Emerging Technologies and the Politics of Hunger, By Nnimmo Bassey

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Nnimmo Bassey

The number of persons in the world that go to bed hungry hovers around 700 million. The hungry equally fall under the same category as the malnourished besides those whose plates may be loaded with unsuitable foods.  COVID-19 is also said to have put about a third of food and farming livelihoods at risk. Interestingly small farmers, herders, and fishers who account for about 70 percent of the global food supply are also among the most vulnerable to food insecurity. There are also estimates that a shocking 3 billion people or more cannot afford a healthy diet in the world today. And such persons are found in all parts of the world.

Hunger is not a neutral phenomenon and can be triggered by a number of factors, including being used as a weapon during wars and as a political tool through hunger strikes. Generally, people are not hungry due to lack of food, but more on account of lack of access to food, poverty and violent conflicts among other factors.

The politics of food and hunger require that we examine why hunger persists in a world where about a third of available foods either go to the waste bin or get spoilt while in storage. The situation where some people are forced to eat foods that are unsuitable, inappropriate and non-aligned to their bests interests or culture needs to the interrogated.

Hunger is a critical matter for policy making because it concerns everyone as everyone needs food for survival and as a right. Hunger can debase a person’s dignity and wilfully starving anyone is a crime, an infringement on their right to life. The spectre of a national or global population bursting the charts can raise fears of hunger and force decisions that overlook food quality but rather focus on quantity. Indeed, talks of food security sometimes appear to be a call for anything that can fill the belly in the name of food. Hunger is a powerful tool often used to subvert arguments for ecological agriculture and support of majority farmers – the small holder farmers. The fear of a projected galloping human population has literally become the vehicle for speculating on foods and for promoting technologies and practices that would otherwise be treated with a healthy dose of scepticism.

The politics of food shortages have been shown by some analysts to be a system where food supplies are underestimated while future demand is overestimated – all based on doubtful assumptions. While projecting rapid and continuous population growth, policy makers ignore the fact that improved socio-economic conditions would naturally place brakes on such exponential growth. It can be argued that such projections are reflections of the fact that policy makers have no intention of building pro-people policies that cater for the optimal wellbeing of the people.

It is intriguing that policy makers reject small holder farming despite research outputs showing that the best chance for the world to meet her food needs is not to be found in industrial scale, chemical-intensive agriculture, but in non-polluting agroecological production that cools the planet, does not pollute the environment and revitalizes rural communities. The fact that small holder farming feeds the world was validated by the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development’s (IAASTD) Agriculture at a Crossroads.

Emerging Technologies

Technologies and technofixes receive instant attention in today’s world. This happens in many sectors including that of agriculture and food. Wearing the cloak of being hunger killers, genetically modified organisms (GMOs), gene edited organisms, synthetic biology and intensive use of pesticides are all presented as the solution to hunger in the world. For over two decades GMOs have been touted as providing super yields and being capable of fighting off pests as they act as pesticides without creating a dent on the hunger figures. Meanwhile the system rigidly neglects those feeding the world through farming in cooperation with Nature.

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With the rise of artificial intelligence, big data and rapid technological innovations, the agricultural sector is seeing a rising population of digital networks and data merchants. The argument for the technological pathway echoes what was said of GMOs: to increase yields, slash harvest times, and ultimately reduce costs and environmental impact. This goes beyond genetic manipulation and aims at automated agriculture that would require little assistance from humans. The lure of the promise of precision agriculture where machines would take the supposed drudgery out of farming can be quite attractive to those who don’t see the wider picture of agriculture and foods.

In automated agriculture, systems are being developed that have ability to “monitor, feed, and harvest crops from seed through to sale. Automation combines the use of a wide array of sensors, computers, feeding mechanisms, and everybody’s favorite, robots. Complete automation is a nearly self-sustaining system that can handle all day-to-day activities on the farm. It all but removes the need for human staffing, which can be good or bad depending on how you look at it. One of the core resources of automation is a vast network of sensors.”

With the ravages of COVID-19 and climate change, technofixes have become indeed so attractive that they have become highly fetishized and irresistible. We are made to believe that resilience and adaptation to the dawning future requires wholesale acceptance of crops generated in laboratories and farms run by artificial intelligence besides appetites and choices molded as we click on social media buttons. At this point we should pay attention to the points made by the ETC Group: Putting food security at the mercy of digital networks and potential data glitches worries governments and food movements alike. So does the plight of farmers (who are forced off the land into ‘smart cities’ and e-commerce villages, or reduced to digital out growers).

Some of the emerging tools, technologies and systems include the following:

Gene-editing, a new technique for altering the genetic make of plants, animals and humans. It is said to be a precise science, but results have been seen already showing that there are unintended outcomes. There are serious ethical concerns about its application, and these must be considered along with the pure scientific exercises.

Synthetic biology has been defined in many different ways. According to the CBD, “the key features of synthetic biology include the “de novo” synthesis of genetic material and an engineering-based approach to develop components, organisms and products. Synthetic biology builds on modern biotechnology methodologies and techniques such as high throughput DNA technologies and bioinformatics.”  It could also involve the redesigning of organisms for desired purposes or to have new abilities it would not have in nature. Synthetic biology has applications in agriculture, medicine and manufacturing.

Nanotechnology involves the manipulation or building of structures at nano or very tiny scale.

Robots like drones which are used to autonomously plant seeds, tend the crops and harvest them. Satellite imaging, weather tracking and possibly geoengineering can come into play.

