Nenwe is among the five towns that make up Aninri Local Government Area of Enugu State. With a population of about 10,000 inhabitants, the majority of its residents are subsistent farmers.
The cash crops it is known for are okra, cassava and rice.
Lovelyn Ejim, an indigene, said farmers in the community have been using Roundup – the world’s most widely used herbicide whose active ingredient, glyphosate is contentious – for weed control for more than a decade until early this year when tragedy struck.
The mother-of-three, who cultivates about two hectares of farmland in Nenwe with her family, explained how the use of the herbicides resulted in the stunted growth of okra.
She was among the 100 delegates at the conference on Seeds, Food and Biosafety organised by the Health of Mother Earth Foundation (HOMEF) on Thursday in Abuja.
“Okra is one of our major cash crops that generate a lot of money. We plant it in the first rain (February) but it’s too unfortunate this period. The first rain came, we planted but it did not germinate,” the farmer told PREMIUM TIMES at the event.
“The few that germinated did not grow up to two inches and it started flowering which makes its yield meaningless. We then realised if care is not taken, there will be serious scarcity of okra and vegetables generally so we called in an expert…”
Okra is a vegetable crop which originated from West Africa. Okra green seed pods can be consumed as vegetables or added to soup, stews and salads either fresh, dried, boiled or fried. Okra thrives well in fertile, well-drained soil, preferably loamy.
Mrs Ejim said analyses from experts revealed that the soil has been made toxic due to the continuous use of the herbicides.
“Expert analysis revealed that the Roundup and Touchdown herbicides we use for weed control contains high percentages of glyphosate which when used over a period in a particular soil creates adverse impact.
“It also found that this year’s rain did not come early and as a result, has generated heat under the earth meaning that instead of the soil being a cooling place, it becomes a boiling point for anything inside it.
“The long and short of this is that we will not have Okra harvest in the entire community this season because all the farms are affected and we can neither recall the seed already planted or replant because this is April. We have lost it…”
Roundup is the brand name for the herbicide, glyphosate, originally produced by Monsanto, a global agro-giant acquired by German company Bayer for about $63 billion last June.
Glyphosate prevents plants, including weeds from being able to make the proteins they need to survive. Since virtually all plants make these essential proteins the same way, glyphosate affects nearly all plants and that is why it’s deemed a “broad-spectrum” herbicide.
While Roundup is a great weed killer, its broad-spectrum effects make it a decent crop killer which may be the case of the Okra in Nenwe.
To tackle this challenge, in 1996, Monsanto introduced the Roundup Ready soybean, a genetically engineered crop resistant to glyphosate. Few years after, Roundup Ready cotton, maize, and various other crops also made their debut.
Millions of farmers in Nigeria just like those in Nenwe make use of Roundup and other agrochemicals for weed control without knowing its effects on crops that are not glyphosate resistant.
Moreso, they do not make use of protective measures – something experts said will create health complications due to long time exposures.
Last year, global calls for the ban of the glyphosate was rekindled after a landmark US court ruling in San Francisco awarded $289 million to a man they declared got cancer from Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide.
The victim, Dewayne Johnson, 46, currently dying of cancer was exposed to the weed killer while applying it about 30 times annually when working as a groundskeeper for a school in San Francisco, USA.
The ruling heightened the already global concerns over the safety of the product.
The World Health Organisation’s International Agency for Research on Cancer concluded in 2015 that glyphosate was a probable cause of cancer in humans.
California’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment also concluded it is known to cause cancer.
But the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) said it is not likely to cause cancer in humans, as has the UN’s pesticide review group and the European Food Safety Authority.
While the debate over the use of glyphosate continued globally, Thursday’s conference comprising farmers, academics, researchers, government officials, among others decried the poor level of awareness of agro-chemicals and genetically modified crops (GMOs) in Nigeria.
Casmir Ifeanyi, a microbiologist, said “these crops slip into our food chain and become very circulatory in the country.
“If exposure to glyphosate, the major ingredient in Roundup weed killers can be harmful to the soil, plants and even humans, why should we not be worried about the side-effect of the GMO crops created to resist the adverse effect of these chemicals?”
Nicholas Chibueze, chairman of the Nigerian Cassava Farmers Association, FCT Chapter, said awareness on GMOs is yet to circulate widely.
“If Nigerians have basic knowledge on GMOs, they will now make informed decisions.
“Even if you chose GMO, you know what you are choosing but when the information is not wide, it seems as if these things are forced down on us. Some of my colleagues, up till today, still ask what is GMO when its mentioned.”
Apart from using Roundup, Mrs Ejim also explained how the use of GM seeds might contribute to the soil toxicity observed in their farms.
“If you go to the seed market, you will see the GM maize seeds. They will say when you plant it, one strand of the maize crop will give you four cups but in the end, you will only get two.
“Me, as a person, I don’t like planting maize so I stopped. The bottom line is that the chain reaction of planting some of these GM crops manifested in our okra. We don’t even know they are GMOs. They will tell you its improved seeds.
“For me, I will say that we should not lose focus on our indigenous plants no matter what we want to bring in.”
According to Nnimo Bassey, the director of HOMEF, the conference was necessitated by “confusion on the kind of seeds given and shared by Nigerian farmers”.
“The seed in circulation does not tend to respond in a way the farmers understand so we thought it was necessary we discuss the issue of seeds and the impending joining of the UPOV (Union for the Protection of New Plant Varieties) by the Nigerian government.
“There is a move to get Nigeria to join the UPOV, a body of laws protecting rights to seeds’, formed in 1991 to which we are (were) never part of the negotiation from day one.
“Also, there are more concerns about biosafety issues. There is a lot of information being pushed out to the public that all is well with biosafety and we felt that things are actually worse than they have ever been. We felt that this is the time to share information, knowledge and ideas on how to defend our soil, seeds and foods and biosafety,” he said.