigerian countryside.

The Nigerian movement continues to fight NBMA permitting of GM crops and the ways they were approved. The resistance points out that Monsanto’s Nigeria application was open for public review for only one month, inadequate time to receive proper feedback. Further, the NBMA approved Monsanto’s application on a Sunday, which is not an official day of operation. Adding insult to injury, the day the permits were approved, May 1, is also Worker’s Day, a Nigerian public holiday in which federal offices are closed. These actions are interpreted as an attempt to quietly push GM crops into the country without due process.

The resistance movement charges Monsanto with “avoiding liability while exploiting the agencies that ought to regulate them.” Responding to Monsanto, the organizers cite corruption, pointing out that the National Biotechnology Development Agency and the Biotechnology Society of Nigeria, organizations that promote GM technologies, have members sitting on the NBMA governing board. Especially damning is the fact that one board member, unnamed by the Nigerian anti-GMO movement, is actually listed as a co-sponsor on the application for GM maize. As a result, the resistance has asked that all permits be rescinded.

The groups have also called for a federal investigation on NBMA committee conduct and its dealings with Monsanto. They ultimately challenge the legitimacy of the NBMA altogether, as its members are appointed. The responsibility of the NBMA, which grants members power over the national food system, is viewed as a position too powerful to be given without voter consent. Further, questions have been raised regarding the agency’s creation just two years before Monsanto submitted its formal requests.

The anti-GMO movement in Nigeria, as elsewhere, has been galvanized by publications and other means of disseminating information. While pro-GMO marketing suggests a silver bullet solution, this is easily defeated by the powerful voices of those impacted by GMOs.

To Nigeria, your battle for food sovereignty has rallied many. Your allies are listening. The world is watching.

Photo by Landbruks- og matdepartementet / CC BY