Nigeria’s move to have in place a legislative framework towards the safe adoption of genetic engineering for national development suffered several setbacks in the past. But stakeholders are not giving up following a new wave of enthusiasm which culminated last week in the public hearing at the senate seeking to legalise biosafety issues in the country. Alex Abutu analyses the outcome of the hearing.
The bill seeking to create a Biosafety management agency for the country, was passed by the sixth national assembly but failed to get presidential assent for procedural reasons. Cosequently it was returned to the current assembly for reconsideration as required by law. Mid-October the Senate held a public hearing on it.The hearing session which was well attended by all shades of stakeholders looked at reasons why the nation needed a biosafety regulation.
Senate President, David Mark set the ball rolling when he declared that the need for a law to monitor biotechnology activities, especially genetic engineering has become imperative.
The introduction of genetically modified organism has come with some elements of controversy and the stakeholders were of the opinion that man, animal and the environment would be better protected if there are laws that can define, as well as prescribe punishment for those who go contrary to the norms.
This understanding is coming on the heels of the fact that the influx of international supermarket chains into the country has exposed Nigerians to goods and products known to contain GMOs.
Speaking at the hearing, Dr. Abdul Bulama, Minister of Science and Technology, noted that the Biosafety Bill was in line with global standard, adding that: “without this law we cannot join the league of biotechnologically developed countries and our biotechnology effort cannot take off unless the bill has been passed into law.”
He expressed concern about the misconceptions about the application of biotechnology, stating that a lot still needs to be done to sensitise Nigerians on the benefit of this technology to food production.
“Biotechnology has come of age, and it is one of the most misunderstood area in science and technology and this to a large extend constitutes a challenge to us. We need to do a lot of sensitisation and awareness creation on this field of science. Genetically Modified Organism (GMO) 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 programme in Nigeria.
Sen. Robert Boroffice, Senate Committee Chairman on Science and Technology, at the session commended the effort of stakeholders and the President of the Senate for their effort to see that the bill was passed into law.
“We have a very exciting moment here looking at very important field and with the enthusiasm we have demonstrated today, I have the belief 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 am committed to it,” he said.
For Prof. Lucy Ogbadu, Director General, National Biotechnology Development Agency, the agency championing the push for the passage of the bill, said it remained a collective effort. “We pray that this bill will go through as quickly as possible so that we don’t run into the same 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, the director general 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 scientist can operate fully.”
Prof. Maurice Iwu, former INEC chairman who made a surprise appearance at the hearing said the essential thing was for Nigeria to have a regulatory framework. “No bill is perfect, so we need this regulation to be able to free people to import and export materials and to use this material with utmost responsibility. We already have transgenic crops so it is important we have such bill for the safety of Nigerians. So the sooner the bill is passed the better for the health sector because there has to be certain level of safety before you can use organism in the health sector.”
Prof. Mohammed Ishyiaku, principal investigator for the GM cowpea project at the Institute for Agricultural Research, Zaria, said that there have been a lot of detractors from people who don’t know what the bill is all about. “But in my view I think we have come to a point where every stakeholder has identified the importance of the bill and even those who are against the technology are beginning to understand that we need the bill to help us regulate the technology and how to apply it for national development.”
Former Director General of NABDA, Prof. Bamidele Solomon said that a lot of awareness has been created about biotechnology and its application, adding that the way the lawmakers spoke on the bill showed that they were convinced about the benefits of the technology.
“I just believe that Mr. President himself is also more informed about this technology and when the bill gets to his table he will sign it into law. Nigeria is missing out a lot from not having this law. For instance, there is a lot of shortcomings in food production and when you look at the population growth we are one of the most productive nations when it comes to average growth in population and as a country we are losing quite a lot when we talk about cash crops like we have the BT cotton, all the clothes we wear in this country come from outside the country.
“So if you see employment and unemployment issues, all are associated with it and we are losing all that. Furthermore, investment is not going into agriculture because no foreign people will come here and work on agriculture that depends on manual labour and a lot of it will require herbicides, tolerant crops that will minimise labour and make it easy for mechanised farming.”
Mathew Dore, former head of the Biosafety unit at the Ministry of Environment in a submission at the hearing urged members of the Senate to pass the bill into law as it would provide the basis for which the country can check the perceived dangers associated with genetic modified organism. “Everyone is saying that GM is not good or dangerous, so this is the more reason why we need to have in place a law to guide how people use this technology.”
The public hearing which was made possible by the Open Forum on Agriculture Biotechnology (OFAB) succeeded in providing stakeholders with necessary background on what the National Biosafety Management Agency bill was all about
One conclusion that was clear from the hearing was that the bill when pass and assented to by Mr President will lead to the establishment of an agency that will provide a regulatory framework, institutional and administrative mechanism for safety measures in the application of modern biotechnology in Nigeria so as to prevent any adverse effect on human health, animal plants and the environment.