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cc The Nigerian government's alleged approval for field testing of genetically modified cassava plants by a US-based plant science centre puts Nigeria in danger of trading away its food future to colonialists under the guise of agricultural biotechnology, Friends of the Earth Nigeria/Environmental Rights Action (FoEN) have warned. They and over 30 local civil society groups have called for an immediate end to the trials, to be conducted by the National Root Crops Research Institute with the reported approval of the National Biosafety Committee – a body that currently has no legal power to grant such an approval. In addition to its concerns about the effects on biodiversity and human health of GM crops, FoEN says that Nigerian food security lies in building the capacity of its farmers, not in GM foods.

The alleged approval by the Nigerian Federal Government for the US-based Donald Danforth Plant Science Centre to conduct field-testing of a genetically modified cassava – ‘Super Cassava’ – in Nigeria can be likened to trading away our food future to modern colonialists that hide under the cover of agricultural biotechnology. The tests must be halted immediately, Friends of the Earth Nigeria/Environmental Rights Action, Nigeria and over 30 other civil society groups in Nigeria have said.

ERA/FoEN’s position is premised on the recently reported approval of the National Biosafety Committee (NBC) for the National Root Crops Research Institute (NRCRI) Umudike to go ahead with plans to conduct “contained” field trials of genetically modified (GM) cassava on the banks of the Qua Iboe River, Abia State. The NBC has no power to grant this kind of approval.

Details of the approval were revealed at the annual meeting of the American Society for the Advancement of Science, held in Chicago, USA on 13 February 2009, where it was announced that Nigeria’s NBC had given the Danforth Centre approval to carry out field trials for GM cassava in collaboration with NRCRI.

In its response to the development, ERA/FoEN warned that the back door approach of the biotech industry and its Nigerian allies to introduce GM crops in the country will not only endanger Nigerians, but is also a “breach” of the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety which Nigeria is signatory to, and which seeks among others to protect biological diversity from the potential risks posed by living modified organisms resulting from modern biotechnology.

"Nigeria does not need any ‘Super Cassava’. The genetic modification of cassava to produce Vitamin A is fraught with many dangers to the health of Nigerians who depend on cassava as a staple. Some years back, the biotech industry engineered the so-called golden rice to be rich in Vitamin A, but one would need to eat 9 kilograms of that rice to have as much Vitamin A as one would have from eating just two small carrots. The golden rice was a golden hoax and the super cassava will turn out to be super fraud”, said ERA/FoEN
Executive Director, Nnimmo Bassey in a statement issued in Lagos.

"Nigerians have used different fora to voice outright rejection of GM crops and public opinion is massively against the commercialisation of our stomachs. This cannot be done through the backdoor and we have made it clear that the solution to our food needs is with our local farmers and not with Danforth Centre, Monsanto and their local allies".

“It is very clear now that like the International Institute for Tropical Agriculture (IITA), the NRCRI is unfortunately becoming another front for the same companies in their push for introduction of GM into Nigeria. Why cassava? What happened to the over 40 so-called hybrids of cassava that the IITA allegedly developed, which it said have the capacity to resist diseases and solve our cassava needs?" Bassey queried.

He pointed out that the planned field testing is a well-scripted and systematic attempt by the biotech industry at breaking down Africa’s regulatory resistance to GM crops, even as he added that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation early this year awarded Danforth Centre a US$5.4 million grant to secure approval of African governments to allow field testing of GM crops.

Accordingly, he maintained that the application letter from NRCRI to the ministry of environment, housing and urban development, dated 14 November 2008, saying it would work closely with an unknown Nigerian Biosafety Office is enough evidence that the research institute is not fully informed about the structure of Nigeria’s biosafety regime hence, the need to halt the testing exercise.

Time and again we have said that the solution to Nigeria’s food crisis is in consistency in government policies with regards to involving local farmers in planning and strengthening their skills – not GM crops. It is also pertinent to remind the promoters of this misadventure that Nigeria’s biosafety law is still in draft form and is yet to be deliberated by the National Assembly. Any field-testing of GM crops is nothing short of an illegality, which must not be allowed, Bassey insisted.

Mrs. Juliana Odey, national coordinator of Nigeria Cassava Growers Association, Cross River State, said: “Cassava is our gold. We don¹t want these GM crops because we have enough cassava cuttings to feed this nation. The food problem in Africa is waste, due to lack of storage facilities. Governments should not implement policies that affect farmers without consulting with farmers.”

* Friends of the Earth Nigeria/ Environmental Rights Action is an advocacy non-governmental organisation that deals with environmental human rights issues in Nigeria.
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