Karla Lant

Freelance Writer, Editor and Professor

The Socioeconomic Politics of GM Foods

GM FoodsIn other words, you have to be able to afford alternatives to oppose them.

AllAfrica reported today that Nigeria can’t afford NOT to support biotechnology in agriculture.

As I learned in 2012 working on the forthcoming Encyclopedia of Emerging Markets, Nigeria is the most populous country in Africa and home to almost 160 million people, focused mostly in the Niger Delta. The Nigerian petroleum industry is the country’s primary source of GDP. The rocky history of economic and political conflict involving various corrupt, authoritarian national regimes and foreign multinational corporations and the centrality of petroleum in Nigeria make it an especially tough place for human rights.

There is more to the human rights arena than government abuse, however, and the biggest day to day problem in the lives of the most Nigerians is food insecurity. Food security just means that all people always have access to enough quality food to live healthily.

Africa is home to 900 million people, and more than one third of them lived on less than US$1 a day in 2012. Around 35% of Africans are malnourished — about 200 million. Millions die from hunger each year. The problem is particularly acute in the densely populated Niger Delta. By 2050 Nigeria as a whole is projected to have 400 million people so it’s not surprising that Nigeria would be the focus of some policymaking attention in this area.

The AllAfrica report highlights the central conflict concerning biotechnology in Nigerian agriculture. Proponents of biotechnology insist that it is the only way to increase crop yield enough to meet the nutritional needs of the country. Opponents argue that traditional farming is not to blame; instead, the political system has failed to support traditional agriculture and biotechnology will harm the environment.

Local experts have said that GM foods would help develop new crops and fight insects, leading to higher outputs. Most of them seem to agree with Dr. Abba Y. Abdullah, an Agricultural and Natural Resources Consultant, who said: “Without technological inputs and biotechnology, there is no way we can achieve food security in West Africa.”

Goodluck Jonathan, the President of Nigeria and head of state with the coolest name in the world today, has yet to approve the Nigerian bill on biosafety that was passed by the National Assembly. If he does, Nigeria along with other African nations facing epic malnutrition and poverty including South Africa, Egypt and Burkina Faso will all be cultivating GM crops.

There is no doubt that there are many benefits to GM foods. GN technology can reduce the time between crops, improve the disease-resistance of both crops and animals, reduce the need for pesticides and ultimately produce more food. However, there are serious concerns with the technology, some of which are not out of an Oliver Stone movie.

The Human Genome Project reports on these concerns. Most of the long-term effects of this technology are unknown. It could impact human health by transferring antibiotic resistance markers, creating allergens, or in unknown ways. The environmental impact of the technology can’t really be predicted well. Obviously anything that impacts one part of an ecosystem ultimately impacts the whole thing, and there’s no telling how especially tiny organisms like soil microbes will be affected. One thing that is clearly foreseeable is the potential for diminishing biodiversity.

Just as concerning, at least to me, is that should GM technology become indispensable to world food production developing countries will not be likely to come out on top. Food production will inevitably be dominated by a small number of private companies from First World nations, increasing the cycle of reliance.
I love being an American, but I wouldn’t want to be at our mercy, frankly, nor would I want to be at the complete mercy of any one nation outside my own. At a minimum that seems dangerously uncertain. And what are the odds that advancement will really be fueled by the needs of developing countries?
Still, there’s little doubt that it’s far easier for me to worry about GM foods than it is for someone who’s watching their children slowly starve to death. I can help put up a fight for labeling of GM food in the U.S. after I cook dinner. Who will do that in Nigeria?

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This entry was posted on January 21, 2013 by .
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