By Mohammed Kandi
The benefits of having a biosafety law that will improve the livelihood of farmers and promote food security in Nigeria were brought to the fore recently when the National Assembly convened a public hearing on a bill for an act, to establish the National Biosafety law for the country.
Stakeholders and the law makers were unanimous on the importance of passing into law, the biosafety bill which has lingered in the country’s parliament, and how it will regulate the use of Genetically Modified Organism (GMO) and other by-products of biotechnology in Nigeria.
Speaking at the public hearing, the President of the All Farmers Association of Nigeria, (AFAN), Mr. Kabiru Salman stated that the bill would improve the livelihood of small holders farmers in the country and further promote food security in Nigeria, saying “As farmers, we embrace biotechnology and the passage of the bill will make it possible for us to deploy technology especially GM, which we know will bring about high yields and ensure safety.”
According to Salman “farmers might resort to smuggling of GMO seeds that they consider will enhance their earnings without risk assessment being carried out on their activities if the bill is not passed into law.”
While urging that the bill should be passed into law, he said the country might not be able to guarantee the purity of its agricultural products for the international market, there by losing her international partners and also foreign earnings.
This position was supported by the representative of the Cotton Association of Nigeria, Mr Samuel Ishaku, who said Nigeria’s cotton farmers would become rich like farmers in Burkina Faso, another West African country, that has taken to the cultivation of BT cotton. He urged the National Assembly to pass the bill, saying having a law in place for the regulation of their activities would enable members of the association to make more money from cultivating cotton.
Tracing the decline in production of cotton in the country, Ishaku noted that many countries have been cultivating genetically modified cotton commercially, but since Nigeria has no law in place, “cotton farmers cannot cultivate BT cotton which has led to the downfall in cotton production in the country.”
He revealed that Burkina Faso farmers and India farmers have benefited more from cultivating BT cotton that they now cultivate twice in a year and making good money.
“For instance, Burkina Faso announced that it had made at least 1.2 billion dollars in 2013 from its foreign exchange earnings accruing from use of transgenic seeds that boosted cotton production in the country. Before the country considered using Genetically Modified Cotton, it ranked 177th out of 182 world poorest countries in the UN Human Development Index, now in Burkina Faso, cotton is both the “heart” and the “hope” of Burkina’s economy.”
The Senate President, David Mark, said the issue of biotechnology remained an international one and Nigeria as a signatory to the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, cannot shy away from having in place concrete regulations.
The Senate President, who was represented by Senator Atiku Bagudu, said global population was growing geometrically and would need to be fed. “This bill is going to provide guidance in the areas of agriculture, stable environment and wealth creation.”
The Chairman Senate Committee on Agriculture, Senator Emmanuel Bwacha, said the essence of the National Biosafety Bill was to provide a regulatory regime and guidance for the sustainable development of the science of modern biotechnology. While promising to see that the bill is passed by the present assembly, he noted that they would be neutral as the will of the people would be taken into consideration.
Similarly, the Senate Committee Chairman on Science and Technology, Sen. Robert Boroffice in his remarks commended the efforts of stakeholders and the President of the Senate on their efforts on the bill.
“We have a very exciting moment here looking at very important field and with the enthusiasm we have demonstrated today, I have the believe that this bill will pull through before the end of this assembly, especially as a scientist and one of the people responsible for developing of biotechnology in this country, I have a passion for this subject and I am committed to it. I want to use this opportunity to thank all of you, Government Agency, Department and NGOs that are geared to contribute to this bill and I hope that when it is passed Nigeria will be better for it,” he assured. Minister of Science and Technology, Dr. Abdul Bulama said the Biosafety bill was in line with global standard and without this law “we cannot join the league of biotechnology developed country and our biotechnology effort cannot take off unless the bill is passed into law.”
He expressed concern on the misconception about the application of Biotechnology stating that a lot still need to be done to sensitize Nigerians on the benefit of this technology to food production.
Dr Bulama said: “Biotechnology has come of age, and it is one of the most misunderstood areas in science and technology and this, to a large extent, constitute a challenge to us, we need to do a lot of sensitization and awareness creation on this field of science. Genetically Modified Organism (GMO) is a component of the world food programme and it will certainly make a dramatic change in the food security of the country, so this bill is a necessity for the development of science and technology programmes in Nigeria.”
Director-General of the National Biotechnology development Agency (NABDA), Prof. Lucy Ogbadu on her part said, “through our collective efforts we pray that this bill will go through as quickly as possible so that we don’t run into the problem we had during the sixth assembly, it is our prayer that this bill will be passed as quickly as possible and from the assurance we are getting, the bill will be passed before the end of this assembly.”
On what Nigeria is missing without the law in place, Prof Ogbadu said” we are missing a lot as a country without this law, we have been saying that the practice of biotechnology has been hindered in the country without this law and apart from that, our scientists have not been able to operate at their highest potentials compared to their counterparts in other parts of the world because of the absence of this law, if this bill is passed into law we need to match this feat with commensurate infrastructures, we need to develop infrastructures so that our scientists can operate fully.”
Dr. Chiedozie Egezi of the National Root Crops Research Institute, Umudike, said a biosafety law would enable trials for prospective and promising products. Dr. Egezi, who is also the in-country Principal Investigator, BioCassava Plus, added that Biosafety law would provide capacity building of local expertise in Ag-Biotech that would engender ownership of technology and thereby build trust.
He said the law will provide strong outreach linkages and networking to rural areas and stakeholders especially local farmers; infrastructure for testing GM plants with appropriate biosafety measures in different ecologies.
The Coordinator of Nigeria Chapter, Open Forum on Agricultural Biotechnology (OFAB), Mrs. Rose Gidado disclosed that the issue of Biosafety Regulation in Africa was rapidly gaining momentum as more African Countries are embracing GMOs. She added that Republic of South Africa, Burkina Faso and Egypt already have biosafety laws and are currently growing and consuming GM crops while Ghana, Kenya, Togo, Tanzania and Mali also have Biosafety laws in place.
Nigeria signed and ratified an internationally binding Biosafety Protocol Known as Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety in 2000 and 2002 respectively.
The Protocol entered into came into force on the 11th September 2003 and currently has 160 members. The Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety addresses the safe transfer, handling and use of Living Modified Organisms (LMOs) that may have adverse effects on conservation and sustainable utilization of biodiversity, taking into account risk to human health.
As a signatory, Nigeria made efforts at domesticating the Cartagena protocol with the National Biosafety Management Agency Bill 2011 which was initially passed by the 6th National Assembly but was not assented to by the President because it was passed a day before the end of the life of that Assembly. The bill was returned under this 7th National Assembly for reconsideration and possible passage.