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Court strikes out anti-GMO case, activists pledge to fight on

The Federal High Court of Justice, sitting in Abuja on the Wednesday, August 15, 2018, struck out a suit instituted by the Health of Mother Earth Foundation (HOMEF) and 16 other civil society organisations (CSOs) against some government establishments relating to genetically modified organisms (GMOs) due to technicalities.

Federal High Court Abuja
Federal High Court, Abuja

The Judge, in delivering his judgment, opined that although the plaintiffs have a Cause of Action in the matter, the court’s hands are however tied due to one of the objections raised by the defendants – the suit is statute barred.

According to the Judge, it is a contravention of the provisions of the Public Officers Act, which states that any action instituted against a public officer as regards his/her discharge of duties must be instituted within three months, after the said breach occurred.

The suit, with No: FHC/ABJ/C5/846/2017, was said to have been brought a year after the permits had been issued.

HOMEF, in a statement made available to EnviroNews, expressed displeasure at the judgement, describing it as “a fall back on efforts to preserve the nation’s food system from being overturned by the agricultural biotech industry”.

The registered Trustees of HOMEF and 16 other CSOs in September 2017 filed the lawsuit against the Nigerian Biosafety Management Agency (NABMA), the Minister of Environment, Monsanto Agricultural Nigeria Limited, National Biotechnology Development Agency (NABDA), Minister of Agriculture, Attorney General of the Federation and National Agency for Food and Drugs Administration and Control (NAFDAC) over permits granted for GMO products.

In the summons which was taken out by Ifeanyi Nwankwere of Basilea Juris Associates, the plaintiffs insisted that the 1st defendant did not comply with the provisions of the National Biosafety Management Agency Act in granting the permits to the 3rd and 4th defendants. The CSOs asserted that the procedure and issuance of the permits flouts and threatens the fundamental human rights of the people as enshrined in section 33, 34, 36 and 39 of the 1999 constitution of Nigeria as amended in 2011.

Other issues which the plaintiffs brought forward were that NABDA, said to be a part of the governing Board of NBMA, in its application did not state adequate measures put in place to prevent cross pollination with natural varieties during field trials, and that NBMA granted the permits without any public hearing regardless of the consequential issues raised in objections sent in by the Plaintiffs.

HOMEF maintained that agricultural biotechnology along with its current advances come with specific risks both immediate and long-term and require thorough safety assessments.

Nnimmo Bassey, environmental activist and Director at HOMEF, said: “Nigeria’s present regulatory architecture cannot ensure food and environmental safety as shown by the manner in which the National Biosafety Management Agency handles GMO applications. One troubling example is the case of genetically modified maize varieties which were illegally shipped into country by WACOT Nig. Ltd. in September 2017. The agency after announcing that together with the Nigerian customs service they would ensure that the illegal seeds were repatriated approved an application by this company to import these products over a period of three years, barely a month after its announcement that illegal maize should be repatriated. This action contradicts the biosafety law which requires 270 days notice before imports to allow for adequate safety assessments.”

Bassey emphasised that “the only essence of genetically modified crops is for the economic benefit of the biotechnology corporations and their counterparts and not the interest of Nigeria.  With the release of these products into the environment, the damage will be irreversible, and the current economic strength of Nigeria cannot afford that damage.”

The activist added further in the statement that the court ruling encourages “administrative rascality and constant disregard for public interest and due process”.

According to HOMEF, while the case awaited judgment, the defendants, NBMA, Monsanto and NABDA on July 26 registered and released the Bt cotton varieties (MRC 7377 BG11 and MRC 7361 BG11) along with other GM products into the Nigerian environment. These cotton varieties, the group adds, refer to the same cotton MON 15985 in the suit as evident on the website of the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA).

“The health and economic welfare of all Nigerians, which constitutes our fundamental rights, are at risk if GMOs are allowed in the country. Nigerians must be aware that we are neither respected nor protected,” he warned.

But Dr Rufus Ebegba, head of the NBMA, described the judgement as a victory for Nigerians, and a manifestation of the judiciary as a beacon of hope and justice.

His words: “The NBMA is much more encouraged to continue due dilligence in ensuring that Nigerians are protected from any potential adverse effect in the regulation of modern biotechnology and its products. However, this shows that our biosafety system is working. I urge Nigerians to trust the NBMA and not be distracted by fear mongering.”

According to him, NBMA remains an umpire in the regulation of GMOs, even as he assured that, with the Agency on ground, the safety of their health and environment would continually be its number one responsibility.

Also reacting to the court ruling, Mariann Bassey-Orovwuje, lawyer and chair of the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa (AFSA), said in the statement that it would have been in the interest of justice to grant the reliefs set out on the face of the summons as, according to her, the case represented not just consumers safety but the survival of  millions of small scale farmers whose livelihoods are threatened by the corporate takeover of food systems in the guise of agricultural biotechnology.

“We hope that when the impacts of GMOs set in, the government of Nigeria will not say ‘we were not informed or warned about the impacts of GMOs’,” she declared, adding:

“The civil society coalition is of strong conviction that this is a cause worth fighting and would continue to seek redress. The organisations pledge not to relent in pushing the case for food safety and food sovereignty in Nigeria. They have pledged to continue to resist attempts by Monsanto, its international and local partners to control our food, land, life and democracy.”

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