Public support is crucial if any technology is to be accepted and adopted by those who stand to benefit from it, including modern biotechnology which is relatively new in Nigeria. Etta Michael Bisong, an environmental journalist based in Abuja, writes on the role of the media in strengthening modern biotechnology practices to provide alternative sources of livelihoods in Nigeria.
Many Nigerians no doubt are still uncertain about the meaning of modern biotechnology talk of its revolutionary impact on social development. The level of public awareness about this technology, even though it has been in existence for over two decades, visibly remains low due to lack of appropriate strategies to ensure effective understanding of bioscience communication and its role in fostering growth through biotechnology development in the country.
Science communication, as defined by Gregory and Miller (1998), is a process of generating new, mutually-acceptable knowledge, attitudes and practices. It is a complex but dynamic exchange as disparate groups find a way of sharing common messages and negotiating based on trust that leads to mutual understanding, rather than through statements of authorities or of facts. Therefore, science communication is crucial in promoting an open and transparent debate about the potential risks and benefits of modern biotechnology. This debate guarantees responsible use of the technology and assures stakeholders of having a choice or say in its adoption.
Crop biotechnology, one of the many possible scientific options to improve agricultural productivity, for example, has delivered significant socio-economic and welfare benefits to farmers whether in increased yield, pest and disease resistance, abiotic stress tolerance, enriched nutrient content, and other quality traits.
About 12 million farmers in 2007 across 23 countries were recorded to have planted biotechnology crops spread across 114.3 million hectares. Of these farmers, 90 percent or 11 million are small and resource-poor farmers from developing countries such as China, India, the Philippines and South Africa.
Nigeria, acknowledging the great benefits associated with this technology, long signed and adopted various international treaties including the Cartagena Protocol on Biodiversity to signify interest and promote the domestication of modern biotechnology development in the country. Well over 70 million farmers in Nigeria are estimated to benefit and reap the significant benefits of agricultural biotechnology similar to economic transformations currently experienced in Brazil, India, Burkina Faso, Egypt and South Africa.
Food security challenges, empowerment of scientists and research institutes, and consolidation of economic diversification from oil revenue to a more sustainable revenue generation are among other socio-economic gratifications that Nigeria can gain from if modern biotechnology practices are properly integrated into national development initiatives.
However, bioscience like other scientific inventions has positive as well as negative aspects that if not properly regulated can inimically affect the peaceful preservation of biodiversity. Globally, there are two major contenders when the issue of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are usually raised: those in support and against the adoption as well as practice of this technology.
Cases of risks and safety of genetically engineered products mostly in crop breeding have and are still strongly debated by these groups. Issues like political, economic, ethical, cultural and even religious viewpoints have all been raised by these groups in the quest to institutionalise modern biotechnology development.
While proponents believe and subscribe to scientific knowledge in their approach and support for the deployment of this technology, the non-GM campaigners have always built their arguments on sentiments as against facts.
A focus on societal and ethical implications has made the adoption of modern biotechnology and use of GMOs a recurring and contentious public policy issue. As a result, GMOs products have been caught in a maelstrom of controversy which Nigeria is not immune from. This is where the role of the media, both traditional and new, reinforces. Cardinally, the objective of every medium of mass communication is to create shared perception and improve understanding among people to promote common interest.
The global response to these arguments has always centred on the basis of empirical assertions rather than emotional claims. International bodies like the European Food Safety Agency, World Health Organisation, United States Department of Agriculture as well as the African Union (AU) and NEPAD African Biosafety Network of Expertise have, through various empirically tested methods, attested to the safety of modern biotechnology and use of GM products.
For scientists in the field of Biosciences, biosafety remains the answer to the discrepancies sparked by the anti-GM agents. In demonstration of this belief and in fulfilment of the Cartagena Agreement the Federal Government under the reign of former President Goodluck Jonathan in April 2015 passed into law an Act establishing the National Biosafety Management Agency (NBMA) to provide regulatory framework, institutional and administrative mechanism for safety measures in the application of modern biotechnology and use of GMOs in Nigeria.
The Act, as described by Rufus Ebegba, the Director General and Chief Executive Officer of NBMA, is “the only safety valve in the adoption of modern biotechnology and the deployment and use of GMOs for Nigeria’s national economic development.”
Sir Ebegba, at a press conference organised by Nigeria chapter of the Open Forum for Agricultural Biotechnology (OFAB) in Abuja, stressed the role of media in view of the immerse responsibility of the agency to encourage knowledge based regulatory regime.
“A need to expand biosafety information through the media will give room for factual reporting and build public confidence in adoption of safe GMOs and encourage scientists and others within the sector,” he said.
Also, the National Biotechnology Development Agency (NABDA) in a recent declaration renewed its commitments, one of which is to work closely with the media to promote the agency’s mandate.
Nigeria’s Biosafety law according to the Director General of NABDA, Professor Lucy Ogbadu, is a monumental delight to all her scientists who jointly participated in systematically making and presenting a convincing case for the enactment of the law.
“We hereby declare our determination to work collectively to improve the communications environment, including the use of latest as well as traditional communication strategies to ensure effectiveness in the deployment of modern biotechnology in Nigeria,” Professor Ogbadu asserted recently in a speech during an inter-agency parley in Abuja.
There are five factors according to Cormick (2007) that affect the acceptance of biotechnology into an environment: information, regulation, consultation, consumer choice, and consumer benefit. Studies from many countries that have ventured into modern biotechnology practice show a general pattern of low public knowledge, distrust on the part of environmental groups, and government’s slow action on regulatory support which is crucial for the technology to thrive. This scenario is compounded by lack of or inaccurate information, misinterpretation or over- simplification of facts.
Consequently, it is important therefore to enhance the capacity of the media in Nigeria to ensure that adequate, science-based information is made available to various stakeholders to help them analyse issues, correct misinformation, and make early and informed decisions regarding modern biotechnology development. Accordingly, actors particularly the government must begin to initiate a multi-stakeholders process or dialogue to develop a bioscience communication road map to evoke public acceptance for biotechnology and in evolving enabling policies.
This plan must be conceptualised such that it converge diverse ideas mostly considering that “no cookie-cutter approach will suffice for developing an approach to understand how to communicate about biotechnology development.”