By Bámidélé Adémólá-Olátéjú
The deal Buhari signed with the United States has implications for Nigeria’s food security, health and economic wellbeing. With trade war brewing between China and America, Trump is looking at Nigeria as a trade anchor in West Africa. While Trump is seeking to Make America Great Again by helping farmers, Buhari is seeking to make Nigerians poorer, fatter and less food secure. In actual sense, it is a deal for and on behalf of Dangote, who is poised to become richer, stronger and more powerful.
The food insecurity part of this deal is an article in itself. Why our leaders are notoriously shortsighted begs the question. What is the fate of a country that cannot feed itself? How does a country survive when its existence is in the hands of another? All over Nigeria, farmers are scared of cultivating their land because of insecurity. Food is expensive! Instead of tackling the root causes, we are now going to be importing Genetically Modified Food, hormone-, antibiotic- and steroid-laden meat, dairy and poultry products. In a few weeks, tonnes of grains, poultry, beef, fruits and vegetables from American farmers will flood our markets, crashing food prices across the country. What will be the fate of our struggling farmers whose products will not be able to compete in terms of price and appearance? It is shameful that this singular decision will defeat the Buhari government’s hyped agriculture and product diversification programme, which is even at best, a ruse.
There are outright bans or restrictions on the production and sale of Genetically Modified (GM) food in the European Union and nearly 50 countries of the world. The European Union, has refused to allow frankenfood, commonly referred to as Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs), into their food supply systems. Welcome to the world of huge, blemish free, perfectly waxed fruits and vegetables, in comparison to the discoloured, pest-ravaged runts sold in Nigeria. For those who do not know, American food is engineered and grown to offer beautiful, tasteless products with long shelf lives, which are sparse in nutrition and flavour but big in size. It is very much unlike our locally grown food. It is energy rich but nutrient poor. This distinction is one of the reasons why Europeans are more fit and less fat than Americans.
How did America, with all its technological know-how, get stuck in this predicament? Well, America is a victim of its own success. A strong relationship exists between the nutrient levels of the soil a plant is grown in and the nutrient value of the food that comes out of the plant. Post-industrial agricultural methods used in the United States strip enormous nutrients from the soil. America is vast! The distances covered by food as it travels from farm to the grocery stores are much more than what obtains in Europe. Americans think nothing of buying Florida oranges in Michigan and grapes from California on breakfast tables in Minnesota. In addition, for everything there is a time and season. Nature has seasons. Most Americans seem to have forgotten that. They want every food to be in season all year round. The demand for year round availability of produce has its price. When it is off-season, there is the expectation that fruits and vegetables has to be imported from the southern hemisphere.
In 2004, the Journal of the American College of Nutrition, in a landmark study, compared the nutritional content of 43 different fruits and vegetables in 1950 and 1999. The results showed that the amount of protein and essential minerals, like iron, phosphorus, calcium, vitamin C and vitamin B2, have declined tremendously in these produces over the period. The researchers attributed the decline in nutritional content to breeding practices designed to improve plant size, growth rate and pest resistance, rather than nutrition.
Food is political. It is sad that we will now be forced to embrace what Americans are starting to leave behind. Americans are buying more organic produce and products after seeing that what they have, is making them more fat and putting their health at risk. In America in the last few years, we have been noticing the shift towards “organic” or “sustainably grown” food. For instance, two summers ago, yogurt labeled as produced with milk from grass fed cows hit the store shelves. People are gravitating towards food that is naturally grown. They are tired of rubbery fruits without bruises nor the slightest sign of pest infestation. While some of us were happy that the shift to organic can make inroads for African farmers seeking dollars from affluent taste buds in the West, President Buhari has proved us wrong!
Before you think, these are worries of contentment. What does GMOs mean to your body and the planet? What does “organic” mean today? By definition, organic meat, poultry, eggs and dairy products must come from animals that have not been given antibiotics or growth hormones. Organic plant foods: fruits, vegetables, legumes and grains must be grown without using conventional pesticides, fertilisers made with synthetic ingredients or ionising radiation. For me, the two reasons why I eat organic food is to limit my exposure to pesticides, herbicides, antibiotics and hormones and out of concern for the environment. Organic products cost 40 to 120 percent more, in comparison to their conventional counterparts due to smaller production scales and higher labour costs. If you reside in Nigeria, you are probably eating mostly organic produce until you stray towards imported apples, pears and lately bananas being hawked in traffic or sold in kiosks in your neighbourhood. If you eat frozen chicken, like “orobo”, turkey and gizzard, you are on your own. Apart from antibiotics and hormones, these imported poultry have stratospheric amounts of preservatives to keep them fresh before they reach the consumers. Now that government has enabled the invasion of frankenfood, you can vote with your pocket and decide what to buy and eat.
Whatever your decision, be informed about the long-term consequences of consuming food grown and preserved by agricultural pesticides and industrial chemicals. These chemicals cannot be seen, smelled, or tasted. Nigeria does not have the competence, the wherewithal and even the political or economic will, to monitor the amount of these chemicals in your food or how it affects the food chain. Pesticide levels are not disclosed on food labels. Worse, Nigeria does not have the resources to counter the fall out from escalating obesity and health risks that these foods can bring. I urge you to stick with our open pollinated foods. Eat only organic, biodynamic foods. What we need is not poison. We want large scale food production that is sustainable, local, and organic; kinder to farm animals; and fair and just to farmers. What we need is not blind importation of harmful foods, but a food system that is healthier for people and the planet. The risk-to-reward ratio of GMO foods is not worth it. It leans heavily on the risk side. When the journey to GMO foods started, the argument was that pIants would be engineered to be more nutritionally dense. Unfortunately, it hasn’t happened that way. In Canada, De Dell Seed Company, in a study, found many nutritional deficiencies in GMO corn, in contrast to opportunity pollinated corn. Compared to open pollinated corn, GMO corn contained 56 times less magnesium, seven times less manganese and 437 times less calcium. Frighteningly, GMO corn was found to contain 13 parts per million of glyphosate. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) considers anything over 0.7 ppm as “unsafe”. Open pollinated corn contains no glyphosate. Did I hear you murmur say na something go kill person. Na true you talk but some death dey pain pass.
Bámidélé Adémólá-Olátéjú a farmer, youth advocate and political analyst writes this weekly column, “Bamidele Upfront” for PREMIUM TIMES. Follow me on Twitter @olufunmilayo