Group raises concern as Nigerian parliament moves to amend law on biotechnology

National Assembly Complex
National Assembly Complex

A group of environmental activists has called for a dismissal of the proposed bill to expand the scope of the National Biosafety Management Agency (NBMA) Act to include evolving aspects of biotechnology such as ‘gene drives, gene editing and synthetic biology.’

But the agency fired back at the critics, waving such calls as ill-conceived.

With this, the protracted dispute over the application of genetically modified food crop in Nigeria has once again reignited.

The demand to call off the bill was made in a letter dated March 22 and addressed to the Committee on Environment and Habitat, House of Representatives and signed by Nnimo Bassey, Director, Health of Mother Earth Foundation (HOMEF).

The group warned that Nigeria should not dabble into these evolving aspects of biotechnology because “we are still struggling with regulating the basic aspects of the technology – the first generation of genetically modified organisms (GMOs).”

Mr Bassey described as “tremendously dangerous proposal”, enlarging the scope of the NBMA Act to include evolving aspects of biotechnology.

He said it would compound the risks already posed by the basic application of the first-generation technology.

The letter was submitted the same day the Chairman, House Committee on Environment and Habitat, Obinna Chidoka, who sponsored the bill, along with other lawmakers, visited the NBMA office in Abuja.

In his address during the visit, Mr Chidoka, who represents Idemili North/South Federal Constituency in Anambra State, stated that all those “working against NBMA must keep in mind that the agency is acting in accordance with the law and is completely backed by the National Assembly.”

The Bill Amending NBMA Act

The copy of the bill titled “An Act to Amend the National Biosafety Management Agency Act, 2015 to enlarge the scope of the application and include other evolving aspects of the application of modern biotechnology in Nigeria with a view to preventing any adverse effect on human health and the environment; and for Related Matters”, was sighted by PREMIUM TIMES Tuesday.

The bill seeks to amend Section 43 of the NBMA Act by predominantly inserting the three advanced biotechnology methods which Mr Bassey’s HOMEF is kicking against.

They are: Gene drive – a genetic engineering technology that can propagate a particular suite of genes throughout a population by adding, deleting, disrupting and modifying genes.

Gene editing – a type of genetic engineering in which DNA is inserted, deleted, modified or replaced in the genome of a living organism using scientific techniques.

Synthetic biology – a field of study that encompasses the design and engineering of biological components that can be used to construct a variety of biological systems.

The last item on that section proposed for amendment is biosecurity which means measures to prevent, respond to and recover harmful biological substances or genetically modified organisms that may threaten the health of humans, animals, the environment and the economy.

A public hearing on the bill which has passed first and second reading will be held on the floor of the house today (Wednesday).

The Concerns

In the letter, HOMEF raised concern over the three major components of the proposal. Mr Bassey argued that use of gene drive organisms has the potential of wiping off whole species of organisms.

“At this time there is no agreement on how to carry out risk assessments or establish risk management measures for gene drive organisms…

“Until a global agreement is reached on how to carry out risk assessments exist; we would be concerned that any new framework enabling new gene-edited changes might also have the effect of creating loopholes…”

Going by the definition of “Synthetic Biology”, in the bill, Mr Bassey argued that doors will be open for all sorts of synthetic organisms to be released or experimented in Nigeria.

“Our stand on this proposed bill is that the current regulatory system should first be strengthened. Or better still, we recommend an outright prohibition of the dangerous, evolving technology.

“We ask Hon. Obinna Chidoka and other supporters of the NBMA Amendment Bill to call it off in consideration of the highlighted risks that adoption of extreme biotechnology poses to food webs, ecosystems, biodiversity, our national economy and overall human and environmental safety.”

NBMA tackles HOMEF

HOMEF also argued that adequate capacity for advanced bio-technology is yet to be built. It said it believes that Nigeria is ill-prepared to handle these extreme technologies.

But Rufus Ebegba, the NBMA director waved HOMEF’s concerns as ill-conceived.

“What is their statistical evaluation to say that Nigeria does not have the capacity to handle the technology? what is their competence to talk on that matter?” Mr Ebegba queried Tuesday afternoon in a phone interview with PREMIUM TIMES.

“What capacity are they talking about when we have research institutes in this country. We have a full-fledged NABDA (National Biosafety Development Agency) to manage and promote the technology.

“There is a trade war ongoing. All I am saying is that Nigeria has the capacity to regulate this technology…

“The National Assembly has the authorities to make laws. Scientists guided them to come up with the bill so if there are issues and inadequacies in the law, it’s a living document and it can be amended.”

“Do they want a lawless nation?” the official further asked those kicking the bill.

“In that law, the National Assembly is looking ahead. Nigeria needs to have a law because the technology is coming up and our research institutes have been empowered to go into it.

“Even though it’s a new sector we are saying let there be a law so that when it comes we can properly check them for risk assessment”, Mr Ebegba noted.

GMO: The Protracted Debate

Nigeria officially signed the Biosafety Bill into law in 2015, making it eligible to join the league of nations that are already using genetic engineering (GE), also called genetic modification (GM), to boost food production.

Since then, there has been a protracted debate over the application of genetically modified crops into the food system of the country. HOMEF and its affiliates who are now commonly referred to as anti-GMO groups have criticised the application citing health and safety concerns. They say applications and approvals are granted without proper considerations.

But GMO promoters would often wave such concerns, insisting the technology is scientific and research-based with years of rigorous safety procedures before commercialization. “Ask them to provide scientific evidence”, they would argue referring to concerns raised by the anti-GMO groups.

While the National Biotechnology Development Agency (NABDA) promotes the technology, NBMA is the government agency that regulates and grants approval for GMO in Nigeria.

NBMA has been repeatedly criticised over its method of granting permits for commercialisation of GM food crops into the country.

Critics say the agency hastily grants approvals without putting into considerations safety concerns raised by Nigerians.

Last month, the agency issued a permit to the Pod Borer Resistant Cowpea, genetically modified to resist the pest – Maruca Vitrata, making it the first GM food crop to be approved in the country.

This is coming two months after it approved commercialisation of transgenic cotton varieties.

There have also been calls for amendment of the NBMA act.

HOMEF in the letter alluded to the need for an amendment. It, however, said such amendment should be to “protect the health, environment and economy of the Nigerian people and not to enlarge the avenue to be used for riskier experimentations.

“The NBMA Act, 2015 in its present form has flaws that must be addressed such as the absence of provisions for strict liability and redress which mandates that the biotechnology corporations take responsibility for immediate and forthcoming negative impacts of use of their products as is the case in a similar Act in Uganda.”

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