Nigerian biotechnology stakeholders last week gathered in Abuja at a one-day public hearing on the National Biosafety Management Agency (NBMA) Act of 2015; convened by the House of Representatives (committee on environment and habitat) and the Ministry of Environment, which deliberated on the amendment of the NBMA Act to allow for widening of the scope of the application of modern biotechnology in Nigeria
Science, Technology and Innovation (STI) are transforming human lives and – in agriculture, public health, environment and economy – all over the world. Modern biotechnology and genetic engineering have been adopted by various countries of the world including Nigeria to help combat food insecurity, cure diseases, and improve livelihoods. Nigeria, as part of efforts to benefit from the global advancement in science and technology, established the National Biotechnology Development Agency (NABDA) in 2001 with the mandate to promote and develop cutting-edge biotechnology research tools and products for the socioeconomic development of the nation.
Although NABDA was only established in 2001, the regulation of modern biotechnology in Nigeria dates back to 1992, when the Nigerian government signed the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). In 2002, the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety (CPB) was also signed by Nigeria, which was later ratified and came into force on 11th September, 2003 – all as part of efforts to guarantee public safety in the practice and application of modern biotechnology in Nigeria. In addition, the National Biosafety Management Agency (NBMA) was established in 2015, as the Nigerian government’s agency saddled with the responsibility of providing regulatory frameworks as well as institutional and administrative mechanisms for ensuring safety measures in the application of modern biotechnology.
It was on this premise that stakeholders in Nigeria`s biotechnology industry including scientists, policy makers, civil society organizations (CSOs) and the general public, gathered at a one-day public hearing on a bill seeking to amend the NBMA Act of 2015. The amendment of the Act is aimed at enlarging the scope of the application of biotechnology as well as the inclusion of evolving aspects of the application of modern biotechnology such as gene editing, gene drive, and synthetic biology. This is to prevent any adverse effect on human health and the environment.
At the day-long event, Director-General of the National Biosafety Management Agency (NBMA) Rufus Ebegba called for the application of strict regulation on new and emerging aspects of modern biotechnology including the use of gene editing, gene drives and synthetic biology. “Biosafety basically has 3 aspects – risk assessment, risk management, and biosecurity – all of which are aimed at ensuring that genetically modified organisms (GMOs) do not cause any harm to human and environmental health,” says Ebegba.
Ebegba noted that the 14th Conference of Parties (COP14) of the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), held in November 2018 at Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt, and which was attended by Nigeria, agreed that countries should develop laws for new emerging cutting-edge technologies. “[Thus], the need to regulate the evolving aspects of the application of modern biotechnology cannot be overemphasized. And it is on this note that NBMA supports the amendment of section 43 of the NBMA, Act, 2015, to enlarge the scope of biotechnology application,” Ebegba added.
While speaking to African Newspage at the public hearing, Rose Maxwell Gidado, Nigeria country coordinator of Open Forum on Agricultural Biotechnology in Africa (OFAB) cum assistant director at the department of agricultural biotechnology of the National Biotechnology Development Agency (NABDA), said NABDA supports the amendment of the NBMA Act so that newly emerging cutting-edge technologies like gene editing could be practiced safely and responsibly and scientists could work within the standard rules and guidelines that will be set by the NBMA.
“They [NBMA] took off in 2015 but at that time we didn’t envisage including these new emerging technologies in the law. Now, the whole world has left traditional genetic modification [which involves the introgression of foreign genes into crops] and is now focused on gene editing, gene drive and synthetic biology. So, if we don’t do these amendments now we are going to miss out in the ‘gene revolution’ like we missed out during the ‘green revolution.’ So, this is the best time for it [amendment of the law] and it will enhance food security, environmental conservation and bioremediation,” said Gidado.
Gidado emphasized that the use of conventional genetic modification to produce genetically modified (GM) crops was entirely different from the use of new emerging technologies such as gene editing and gene drive adding that products derived from gene editing were more advantageous. “We should separate these three technologies – gene editing, gene drive, and synthetic biology. They shouldn’t be seen as same with genetic modification because they do not involve the transfer of genes from one plant to another,” observed Gidado.
On the contrary, Joyce Ebebeinwe, while presenting a memorandum on the NBMA Act of 2015, by the Health of Mother Earth Foundation (HOMEF), an ecological nonprofit advocating for environmental justice and food sovereignty in Nigeria called on the House Committee on Environment and Habitat to dismiss the NBMA bill seeking for the inclusion of evolving aspects of the applications of modern biotechnology in Nigeria.
“This amendment will compound the risks and challenges that already exist regarding the use of basic or first generation Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) on the health, environment and economy of our people. Our position is based on the knowledge or reality that the current regulatory regime we have now, has not paid much attention to the impactful risks that the technology poses presently,” said Ebebeinwe.
Ebebeinwe argued that the inclusion of the evolving aspects of modern biotechnology – such as gene drive – poses a threat to life, ecological biodiversity and environmental sustainability. “Gene drives can alter or cause the extinction of entire specie of a population because it allows the forceful introduction of artificial genes into a whole population of organisms,” said Joyce Ebebeinwe, who works as project officer in charge of biosafety at HOMEF.
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