Nigerian Biosafety Bill -  Whose interest ?

There have been massive propaganda and lobbying from Biotech Institutions/industry and their concerned ‘stakeholders’ in Nigeria and abroad for the President to give assent to the Biosafety bill “

The bill has been recently passed by the  National Assembly and these same bandwagon is now urging the President to proceed to Accent to a bill that has being kept under wraps and away from public scrutiny, thereby preventing groups who may want to take a critical look at the bill and raise policy issues that will improve the bill.

Pursuit for the” Quick’ Passage of Bill

Professor Bamidele Solomon,  the Chief Executive Officer of NABDA sated categorically that  he wants “ Mr President’s assent after which the coast will be clear …Nigeria can go into commercialisation of genetically enhanced crops/foods’ and also for the government to ‘encourage foreign investments on genetically engineered crops and products, development and deployment of genetically enhanced crops/products.

Dr. Chiedozie Egesi, a scientist at the National Root Crops Research Institute (NRCRI) interest in the bill is for a “workable guidelines that will allow biotech practitioners to conduct research and development as well as ag-biotech business” Another reason is national and international institutions “will have the opportunity to reap the benefits of biotechnology”

Dr. Martin Fregene, Director of the BioCassava(BC+) in the office of the International Programme, Donald Danforth Plant Science Centre, St Louis, stated that  with the passage of the bill, advanced research institutions abroad and the private sector seed company will be interested in partnering with Nigerian institutions and businesses to evaluate the potential of several relevant GM technologies.”

It is worthy to note that, the Danforth Centre made it public knowledge that “We need to start making plans for how these product developments are  going to be carried out in four countries of interest and how these  products are going to meet the regulatory requirements of those countries, They were simply looking for countries that have big markets for their products. Nigeria, one of the world’s largest producers of cassava tubers - with over 34 million metric tons produced annually since 2004 and consumed by millions of people, became their spot.

It also clear here that there is a systematic attempt at breaking down Africa’s regulatory resistance to GM crops. Their strategy received a boost when on the 9th of January 2009, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation awarded the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center a $5.4 million grant. According to the report “the funding will help the center secure the approval of African governments to allow field testing of genetically modified banana, rice, sorghum and cassava plants that have been fortified with vitamins, minerals and proteins. These crops are mainstays in the diets of millions in developing countries around the globe”    
It is pertinent to note that, the key pushers of GM crops are at the same time the major exporters of these crops and are the same people urging the Nigerian government to accept their bioengineered crops by passing a watered- down Biosafety Bill.  Who is setting the agenda? Whose interest are they really protecting? This is really the key issue and it breaks my heart to see that our National Assembly had being persuaded by agribusinesses and biotech industries to promote their vested interests.
GM crop proponents and USDA are urging Nigeria to double its “efforts to fast-track the creation of an enabling environment for biotechnology” in other words accelerate the development of their bio-safety laws” to allow the introduction of GM products in our country.  Biosafety laws are made to regulate GMOs, and to assess comprehensively the environmental, health, socioeconomic, and cultural impacts of the introduction of GMOs before making any release or acceptance of an imported GM product the result of such rules includes the right to say no and to ban and restrict GMOs. Nigeria needs strict Biosafety laws and we urge Government, in this sense, to evolve strict Biosafety laws using the African Model Law as the minimum standard.

The Quest for Nigeria:
Nigeria is the most populous country with an estimated population of about 150 million. It accounts for 47% of the West African population. With this numerical strength the biotech giants no doubt imagine that our nation has a good and ready market for its GM product. In a report by the USDA Foreign Agricultural Service tiled “Nigeria Biotechnology Agricultural Biotechnology 2007,” Nigeria is said to be “a food deficit country,” and imported about $3 billion worth of agricultural commodities in 2006.  Does mere importation of items amount to food deficit? Is there any country in the world that does not import some foods? The USDA is trying to paint an overblown picture of a nation that is in dire need of food and is poverty stricken and that the biotech industry is answer to the supposedly food deficit and hunger in Nigeria.

The dispute over hunger, malnutrition and GMOs has been made on many fronts in the past. The clearest case of resistance was recorded in 2002 when Zambia refused GM maize as food aid through the World Food Programme (WFP). Zambia firmly rejected GM maize and did eventually overcome the food crises without succumbing to the pressures of donors who insisted that a hungry man had no choice. Zambia raised the banner of dignity and sovereignty on behalf of our continent. The World Food Programme was surprised that any one raised issues with the GM food aid, because they had been giving out GM grains in food aid without questions in the past. The truth is that there is always a beginning of demands for accountability and for doing the right thing. For Africa, Zambia led the way.

