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How important is Biosafety Law to Nigeria’s economy?

By Yetunde Ayobami Ojo
04 May 2015   |   11:18 pm
THE need for strategies and products to protect public health and agriculture in the event of a natural emergency or man-made biological incident cannot be over emphasized.
Mrs. Rose Suniso

Mrs. Rose Suniso Maxwell Gidado

THE need for strategies and products to protect public health and agriculture in the event of a natural emergency or man-made biological incident cannot be over emphasized.

Nigeria is a heterogeneous entity in which its citizens must live in safety conditions and saved from harmful incidences through chemicals in biological research and non-laboratory organisms.

Nigeria as a country is endowed with a variety of plant and animal species, which consist of about 7,895 plant species, identified in 338 families; 2,215 genera; 22,000 vertebrates and invertebrates species.

All of these animal and plant species that form Nigeria’s biodiversity are in abundance within the country, highly cherished and therefore, need conservation and sustainable utilization.

The emergence of Modern Biotechnology and Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs), coupled with their perceived adverse impacts on the conservation and sustainable utilization of biodiversity and human health needed a biosafety management system.

Therefore, Nigeria signed and ratified the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety 2000 and ratified 2003 in commitment to Global Biodiversity Management.

However, it was a giant step that was taken by the President, Goodluck Ebele Jonathan in signing the Biosafety Act  into law on the 20th of April 2015.  This law is to regulate the practice of modern biotechnology, handling and use of its products (genetically modified organisms) that may have adverse effects on conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity. Since the Act came into being, it is yet to be tested by many Nigerians.

This is  because not many are aware of its existence yet. After several years of setback to pass the bill, the  Nigerian Senate was able to pass it after various  discussions and debate by stakeholders.

In her explanation on the law, the Nigeria Chapter Coordinator of Open Forum on Agricultural Biotechnology in Africa (OFAB), Mrs. Rose Suniso Maxwell Gidado said ‎Biosafety Law was signed to provide for the establishment of the National Biosafety Management Agency.

She said the bill went through the Senate procedure by Resolution and Concurrence after going through three readings. It was concurred without amendments to the draft bill passed by the House of Representatives on July 20, 2010.

Now that the President has assented to the bill, the implementing regulations which will developed to pave way for its operationalization is highly cherised. “The passing of the bill was welcomed by stakeholders, who had expressed concerns earlier on the possible delay in passing the Bill, due to possible changes in the government after the May 2011 elections.

The bill was among those highlighted by the Nigerian Bar Association last December as needing passage before 29 May 2011. The passing of the bill is a major step towards the safe and responsible use of biotech crops in the country.

“Currently, Nigerian scientists and partners are conducting field trials on genetically modified cowpea and cassava, both important major staple food crops in Nigeria and the sub-Saharan Africa at large.

Nigeria accords high priority to the successful implementation of this Protocol on Biosafety and all UN resolutions and has participated in all the meetings of the Conference of Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity Serving as meeting of Parties to the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety (COP-MOP).

“Nigeria’s commitment is also reflected in her efforts in the domestication of the protocol and the mainstreaming of biosafety into her National Programs with the aim of achieving global biodiversity conservation targets.

Nigeria has equally been active in the Biosafety Clearing House (BCH) as a means of information exchange on Biosafety issues. Nigeria has equally signed the Nagoya Kuala Lumpur Supplementary protocol on Liability and Redress to the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety in 2012”,

Maxwell explained. She further said: “In the sub-region of West Africa, Nigeria is one of those countries yearning for common ECOWAS Biosafety Regulation, which is being developed. In the African region, Nigeria has also participated in Biosafety initiatives and programs that promote regional biosafety.”

According to her, Federal Ministry of Environment is the National Focal Point and the Competent National Authority (CNA) on Biosafety in Nigeria.

She noted that as the CNA, it has the mandate for the safe management of modern biotechnology activities, including research, development, introduction and the use of the products of modern biotechnology–genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

The Biosafety Unit in the Federal Ministry of Environment is carrying out this responsibility. “Nigeria has adopted modern biotechnology as one of the approaches in the attainment of various sustainable developments in all sectors of the economy particularly in addressing challenges that have been difficult to resolve using conventional approaches.

“Its on this note that the country has adopted biosafety as a tool for the safe handling, use and transfer of Genetically modified organisms by enacting into law, a National Biosafety Act for the establishment of the National Biosafety Management Agency (NBMA).

Various Biosafety guidelines and regulations have been drafted. And there exists a Biosafety Unit with well-trained staff ready to kick-start the new Agency”, she said.

In addition, Maxwell stated that the law is to establish and strengthen the institutional arrangement on Biosafety matters in Nigeria; Safeguard human health and the environment from any potential, adverse effect of genetically modified organisms including food safety; ensure safety in the use of modern biotechnology and provide holistic approach to the regulation of modified organisms;

Provide measures for the case by case assessment of genetically modified organisms and management of risks in order to ensure safety in the use of genetically modified organisms to human health and the environment as well as provide measures for effective public participation.

