On the 16th of October, the upper arm of the National Assembly through its joint committees on Agriculture and Rural Development and Science and Technology will engage stakeholders through a public hearing on the Biosafety Management Agency Bill, currently before it. The same bill had previously been passed by the 6th National Assembly, NASS, in 2011 but was not assented to by the president because of the fact that it was passed a day before the 6th Assembly Tenure ended.
The Bill is targeted at providing a legislative framework in the guise of a law to regulate the application of biotechnology. The bill, which is seen as a safety valve, stipulates procedure for application of the technology, risk assessment before adoption and use of genetically modified organisms and penalties for contravening the law.
The bill amongst other things seeks to provide derived benefits from modern biotechnology under a legal framework for economic growth, improved agriculture, job and wealth creation, industry growth and sustainable environment.
Minimise risks to human health, confirm and harness potentials of modern biotechnology, protect and guard against any adverse effect of GMOs on biological diversity and the environment and guard against any economic consequences among others.
Prior to the debate on the bill, Nigeria had in the year 2000 and later 2003 signed and ratified an international treaty known as Cartagena Protocol on bio safety. She also in 2012 signed the Nagoya Kuala Lumpur Supplementary Protocol on Liability and Redress to the Cartagena Protocol.
These protocols are meant to give adequate protection to the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity in the practice of modern biotechnology and the use of genetically modified organisms, GMOs.
Like every other issue, the bill has proponents and opponents. While, scientists in whose domain the bill resides have supported the bill outlining several benefits, opponents of the bill consisting mainly of some civil society organizations claim the technology is unnatural as it constitutes a treat to African biodiversity and food sovereignty.
Since the debate on appropriateness of Genetically Modified Organisms, GMOs began; leading opponents of the technology have been from Europe. Individuals and organisations kicked against the technology which began in America claiming that it was harmful to health and the environment. Notable non-governmental organisations such as Green Peace, Alliance for Natural Health, Organic Consumers Association and Friends of the Earth to Africa, India and the rest of Asia who championed the anti-GM campaign, claimed that mixing genes between species seem unnatural and something was bound to go wrong.
Fears over the technology spread like wide fire, and within few years, GM was essentially banned in Europe. In spite of the opposition from NGOs, environmentalists and the likes, there are scientists within Europe and across the globe who have constantly held that GMOs were as safe as non GMOs.
However, individuals and stakeholders in Europe have found love with GMOs. A leading supporter of the technology is Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in England, Rt Honourable Owen Paterson MP who is one of such stakeholders who views GM as having potentials in tackling the global challenges of food security, climate change, hunger alleviation and sustainable intensification of agriculture.
According Hon Owen, GM technology could be likened to Norman Borlaugh’s initiative that saw to series of technological advances that transformed crop production in developing countries back in 1940 against the backdrop of war, famine and political instability. “It is no exaggeration that Borlaugh is referred to as the man who save billion lives”, adding that his example demonstrates what mankind can achieve through the application of science.
He stressed that 70 years on from that pioneering work, the challenges facing the world are not less daunting with the world’s population expected to grow from 7 billion to 9 billion by 2050.
“I believe that it is time to start a more informed discussion about the potential of genetically modified crops. A discussion that enables GM to be considered in its proper over all context with a balanced understanding of the risks and benefits.
“While I believe that there are significant economic, environmental and international development benefits to GM, I am conscious of the views of those who have concerns and who need reassurance on this matter. I recongnise that we – government, industry, the scientific community and others- owe a duty to the public to reassure them that GM is a safe, proven and beneficial innovation. We must lead this discussion, explaining to the public not only what GM technology is but also how it can help”.
So far, the scientific consensus holds that crops bred with transgenic methods do not pose a greater health risk than those bred with conventional methods, and, although controversial, this position has not yet shifted.
Nigerian scientists on their part have unanimously declared their support for biotechnology. At the Open Forum on Agricultural Biotechnology, OFAB, in Africa in Abuja recently, the scientists in their separate submissions stressed that no risks have been found associated with consumption of genetically modified, GM foods adding that opponents of biotechnology were enemies of Africa’s development.
Leading the discussion, director general/chief executive officer, National Biotechnology Development Agency, NABDA, Prof. Lucy Ogbadu maintained that those opposed to biotechnology were people who want Africa to remain backward by spreading false information on the technology.
“Nigeria needs to use biotechnology to create wealth in the country and eradicate poverty in the country. We are not saying biotechnology can do all but it can contribute immensely in agricultural productivity, affordable health care delivery services, sustainable environment and industrial growth,” the DG said.
She explained that the absence of bio safety law has greatly hampered research and development in modern biotechnology in Nigeria adding that a bio safety law will enable research institutions to carry out their statutory functions.
‘The Federal Ministry of Environment which is the national focal point and competent national authority on bio safety in Nigeria and other major stakeholders, are currently handicapped in the effective management of bio safety in the country because of lack of bio safety law. The international community and Nigerian biotechnology industry in general are also handicapped by the absence of a bio safety law’.
According to Prof. Ogbadu, out of the four major economies of Africa, Nigeria, South Africa, Egypt and Kenya, it is only Nigeria that is without a bio safety law saying the advantages of the bio safety law for the countries were enormous. She identified export of GM products as one of the major economic gains amongst other benefits.
Prof. Ogbadu explained that GM foods, currently on the international market have passed risks assessment of the World Health Organisation, WHO, adding that the general population of countries where they have been approved has shown no negative effects on human health because of consumption of such foods.
According to the DG, the continuous absence of Bio safety law might make Nigeria a consumer nation of foreign GMO foods, particularly maize products, instead of a producer, thereby holding farmers hostage to those of other countries.
Speaking in the same vein, a Geneticist/plant breeder Institute for Agricultural Research, IAR, Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, Prof. Mohammed Faguji Ishiyaku said the agitation about biotechnology was normal as the technology was relatively new. According to him, when new discoveries are made people are naturally going to be skeptical about accepting it.
‘There should be a cry about the bill because all bills affect our lives. And of utmost concern is on this part of our life that depends on our existence. What we would likely consume or wear on our bodies or what we are likely to live within our environments’.
According to the plant breeder, it would be a disservice for anybody to kick against the signing of the bio-safety law considering the huge benefits that are associated with the technology. He explained that like every other sector the bill was necessary to empower the relevant agencies to regulate the application of the technology.
He alleged that the campaign against GM is coming from producers of chemicals who are apprehensive that its acceptance will affect the fortunes of their businesses and urged Nigerians not to allow themselves to be used by enemies of development.
Prof Ishiyaku said the inability of those opposing the GM technology to come up with scientific evidence that it is harmful to human beings and the environment makes it clear that they are acting scripts of chemicals producers and other interests.
He however maintained that the fact that GM foods have been consumed over sometime in America and other places without any incidence of complications arising from it, was enough evidence that GM safety was not contestable.