Do Nigerians know what the safety level of foods on their dining tables would be in 2018? That is a trillion Naira question. The short answer is no. We give two quick reasons for this. A reading of the body language of the permitting National Biosafety Management Agency (NBMA) reveals that, besides approving virtually every application that comes before it, the agency appears to be concerned with having those that had illegally imported those materials to simply formalise their stocks by registering with the agency.
Unfortunately, in 2018 when GMO beans are unleashed on Nigerians, the roadside akara seller would not know that she is selling akara made from genetically engineered beans. The roasted corn seller would not know that what is being roasted is genetically modified corn imported or smuggled into the country. In sum, our major staple crops – maize, cassava, beans, rice, sorghum are at risk.
A case that with grave implication for biosafety administration in Nigeria is the one that hit headline news in October 2017 that unauthorised genetically modified maize worth about $9.8 million had been impounded at Lagos sea ports. Nigerians were elated by the vigilance of the regulatory agency and officers of the Nigerian Customs Service to intercept the illegal imports by WACOT Ltd – a firm that is best known for dealing in cotton and rice. Another company implicated in the illegal importation of the GM maize is the Olam Group, a conglomerate that deals mostly in rice, including the widely sold Mama’s Pride brand.
To underscore the seriousness of the biosafety infringement, the Director General of the National Biosafety Management Agency (NBMA), stated at a press conference held in Abuja on September 13, 2017 that the Agency got notice of the importation through an intelligence report and had set in motion necessary machineries to track the importers and bring them to book.
According to the National Biosafety Management Agency (NBMA) Act 2015, “Any person, institution or body who wishes to import, export, transit or otherwise carry out a contained field trial, multi-locational trial or commercial release of genetically modified organism shall apply to the Director General of the Agency not less than 270 days to the date of import, export, transit or the commencement of such activity.”
An air of seriousness that our food systems could be protected was further raised when the Federal Executive Council was notified of the decision to repatriate the illegal genetically modified maize to Argentina, its country of origin and also when the National Assembly held a public hearing on the illegal importation.
However, hopes that biosafety is important to the government may have been dashed because the noise over the impounding of the illegal GM Maize may have been nothing other than mere noise. Why do we say this?
Barely a week after the NBMA announced that together with the Nigerian Customs Service they would ensure the repatriation of the illegal GM maize, the same NBMA issued a public advertisement announcing the application for importation of GM maize by WALCOT Ltd.
The announcement stated: “In accordance with the National Biosafety Management Agency Act, 2015, requiring public display of any Biosafety application, for permit to intentionally release genetically modified organisms (GMOs), for comments from interested members of the public, the National Biosafety Management Agency (NBMA) hereby announces a twenty- one (21) day display of an application dossier submitted by WACOT Ltd for the importation of genetically modified maize for feed processing. The display is with effect from 22th November to 12th of December 2017 to enable the public to make input that would facilitate informed decision on the application.”
Information from credible sources suggest that the application has since been approved by NBMA and the applicant may have received the green light to take delivery of the impounded illegal import and to further import genetically modified maize at will into Nigeria over the next three years. At the time of this writing, the permit is neither on the website of NBMA, nor on that of the United Nations Biosafety Clearing House. We need to know if the NBMA has permitted the release of the maize that the Federal Executive Council and Nigerians at large had been told were to be repatriated. We need to know if the application was made 270 days before the importation as required by law. If the maize has been repatriated, we need to know.
Some of us have on many occasions called for a radical review of the NBMA Act 2015. We have also made a clause-by-clause analysis of the Act and suggested needed changes. The composition of the NBMA Governing Board has inbuilt conflict of interest and the fact that members may not sit on issues where their interests are concerned is banal. We also note that the National Biosafety Committee that determines which GM applications to approve is set up on an ad-hoc basis and at the whims of the Director General of the NBMA without any higher authority providing oversight.
A situation where we cannot trust a board made up of representatives (not below the rank of Directors) from the ministries of Environment, Agriculture, Science and Technology, Trade and Investment and Health to protect our biodiversity, environment and health is deeply worrisome. Others on the board include representatives of the Nigerian Customs Service and the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC).
