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Published On: Tue, Jul 15th, 2014

Revisiting bio-safety regulations for agricultural development in Nigeria

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akinwunmi-ayo-adesinaBy Mohammed Kandi

Thirteen years after Nigeria ratified and signed the Cartagena Protocol on Bio-safety, she is still grappling to have in place, a bio-safety law. The country also signed the Nagoya Kuala Lumpur Supplementary protocol on Liability and Redress to Cartagena Protocol in 2012.

However, entering into these treaties imply that the country is ready to provide adequate protection to conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity in the practice of modern biotechnology and the use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). In fact, parties to the Protocol are expected to domesticate it via their legal and administrative frameworks—enacting laws.

Meanwhile, taking a step further on having a biosafety law in the country, the Nigerian House of Representatives—the 6th national assembly passed the biosafety bill, to deploy a technology that will enable the practices and consumption of Genetically Modified (GM) foods in 2011, but failed to get the Presidential assent before the expiration of that tenure. The bill has now passed the second readings of the 7th assembly’s House of Representatives. This move was first articulated by stakeholder’s meeting in 2007.

Ever since that attempt, issues of GM have come under vehement attacks by the opposition groups in Nigeria, just as in other parts of the world.

Their arguments are heterogeneous. Some anti-GM activists are demonising the technology on the basis of religion and others for socio-economic and political reasons. There is also a deliberate propaganda—misinformation of the public about GM food—that GM food could cause allergy and the seeds can be used only but once. This unhealthy competition and protracted feud between the anti and pro-GM technologists have left the ordinary farmers, consumers dumbfounded.

Their decisions on the issue are lame while the confrontation rages.

So, these issues actually are raising concerns especially among the poor African farmers who mostly are operating on subsistent farming.

The poor farmers are now at the mercy of a mere economic struggle between the European opponents and the American proponents of GMOs.

In Nigeria, the second step taken towards having biosafety law was the collaboration between relevant government’s MDAs to develop a National Biosafety Bill. Those in the forefront are the Federal Ministry of Environment, Nigerian Customs Service, Nigeria Veterinary Research Institute and Federal Ministries of Justice, Health, Agriculture and Rural Development, Science and Technology, and Foreign Affairs. Others are ministries of Education, Industry Trade and Investment including agencies such as the National Biotechnology Development Agency (NABDA), Consumer Protection Council (CPC) and NAFDAC. The effort is intended to facilitate the adopting of modern biotechnology and GMOs, to gain all the benefits of the technology, especially in agriculture, environment, health, as well as on job creation.

By these efforts, some government officials believed they have achieve a milestone, event as their next door neighbours are already exporting GM foods, from which their own citizens have greatly fed. African borders are porous so with or without legislations (Laws), GM products have found their ways into the continent’s markets through the borders. And the people consume them.

In fact, like the European opponents and the American proponents, Nigerians are also playing politics with the technology otherwise why is the bill still dangling? The other questions begging for urgent answers are why the government is spending so much money in procurement and distribution of fertilisers to farmers not in research even as it claimed it has hands-off the sales of the product? If Nigerian government is skeptical about the GM technology, why is it distributing ‘’improved seeds’’ to famers at subsidies rates and how were those improved seeds developed? These and many more questions are begging for answers especially as they relate to passage of the biosafety bill.

Contrary to government’s usual playing of pranks or ‘hide and seek’ game with globally approved ideas, which is why the country is always lagging behind on achieving desired development at the right times, the Federal Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, is now gradually making its position on the GM technology known.

This action was recently followed by a positive comment on his website. Adesina, who was responding to a recent publication by the Guardian Newspapers titled: “!Vivour on Mosanto, Genetically Modified

Foods and why Nigerians should worry”, stated that, “you can travel by plane or donkey. The former generates C02, but everyone uses it to travel. Why not try travelling to Europe by donkey?”

He further stated: “Nigeria is putting in place bio safety laws to regulate the practices of modern biotechnology. Consumer and environmental safety are priority for us. But we must develop and must use new technologies. Responsible use of technologies, while managing and preserving biodiversity and the environment and consumer safety is the role of government.’’

The minister’s comment was perceived as a ‘boost’ and that raised some hope amongst the GM proponents. But beyond Adesina’s motivational comment on the website, why can’t he open up and if possible, make his position known and get the government accept the technology for the common good of Nigeria’s teeming farmers?

Adesina’s “positive” comments are coming after protracted debates by scientists, governments, and stakeholders at the international and local levels. They made their positions on the issue very clear; some pitch their tent with the opposition and others with advocates.

The Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations approved the consumption of GM foods when stated categorically that “no adverse impact on human health have been shown as a result of the consumption of GM foods by the general population in the countries where they have been approved.”

Also, the African Union (AU) and NEPAD have established the Afrinan Biosafety of Expertise (ABNE), to help the 54 African countries that have signed the Cartagena Protocol in developing the right biosafety regulations. In fact, the European Food Safety Agency (EFSA) in a recent report: Edited version of 28 April, 2006, satisfied the safety of GM foods.

The sustained effort by scientists to further inform and educate the public on the need to accept and embrace GM crops across the globe, was last week brought to the fore in Abuja, Nigeria, when Nigerian scientists at a conference organised by National Biotechnology Development Agency (NABDA) in collaboration with the Open Forum on Agricultural Biotechnology (OFAB)in Abuja. They re-echoed their advocacy for passage of the biosafety bill, which is been lying before the National Assembly and insisted that absence on the law was a huge setback, especially to the country’s agricultural development.

A Plant Breeder and Programme Leader of the Maruca-Resistant Cowpea project at the Institute of Agricultural Research (IAR) Ahmadul Bello University, Zaria, Prof. Muhammad Faguji Ishiyaku, reiterated that Genetically Modified (GM) food are safe for consumption in Nigeria, just like it is in others.

“Nigerians are different from any set human being; these crops are being consumed in other countries like in the United States of America. Around 95 percent of their maize or corn produced is driven

from biotechnology; the soybean that they produce oil from is from biotechnology, water melon and sweet melon are all biotechnology driven and people have been consuming these products from around 1992 up to date. And there is no any record of any incident that is associated with the consumption of these products.

“To further on that, there is a government institution that is bestowed with the responsibility of ensuring and confirming this safety, which is in the Federal Ministry of Environment. This institution will check the safety and composition of this food that are produced from this technology,” Prof. Ishiyaku explained.

The Director-General of NABDA, Prof. Lucy Ogbadu, was optimistic that it adoption would create wealth and eradicate poverty amongst Nigerian farmers. Ogbadu also informed that the bill when enacted would “provide derived benefit from modern biotechnology under a legal framework for economic growth, improved agriculture, job and wealth creation, industry growth and sustainable environment.”

The DG said: “Of four major economies in Africa, which are, South Africa, Nigeria, Egypt and Kenya, it is only Nigeria that does not have a Biosafety Law.”

Also speaking, Chairman, National Cotton Association of Nigeria (NACOTAN) Alhaji Hamma Kwajaffa said, “because of GMOs, Burkino-Faso is now the largest producer of cotton in West Africa. I don’t why

Nigeria is always backward in accepting new technologies. In Nigeria, nobody produces more than 700kg per hectare of cotton whereas in India or China, farmers are producing four tons per hectare, so you can see the difference is clear.

“Today, unfortunately, the whole of Africa is contributing only 6% of global cotton requirement. We need to urgently embark of the application of BT in our agriculture, to create wealth and employment our teeming youth populations.

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