Later on, in 2004 both Angola and Sudan came under intense pressure to accept GM maize when they faced food shortages. These nations insisted that if they were to accept GM maize they had to be milled and not whole grains. The obvious reason was that whole grains would inevitably be planted and would contaminate the environment.

In April 2008, the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for development (IAASTD), made up of over 400 scientists, published its report based on 4 years of deliberation and scientific, social science and economic analysis The report’s key findings amongst others, calls for far greater emphasis on agro-ecological approaches to land management. IAASTD did not endorse GM crops as the solution much to the annoyance of the biotechnology industry and the USA, Australia and Canada.  Is worthy of note that fifty eight counties have endorsed the IAASTD findings without such reservation.
Furthermore, a recent report by FAO/World bank : Missing Food: The Case of Postharvest Grain Losses in Sub-Saharan Africa, released on the 31 May 2011, resonates what we have been saying over time .  It was recommended that “To succeed, interventions must be sensitive to local conditions and practices, be viewed within a value chain lens, and ensure that appropriate economic incentives are in place. Governments can help by creating an enabling environment; reducing market transaction costs by investing in infrastructure such as roads, electricity and water; and strengthening agricultural research and extension, particularly in identifying where losses occur along the food chain and how to tackle them.”

The Emergence of the Nigerian Biosafety Bill:
Just to refresh our memory on what transpired during the “show” sorry, Public Hearing of the Biosafety Bill in December 2010. One thing was evident from the start of the hearing; they were unanimous in their conviction that GMOs must be introduced in Nigeria. This position was evident not only in the tone of Honourable Members of the House (present), in their respective welcome remarks, but also by speeches and goodwill messages from mainly biotech research-based organizations that took the podium on invitation from the Chairman of the House Committee on Agriculture, Hon. Gbenga Makanjuola. According to Makanjuola (sponsor of the bill), “biotechnology was a technology that could not be stopped and must be accepted by Nigerians.

To ensure they shut out opponents of the bill, the organizers guaranteed that majority of the proponents of the bill who were also on the background charting the course of the meeting were given enough time to speak.  ERA/FoEN and groups who were perceived opponents of the bill were pushed to background. Nevertheless, despite all the hurdles ERA/FoEN was able to point out some fundamental flaws in the bill.

Notably  the use of the verb ‘may’ instead of ‘shall’ in some sections of the bill makes it look as if the GMOs may be approved anyway whether the public wants it or not.  “For example, it is worrisome that Section 21 (1) of the draft says that the agency may decide to hold public hearings or consultations to obtain comments instead of ‘shall’, and also the use of the word ‘may’ as used in Section 23 of the draft implies that even if any of the stipulations of the paragraphs is not fulfilled, the agency may approve GMOs anyway,”

In addition, the draft bill does not mention liability in case damage arising from the release of GMOs into the environment. Liability and redress issues are very vital to any Biosafety regime and this whole concept is omitted in this Bill. There is no mention of liability in case damage arises from the release of GMOs into the environment even though they were considered safe and authorized at the time of the release. Who will be liable if damage arises from GMOs in the future from authorized products?

Biosafety laws are made to regulate GMOs and to assess comprehensively the environmental, health, socio-economic and cultural impacts of the introduction of GMOs, before making any release or acceptance of imported GM products. The result of such rules must include the right of the people to say no and to ban and restrict GMOs. But such is not in the draft.

It is worthy of note that, as they continued in their monologue (during the hearing), it was suggested by one Honourable member that, the Biosafety Committee should be domiciled in National Biotechnology Development Agency (NABDA) and not the Ministry of Environment.  ERA/FoEN joined a few others to denounce this move. ERA/FoEN told the gathering that NABDA which is amongst key agency promoting GMOs in the country, also seeks to be a regulator of the same products it’s promoting. It is not done any where in the world.
Our skepticism on the hidden motives behind the proposed bill was confirmed when the last submission allowed by the Joint Committee was given to the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). As expected, the USAID representative went on and on enumerating so-called benefits of GMOs to farmers and agricultural development in Africa.  We were also not surprised to see that the back page of the printed Biosafety bill that was distributed to stakeholders at the meeting had the logo of USAID and AATF, key institutions promoting GMOs and driving the passage of a weak Biosafety bill, which will allow the flooding of our country with all kinds of unwholesome food.   It’s no gainsaying that, they were the sponsors of the public hearing and the draft Biosafety bill. We have reasons to believe that the Biosafety Bill Nigerians will receive from the National Assembly would have been drafted solely to satisfy the interests of those who wish to push  their private agendas and sell their products. Big Business!
It’s a shame to see that our fellow country men are actively engaged in efforts to make our environment and our food unsafe for us. The question they should be asking is: Do Nigerians want GMOs or not?”