Here we are in 2018 and the prospect of genetically modified crops and food products flooding our markets is real. If the situation arises that GMOs imported illegally can be retroactively certified and released provided the importers pay prescribed fees, that will spell a death knell to our biosecurity. This is a good time for the Federal Government to make it clear to NBMA that it was not set up to promote GMOs contrary to what they (NBMA) proclaim on the streaming photo on their website where it states “NBMA – Promoting modern biotechnology activities and GMOs.”
The task of promoting modern biotechnology and GMOs is that of the National Biotechnology Development Agency (NABDA).
In a post on its website on December 18, 2017, NBMA “warned those involved in and/or intend to be involved in the handling, importation or transfer of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) to seek clarification and authorisation from the Agency before doing so. They cited NBMA Act, Part VII which states that “no person, institution or body shall import, export, transit or commercialize any genetically modified organism or a product intended for direct use as food or feed, or for processing unless with the approval of the Agency.
“The NBMA is by this Act empowered to sanction any erring party for importing or releasing unauthorised genetically modified products, be it grain or any kind of seed as the case may be.”
It noted that the Act made it clear that any person, institution or body who wishes to import, export, transit or otherwise carry out contained activities, confined field trial, multi-locational trial or commercial release of a GMO shall apply to the Director General of NBMA prior to such activity.
Nigerians need to be assured that in 2018 the Federal Government will be concerned about our biosafety. Nigeria needs to put a halt to the circus of publishing applications, calling for comments, ignoring comments from the public and approving whatever application is thrown at regulating agency. Let there be CHANGE in 2018. Let there be HOPE!
Recently, President Muhammadu Buhari expressed a desire that besides becoming food sufficient, Nigeria should regain her place as a food exporting country. The president noted that productivity was on the rise for crops like beans and rice. We note that Nigeria is planning to release genetically modified beans into the market from 2018. Where would the GM beans be exported to? Certainly not the USA or the EU. The dream of being a food exporter will definitely be dimmed by our needless GMO gambits.
President Buhari is a farmer, but we have not heard him express views on what the rabid promotion of GMOs in Nigeria could mean to our food and health.
President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda is a farmer. He vigorously pressed the Ugandan parliament to pass their Biosafety Bill designed to pave the way for the introduction of GMOs in that country. After the parliament passed the bill and sent it to him to append is signature and turn it into law, the president balked.
In his December 21 letter to Speaker of Parliament the president outlined why he was returning the bill to the parliament. He reportedly raised issues with the title of the bill, patent rights of indigenous farmers and sanctions for scientists who mix GMOs with indigenous crops and animals. He queried why the bill was called a “Biosafety Bill” rather than a “Genetic Engineering Bill.”. He argued that although genetic engineering may make it possible to add additional qualities – such as drought resistance, quick maturity, disease resistance, but, “this law apparently talks of giving monopoly of patent rights to its holder and forgets about the communities that developed the original material.” He saw this as patently wrong as it ignored the roles of the local farmers who had preserved the original seeds over the years.
The president was quoted as saying that he had been informed that there are, “some crops and livestock with unique genetic configuration like millet, sorghum, beans, Ankole cattle, Ugandan chicken, enkoromoijo cattle, which have a specific genetic makeup which our people have developed for millennia through selection (kutorana for seeds), kubikira (selecting good bulls), enimi or empaya (he-goats).”
Raising concerns over the safety of GMOs, President Museveni cautioned that “to be on the safe side, GMO seeds should never be randomly mixed with our indigenous seeds just in case they turn out to have a problem.”
What President Museveni has done must be applauded. It takes boldness for him to question a thing that he had so loudly promoted. His action underscores the need for leaders to hear both sides of the debate. African nations cannot simply throw their doors open to technologies that pose extreme risks to our environment, biodiversity, health and trade. It is time for President Buhari to take a look at the National Biosafety Management Act and the biosafety management architecture in our country before it is too late.
By Nnimmo Bassey