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3D Food Printing – There are ongoing research on 3D printing of foods so that you can have the food you need with a combination of specifications at the press of a button. These would offer digitalised nutrition and customised food designs.

An History and a Future

From the signing of the National Biosafety Management Agency Act in 2015, things have taken a predictable downward spiral in Nigeria. Indeed, the dangerous slide probably began with the establishment of the National Biotechnology Development Agency (NABDA) in November 2001 on the strength of a National Biotechnology Policy adopted in April 2001.  Setting up an institution such as NABDA without a regulatory agency in place meant that Nigeria was a playing field for promoters of modern agricultural biotechnology without any oversight over the processes. Probably recognizing that they could not openly pursue their mandate, the agency became a major driver concerning what sort of regulatory agency should be put in place. And when NBMA was finally birthed, NABDA, the topmost official promoter of the technology assured itself a seat on the board of the regulatory agency. It can be said that NBMA is a baby of NADBA. As expected, this agency teamed up with an infamous company to obtain the early approvals for the official entry of GMOs into Nigeria.

Whereas the mandate of NABDA is the “promotion, coordination, and deployment of cutting-edge biotechnology research & development, processes, and products for the socio-economic well-being of the nation.” Its vision shoots first at “food security” before mentioning “job/wealth creation, affordable healthcare delivery, and sustainable environment.” The major campaigns and advocacy of these twin agencies have been on modern agricultural biotechnology or promotion of GMOs which they loudly proclaim as safe as though they were professing a religious doctrine and not a science prevalent with uncertainties and guided by precaution.

The point we are making is that NBMA was principally set up to legitimize the aspirations of NADBA. The maiden State of Biosafety in Nigeria report issued by Health of Mother Earth Foundation shows how key principles of biosafety, including the Precautionary Principle, have been downplayed. It also shows how public consultation and opinion received scant attention in this crucial sector. HOMEF’s market shelves surveys conducted annually since 2018 show that there are several products with genetically engineered ingredients in our markets for which there are no approvals from the regulatory agency. We also note that there is no clear sync between agencies regulating foods that get to our market shelves and to dining tables.

Recall that Nigeria was once a frontline state for the liberation of Africa from vestiges of colonialism. The nation has now become the soft entry point of risky technologies, agrochemicals and manifestations of agricultural neocolonialism into the continent. The Bt. cotton variety that failed in Burkina Faso is the same variety approved for cultivation in Nigeria indicating how much thought and rigour goes into the process here.

Dangers Ahead

The modern agricultural biotechnologies we are discussing are mostly the basic varieties involving the transfer of genetic materials from one specie to another to accord certain traits such as to be herbicide tolerance or being pesticidal. Emerging food technologies such as gene editing do not require cross species manipulations but can edit genes in a particular species with the aim of forcing certain traits or even triggering extinction.  Gene editing can readily be weaponized and should be a concern for our national biosecurity.

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It is mindboggling for Nigeria to expand the scope of her biosafety regulation to cover gene editing and synthetic biology when the handling of the elementary versions has generated serious doubts and worries. The NBMA Act 2015 was amended in March 2019 to open the way for gene editing and synthetic biology applications by inserting their definitions in the Act. This was followed by Gene Editing Guidelines prepared and adopted by NBMA. The guidelines offer a peculiar process that allows some gene edited products to be approved without going through the rules governing the approval of GMOs if the agency reckons that the product does not contain any recombinant DNA. Meanwhile the Act, as amended, declares that no one would engage in gene editing without the approval of the regulatory agency. We note that the determination that the product has no recombinant DNA will be made by NBMA who would then allow gene editing to proceed unregulated and unhindered. More troubling is the fact that such approvals can be given within 21 days of the application being submitted to the NBMA. This approach of the NBMA if allowed to stand will completely expose Nigeria to grave risk.

Time to Retrace Steps

It is not too late for Nigeria to get out of the biotech hole before it turns into a bottomless pit. The so-called guidelines for gene-editing and extreme GMOs are dangerous and needless – just as the permission of GMOs has always been in Nigeria. We are at a time in this nation when simple mechanical equipment are not maintained; where refineries refine zero barrel of crude oil while guzzling humongous amounts of money; where for a nation of so many millions we barely manage to generate 4000 megawatts of electricity. We are in a nation where research and educational institutions are crying for basic equipment and receive scant attention. We are unfortunately in a nation wracked by corruption and insecurity. The flagship biotech laboratory in the country is in a temporary cabin. We do not need to add risky technologies that clearly pose a security threat to our peoples and environment.

As we have said elsewhere, the purpose of introducing the so-called definitions into the Biosafety Act was to create a crack in the door so as to open Nigeria to vested interest promoting the easy-to-weaponize and extinction-driving gene editing technology. NBMA has again shown itself to be determined to lead Nigeria and Nigerians on a path of no-return. This agency should be called to order. At no time should Nigerians be used as guinea pigs or laboratory rats.[2]

Who is feeding the world? Who is feeding Nigerians? Who will feed us into the future? It is time for us to recognize the facts of our best interests and support agroecology, small holder farmers and provide their basic needs including infrastructure, storage/processing facilities and extension services. It is time to halt and completely overhaul the biosafety architecture in Nigeria and invest resources towards ensuring that our farmers get out of poverty and hunger and do what they have always done and struggle to continue to do.

  • NB: Nnimmo Bassey is the director of the ecological think tank Health of Mother Earth Foundation (HOMEF) and a member of the steering committee of Oilwatch International. He was chair of Friends of the Earth International (2008-2012) and executive director of Nigeria’s Environmental Rights Action (1993-2013). 

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