Lessons to Draw from:
IAASTD was described in Nagoya -Japan by Jack Heinemann, as the largest and most comprehensive study ever--400 researchers and 900 reviewers.  Seasoned Scientists, not driven by monetary considerations, arrived at the conclusion that the World does not need GMOs. 
The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) was considering whether to approve a genetically engineered (GE) salmon, which contains a modified growth hormone gene, for sale to US consumers. Opposition to this fish came from a wide range of groups including a group of 40 Representatives and Senators from the US Congress, who have called on the FDA not to approve the fish for human consumption. They are questioning the approval process and the lack of adequate public consultation.
Nnimmo Bassey, Right livelihood Award winner 2010 had said in his article OIL POLITICS: Playing politics with genetically modified organisms “while the world is advancing towards stricter control of GMOs, it is a different ball game in Nigeria where the chairman of the House committee on agriculture, Mr. Gbenga Makanjuola, has become a loose canon in his wholesale endorsement and push for the introduction of GE crops and products into Nigeria. Rather than see the Biosafety Bill that the National Assembly has been considering as a legislation to ensure the regulation of genetically modified organisms in Nigeria, Mr. Makajuola and his team see the bill as the key that will throw caution into the winds and allow the pushers of GE crops and products to have a field day in Nigeria. This is a matter about what we eat. It is a matter of life or death. We cannot afford to play politics or speculate on this.”

EU Parliament Committee Votes for GMO Cultivation Bans on Environmental Grounds: Recently, the Committee on Environment, Public Health and Food Safety of the European Parliament amended a proposal by the EU Commission that will allow EU member States to restrict or ban the cultivation of genetically modified (GM) crop varieties, on environmental grounds.
The Peruvian Parliament has approved a 10 years Moratoria for the liberation into the environment of GMOs.
The Mexican States of Tlaxcala and Michoacán each passed legislation banning the planting of genetically modified corn to protect natural plants from further contamination of transgenes
China  government said it will  breed its own high-yield seeds and set up large seed companies to help ensure the country's food security in coming decades' the State Council, China's cabinet, said in a statement.  Scientists said genetically modified (GMO) seeds would not be a priority for Beijing for at least five years. Public debate over the safety of GMO food coupled with a long approval process meant China may not rush to use GMO seeds widely in the near term.
In Uganda Farmers have strongly rejected the use of genetically modified (GM) seeds, saying with their introduction is detrimental to the indigenous seed. At a meeting of farmers’ groups, organised by Pelum Uganda, it was noted that GMOs)are not the solution to the food challenges in Uganda or in Africa, instead, they pose more problems.
A unit of Germany's Bayer AG has been ordered by a court in Arkansas to pay $136.8 million to Riceland Foods over the contamination of U.S. long grain rice stocks with a genetically modified strain from Bayer that decimated exports more than four years ago. The award follows several others in U.S. courts where the agricultural biotech firm has repeatedly been found negligent for allowing a strain of genetically modified long grain rice to contaminate U.S. supplies, leading importers like the European Union, to halt purchases. The list is endless.

Our Demands

The Makanjuola and NABDA proposed bill is clearly set for the promotion of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs).  The Biosafety bill that is needed is one that is open and transparent not one that is shoved down our throats by biotech agents.
We urge Mr. President withhold his assent to the bill pending  when the bill be opened up for public participation. There must be enough representation of all stakeholders such as farmers, more representatives from non-governmental organizations (not Biotech NGOs) and even the consumers, in the bill.
Finally, Corporations and multinational companies should not be allowed to dictate corporate-driven food and agricultural policies that undermine sustainable agriculture. The future of the whole world is small scale agriculture and GM crops does  not make room for this.

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