Issues in using technology to halt the spread of hunger




With the problem of hunger exacerbating in most developing countries of the world and the clamour by international organisations for introduction of technology to counter the menace and malnutrition, JOHN OBA, reports on how technology can rescue the situation.

Hunger

The problem of hunger is a serious issue that has got the world leader’s attention as UN statistic revealed that millions across the world are on the verge of chronic hunger. The 2020 edition of the Global Report on Food Crises for instance delves on the scale of acute hunger in the world as it provides an analysis of the drivers that are contributing to food crises across the globe, and examines how the COVID-19 pandemic might contribute to their perpetuation or deterioration. 

The global level of hunger and malnutrition is at a moderate level according to the global hunger report. Though it has fallen from a GHI score of 29.0 points in 2000 to 18.2 points in 2020, yet hunger persists in many countries, and in some instances, progress is even being reversed.

The 2020 GHI shows that multiple countries have higher hunger levels now than in 2012, and approximately 37 countries are set to fail to achieve low levels of hunger by 2030.

According to the 2020 Global Hunger Index report, Nigeria for instance was ranked 98th out of the 107 countries with sufficient data to calculate 2020 GHI scores. With a score of 29.2, Nigeria is said to have a level of hunger that is serious.

Technology in fight against hunger

As world leaders continue to find lasting solutions to the scourge of hunger and malnutrition, scientists and proponents of food technology over the years have not relented in their projection of Genetically Modified Foods as the solution.

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. 

But according to an expert and director, Health of Mother Earth Foundation (HOMEF), Dr. Nnimmo Bassey during a stakeholders’ conference which examine Nigeria food system, biosafety and emerging technologies with a view to defining the system that works and a launch two important reports on the State of Biosafety in Nigeria and Market-Shelf Survey for GMOs respectively in Abuja recently, said 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. 

He said 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.”  

He further explained that 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 outgrowers).  

“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.
 
GMO in Nigeria 

Though the director General, National Biosafety Management Agency (NBMA) Dr. Rufus Ebegba refuted the notion that there are GMO foods in Nigeria markets, saying NBMA will not do anything to hurt Nigerians as it take about 13years for a GMO crops to be ready for markets saying it is falicious to assert that there are GMO foods in Nigeria. HOMEF however revealed that it report shows that there are nothing less than 30 varieties of GMO crops/seeds in Nigeria markets.

Also, as of November 2020, according to information available on the Biosafety Clearing House, NBMA has issued nineteen permits for introduction of GMOs into the country eight (8) for field trials, nine (9) for direct use as food and/or feed processing and two (2) for commercial release. GM Cowpea (beans) and GM Cotton were approved for market placement in 2019. 

Nnimmo lamented the lack of professionalism on the part of the Agency, saying after scientific assessment and critical review of applications for permit, objections have been sent to the NBMA by concerned citizens but these objections have continuously disregarded.

He said contrary to the assurance by the Agency that there are no GMOs in Nigeria, market shelf survey carried out by HOMEF between 2018 and 2020 have revealed the presence of over 30 different products containing genetically modified ingredients and/or produced with genetic engineering. 

“The question of who is checking the importation of these processed foods with genetically modified ingredients is left unanswered. The result of the survey strengthens the assertion that labelling of GMOs in Nigeria will not protect our people from the impacts of GMOs as many of our people do not read labels and more so, some of the inscriptions are so tiny that they can easily be missed. Generally, labelling is nearly impossible to effect in Nigeria because of our socio-economic system and the manner in which food is sold and consumed,” he explained.

He however recommended that there should be synergy and synchrony in biosafety responsibilities among and between the various ministries, departments and agencies (MDAs) for effective regulation in Nigeria.

Hunger as weapon of war

HOMEF study on hunger revealed that 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.

He said the politics of food and hunger require that why hunger persist should be examined in a world where about a third of available foods either go to the waste bin or get spoilt while in storage.

He explained that 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.   

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