Proponents of biotechnology recently recorded an important milestone after various speakers from government, research institutions, international agencies and the academia gave the controversial Biosafety Bill pass mark at a public hearing by the Senate Joint Committee on Agriculture & Rural Development, and Science & Technology. In this piece, ETTA MICHAEL BISONG examines their views, with focus on highlighting the benefits of biotechnology to the socio-economic development of Nigeria.
Biotechnology applies biological agents on human, animal, plant and soil materials for health or agricultural reasons towards achieving positive results. However, the application of biotechnology can also have negative effects leading to contaminations, infections, complications, diseases and death.
But majority of the participants at the public hearing would rather focus on the technology’s numerous advantages, as they identified and supported the process of enactment into law of the National Biosafety Management Agency Bill, 2014.
One expert whose voice has being very vocal on this issue is, DrOlalekanAkinbo, a geneticists and breeder, who also is the Country Coordinator for the AU-NEPAD African Biosafety Network of Expertise. Dr. Akinbo believes that the Nigerian government need to fast-track the Biosafety Bill which will address some of the obstacles bedevilling the successful adoption of biotechnology into the country.
When asked about the risks of introducing GMOs in Nigeria, Akinbo said, ‘’I want you to understand that because this technology is new and highly regulated, a lot of information are available which are science-based for the proof of the safety of the technology and the crop(s). When you are talking about safety, because of how the technology came and is coming from transgene, a source that is different from what is known and the regulation have been put in place that make sure that biodiversity is not affected. That is why the Cartagena Protocol brought in leverage for this technology in which Nigeria is a signatory party.’’
Dr. Akinbo also added that considering that Nigeria is a signatory to the Cartagena Protocol, which regulates transgenic organisms, the country need biosafety law that will work within the CP framework and robustly regulate biotechnology application in Nigeria, if not there will be no law to empower any of such regulators to do their job in Nigeria, as ‘’where there is no law there is no sin.’’
Also, Prof Lucy Ogbadu, Director-General/CEO of the National Biotechnology Development Agency (NABDA), submitted that, besides increase in food supply with less farmland requirement, biotechnology would bring about wealth creation and industrial growth, ensure the discovery and delivery of new medicines and vaccines diagnosis in diseases, as well as finding relevance in the clean-up of oil spills, prevention of deforestation and provision of eco-friendly materials.
According to Prof Ogbadu, who is also Chair, Nigeria chapter of the Open Forum on Agricultural Biotechnology (OFAB), the bill seeks to minimise risks to human health, regulate the importation of genetically-modified (GM) products, guard against any socio-economic consequences, offer protection against any adverse effect of genetically-modified organisms (GMOs) on the environment, and reaffirm Nigeria’s commitment to the principles of international agreements and treaties on biosafety.
“The absence of a Biosafety Law has greatly hampered research and development in modern biotechnology in Nigeria; a biosafety law will therefore enable our research institutes to carry out their statutory functions,” she stated, adding that South Africa (1989), Egypt (1995), Kenya (2009) and Burkina Faso (2008) are among African countries that already have such a law in place.
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Prof Garba Sharubutu, President of the Veterinary Council of Nigeria (VCN), describes the bill as “important”, saying that it aims to protect human and environmental health.
“It is the view of the Council that if the bill is signed into law, issues that border on research and development can be standardised,” he declared, raising concerns on parts of the bill such as Part I Section 2b, Part II Section 3a and Part III (Structure of the Agency).
Prof MalachyAkoroda, Executive Director, Cocoa Research Institute of Nigeria (CRIN), noted that the establishment of a National Biosafety Management Agency would act as a clearing house similar to what NAFDAC is doing for food and medicines.