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Biosafety agency opening Nigeria to ‘risky’ technologies, HOMEF alleges

The Health of Mother Earth Foundation (HOMEF), a not-for-profit based in Benin City, Edo State, has said that the nation is being opened to “risky” emerging technologies under the regulatory functions of the National Biosafety Management Agency (NBMA). The assertion was reportedly informed by a recent news report that suggested that NBMA may have begun drafting guidelines to regulate genome editing in Nigeria.

Nnimmo Bassey
Nnimmo Bassey

In a statement made available to EnviroNews on Tuesday, October 15, 2019, Nnimmo Bassey, the Director of HOMEF, stated that while the move to “regulate” gene editing and other emerging technologies sounds like a positive one, “our experience with the regulation of basic agricultural modern biotechnology (GMOs) gives us cause for alarm as regulation has become synonymous with promotion and approval of these technologies without transparent risk assessments, consideration of public concerns/objections and accountability to the people”.

Bassey added: “Since the creation of the NBMA, several permits have been granted for the intentional release of GMOs at an alarming rate. During this time, no application has been rejected, even though factful and scientific objections have been sent on a case by case basis by HOMEF and several other organisations.

“Also, despite calls for the risk assessment documents to be made available to the public, the agency has failed to reveal these which serves to buttress that the claims that only ‘safe GMOs’ are approved in Nigeria are mere talks to fool Nigerians.”

In March 2019, the Senate proposed the Bill for an Act to amend the National Biosafety Management Agency Act, 2015 to enlarge the scope of the application and include other evolving aspects of modern biotechnology.

Bassey said that HOMEF sent objections in a memorandum which was addressed to the National Assembly, stating that enlarging the scope of the Act is “a tremendously dangerous step that would compound the risks already posed by the application of the basic aspects of modern biotechnology”.

The memorandum stated: “Until a global agreement is reached on how to carry out risk assessments on these emerging technologies, we would be concerned that any new framework enabling new gene-edited changes might also have the effect of creating loopholes allowing for gene drive organisms release unless there is a clearly stated prohibition.

“At this time there is no agreement on how to carry out risk assessments or establish risk management measures for gene drive/gene edited organisms nor clear guidelines on how to establish that appropriate, free, prior and informed consent of affected local communities are in place.”

HOMEF’s project officer on Biosafety, Joyce Ebebeinwe, stated that although a huge percentage of the Nigerian people are unaware of these technologies and their implications on human/animal health and biodiversity, and without consideration of the concerns raised by the few who are aware, the Bill was signed into law by President Muhammadu Buhari in August 2019.

She added: “The NBMA has now begun drafting the guidelines for ‘regulation’ of gene editing. We will not be the least surprised when the applications for the introduction of gene drives and gene edited organisms begin to get approved spontaneously. It is clear that the Bill for the Enlargement of the Act was so sponsored to allow for the unhindered influx of these applications.”

According to her, Nigeria should take a cue from the government of Uganda where president Museveni Yoweri has twice rejected the Genetic Engineering Regulatory Bill due to safety and security concerns. She added that commercial interests needed to be balanced against the need to protect the ordinary citizens from real or potential harm.

Speaking further on the development, Bassey noted: “We always suspected that the purpose of introducing the so-called definitions into the Biosafety Act was a crack in the door to open Nigeria to vested interests promoting the easy-to-weaponise and extinction driving gene editing technology. NBMA has again shown itself to be determined to lead Nigeria and Nigerians on a path of no-return. This agency should be called to order by the President. At no time should Nigerians be used as guinea pigs as is the case currently.”

Also reacting to the development, Mariann Bassey-Orovwuje, Chair of the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa, stated that the NBMA Act, with the enlarged scope to include the emerging technologies, cannot protect Nigerians.

“The Biosafety Act needs a fundamental review to address the issues of liability and redress, public participation, enforcement of the precautionary principle, composition of the board of the agency and its excessive discretionary powers. We cannot take on more dangerous technologies where we are still struggling with regulation of the basic aspects,” she stressed.

Orovwuje added that Nigeria must be forewarned as this gene editing technology has already registered failure in Brazil, with genes from the mutant mosquitoes mixing with the native population and with a resultant increase in the population of mosquitoes rather than the speculated reduction.

From October 7 to 8, 2019, the School of Ecology and a continent-wide gathering, organised by HOMEF in collaboration with the ETC Group, after critical interrogation of the new and emerging technologies, declared the need for the establishment of an African Technology Assessment Platform (AfriTAP) which brings together civil society groups working together to track, understand, monitor and assess the implications of emerging technologies on biodiversity, conservation, food sovereignty, community engagement , climate change and other sectors.

Among the demands of the meetings which comprised of students, scientists, members of civil society organisations, legal practitioners, and faith-based organisations in Nigeria, Burkina Faso, Ghana, Kenya, Togo, South Africa, Eswatini, Cote d’Ivoire, Uganda, Cameroon as well as several other non-African countries was a call for a moratorium on the approval or deployment of any variant of genetically modified organism and urgent nation-wide consultations on these and other emerging technologies.

The meeting also urged Nigeria to prohibit such evolving technologies, noting that “Africa/Nigeria is rich in endogenous technologies and vast natural resources that can be harnessed to address its socio-economic and ecological challenges. We must not continue to dance to the colonial narrative which suggests that we must adopt technologies just because they are portrayed by multi-million-dollar corporations as the silver bullets to global challenges.”

HOMEF believes that West Africa is already threatened by military and philanthropic-capitalist promotion and introduction of gene edited mosquitoes in Burkina Faso. The exposure of Nigeria in this way is the worst manner of ecological colonisation and security threat through the agency of willing officials.

“On the occasion of the World Food Day, HOMEF calls on all Nigerians to be more mindful of what they eat and of the implications of emerging technologies on our nutrition/nourishment, health, biodiversity, local economies and food sovereignty. We must be mindful of the fact that our actions are our future,” says the group.

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