Her words: “Public awareness and access to information in the use and application of modern biotechnology and genetically modified organisms and Ensure that the use of the genetically modified organisms does not have adverse impact on socio-economic and cultural interest either at the community or national level.”

She also explained the immediate benefit Nigerian could derive from the law as include: capacity for enhanced food security; environmental protection and conservation through production of stress tolerant planting materials for re-vegetation, re-afforestation, soil binding for erosion control as well as genetically enhanced organisms for bioremediation of oil polluted sites.

Others are the improvement in plants and animals yields as well as nutritional values, production of new breeds/varieties of animals and plants. Reducing the use of pesticides. Reduce in farm land area with higher yields, facilitates job and wealth creation, leads to better health facilities, promotion of bioorganic fertilizer development and industrial growth through feedstock development.

Promotion and development of biopharmaceuticals production, Stem Cell technology, biometrics, and others, in Nigeria and Biodiversity conservation.

“The institution for effective biosafety management in Nigeria includes: Federal Ministry of Environment (FMENV): It is the Competent National Authority (CNA) and the National Focal Point on Biosafety in Nigeria; National Biosafety Unit: It is the office in the FMENV that manages Biosafety on behalf of the Ministry.

It carries out such other duties as may be necessary for the full discharge of its functions under Biosafety and other related Acts. National Biosafety Committee (NBC) is the Committee that reviews biosafety applications and advises the Honourable Minister of Environment.

It also advises the Minister on Biosafety matters generally. “The National Biosafety Technical sub-committees: They are ad-hoc committees on Agriculture, Environment, Health and Industry which carry out detail review of biosafety applications and advises the NBC and  Institutional Biosafety Committee (IBC).

It is the committee responsible for Biosafety matters at the level of Institutions that deal in modern biotechnology research and development”, Maxwell explained. A senior advocate of Nigeria, Dafe Akpedeye described the Act as a welcomed development.

He said that the bill, which was sponsored by the National Biotechnology Development Agency (NABDA) seeks to domesticate modern biotechnology used by advanced countries as cutting-edge technology to boost agricultural production and hence, economic development.

His words: “A proper utilization and enforcement of the Act would lead to the creation of more employment, and boost food production by farmers and thereby alleviate hunger.

The Act is crucial in the management of modern biotechnology in the country in our pursuit of food sufficiency/security, industrial growth, health improvement and environmental sustainability.

“The whole idea behind the Act is to create the legal framework to check the activities of modern biotechnology locally as well as imported genetically modified crops, including the provision of the avenue to engage Nigerian scientists/experts from different fields to identify and pursue solutions to our local challenges.

“It is common knowledge that agricultural biotechnology has changed the lives of the rural cotton farmers in Burkina Faso, Brazil, Argentina, South Africa and Egypt. Some of the highlights of the Act are: It defines offenses and penalty for violation of the act.

It contains powers to authorize release of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) and practice of modern biotechnology activities. It confers the power to carry out risk assessment/management before the release, handling and use of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs); It covers all Genetically Modified Organisms/Living Modified Organisms (LMOs) and products, thereof including food/feed processing.

It also covers socio-economic consideration in risk assessment. “We as a nation are poised to have improved food security, environmental protection and conservation through production of stress-tolerant planting materials for re-vegetation, re-forestation, soil-binding for erosion control as well as genetically enhanced organisms for bio-remediation of oil polluted site.

There are also improvements in plants and animals yields as well as nutritional values, production of new breeds/varieties of animals and plants, and reduction in the use of pesticides. With proper utilization of the intent of the Act, Nigeria is set for glory days.”

For the director of Research of Advance Legal Study, ‎Prof. Lanre Fagbohun, the goal of the Biosafety Act is to domesticate the Cartegna Protocol which entered into force in September 2003.

According to him, it is intended to address the safe transfer, handling , transit, transboundary movement, development, commercial release and use of living modified organisms that may have adverse effect on biodiversity, the environment and human health.

He said: “Globally, it has long been recognised that bioterrorism and accidental or uncontrolled release of harmful chemicals or genetically modified organisms into the environment are critical issues. Consequently, that Nigeria has also deemed it appropriate to finally put in place regulatory framework is  a welcome development.

“Certain questions however come to the fore: how ready are we to deepen our understand of the experimental risks that come with synthetic biology? How prepared are we to monitor biosafety standards and  strictly  enforce the provisions ‎of the Act ? National commitment and sincerity of purpose is critical if Nigeria is to amortise the beneficial aspects of safe and successful development of modern biotechnology.

It goes beyond merely having the law and putting in place relevant institution.  “If properly enforced, it will minimise risk of food safety, environmental damage and agricultural problems.

Our regulators must not be influenced by the biotech companies. This will not happen only  if they have requisite skills and capacity. ‎Cost of enforcement must also be sustainable .

Finally, policy making and reviews,  regulatory decisions and enforcement – all must be properly coordinated in a transparent manner. Inconsistencies as we currently manifest in other spheres will be exploited by biotech companies. These are my apprehensions.”