In today’s agricultural sector, there is an increased push for the adoption of genetic engineering technology in crop breeding and animal production. This has heightened biosafety concerns in most developing countries including Nigeria as to the safety of the public and the environment. Africa is particularly targeted and Nigeria is seen as a cardinal entry point.
The term, Biosafety encompasses the actions, systems and policies that protect humans from exposure to harmful biological agents. Biosafety is an important consideration when individuals may or will handle high risk, highly transmissible and highly lethal biological agents.
This report focuses on GMOs biosafety which entails food/feed and environmental safety. Also, the report touches, in a general sense, ethics in biosafety and the relation of biosafety to containment principles, technologies and practices that are implemented to prevent unintentional exposure to pathogen/toxins and their accidental release in laboratory research.
The report analyses the use of GMOs including their official and illegal releases, the implementation of the principles of biosafety, and the level of public awareness on the subject. The biosafety regulatory system in Nigeria is also reviewed, revealing its strengths and weaknesses. The report concludes with factful and necessary recommendations to the Nigerian government and the scientific community to address identified weaknesses and ensure food sovereignty, climate resilience and economic stability.
Consumers are deeply concerned about this development particularly because of weaknesses in biosafety practices by administrators, policy makers, researchers, producers and users of GMOs. Strict compliance to biosafety guidelines is still a huge challenge although there have been official releases of GMOs for commercial uses in Nigeria.
The National Biosafety Management Agency (NBMA) established in 2015 is the national biosafety regulatory authority in Nigeria. However, instead of functioning as an unbiased regulatory body, the agency promotes openly, the development and deployment of the technology often times with disregard for the opinion of the public. There have been a frenzy of approvals for introduction of GMOs into Nigeria for commercial placement, food and feed processing or for field trial.
As of November 2020, according to information available on the Biosafety Clearing House, NBMA has issued nineteen permits for introduction of GMOs into the country – eight (8) for field trials, nine (9) for direct use as food and/or feed processing and two (2) for commercial release. GM Cowpea (beans) and GM Cotton were approved for market placement in 2019. After scientific assessment and critical review of applications for permit, objections have been sent to the NBMA by concerned citizens but these objections have continuously disregarded.
Contrary to the assurance by the Agency that there are no GMOs in Nigeria, market shelf survey carried out by HOMEF between 2018 and 2020 have revealed the presence of over 30 different products containing genetically modified ingredients and/or produced with genetic engineering. The question of who is checking the importation of these processed foods with genetically modified ingredients is left unanswered. The result of the survey strengthens the assertion that labelling of GMOs in Nigeria will not protect our people from the impacts of GMOs as many of our people do not read labels and more so, some of the inscriptions are so tiny that they can easily be missed. Generally, labelling is nearly impossible to effect in Nigeria because of our socio-economic system and the manner in which food is sold and consumed.
The NBMA Act 2015 which mandated the setup of the Agency has several fundamental flaws that make it impossible to protect the interests of the public and avert the negative implications of GMOs on our health, economy and environment. The gaps include lack of access to information, no provision for adequate stakeholder engagement or consultation and participation, defective provision for liability and redress, subjective decision-making; and skewed provisions for appeals and reviews. The law is full with use of slack terms such as “may” rather than “shall” therefore bestowing enormous discretionary power on the Agency. These loopholes create room for abuse of administrative powers and make allowance for gross injustice against the people of Nigeria and the environment.
Another major flaw in the NBMA Act is the composition of the board of the Agency. The agency has on its board, major promoters of modern biotechnology including the National Biotechnology Development Agency (NABDA) whose mandate is to promote modern biotechnology and the release of their products into the environment. This gives room for conflict of interest and possible regulatory capture.
In 2019, the scope of the NBMA Act, 2015 was broadened to include applications of genome editing, gene drives and synthetic biology as regulated technologies along with GMOs. The amendment which was received with mixed reactions by many Nigerian civil society groups brought the new tools and technologies under the purview of a dysfunctional regulatory agency. One major challenge is that it paves the way for the possible regulation of genome editing innovations with the same lax framework currently used for GMOs.
The report stresses the need for strengthened mechanisms and institutional structures to ensure the effective and holistic implementation of biosafety regulatory protocols and management of Nigeria’s local bio-resources in all applicable sectors.
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