Boost for Regulation of Genetically Modified Foods

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Continuous advocacy by some civil society organisations for government to ban Genetically Modified Organisms food crops, which they termed as unsustainable and unsafe, recently paid off with the Senate’s recent move to enforce stricter regulations by reviewing the National Biosafety Management Agency Act in the overall interest of protecting food safety and public interests. Chiemelie Ezeobi reports

 In 2015, Nigeria officially signed the Biosafety Bill into law, which made her eligible to join the league of nations already using genetic engineering to boost their food production.
This led to the establishment of theNational Biosafety Management Agency (NBMA) to regulate and approve Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) while the National Biotechnology Development Agency (NABDA) was created to promote the technology.

Protracted DebateNotwithstanding the checks and balances the above agencies were supposed to impose, there have been  protracted debate over the application of GM crops into the food system.
Chief among the critics include Health of Mother Earth Foundation (HOMEF), GMO-free Nigeria, Corporate Accountability and Public Participation Africa (CAPPA), and Environmental Rights Action/Friends of the Earth Nigeria (ERA/FoEN),  whose argument is that the country is not medically ready for the health consequences.
Continuously citing health and safety concerns,  HOMEF and its affiliates criticised the applications and approvals, which they posited are granted without proper considerations.

But for promoters of the GMOs, there was no need to worry since the process was driven technology and scientific research backed by water tight safety procedures.

So What are GMOs?
Genetically Modified Organism (GMO) is an animal, plant, or microbe whose DNA has been altered using genetic engineering. 
Essentially, genetically modified organism is any organism whose genetic material has been altered using genetic engineering techniques. 
Mainly driven by agrochemical firms, GMOs foods focuses on herbicide tolerant crops and patented seed outlaw seed-saving, thereby reducing self-reliance.

GMOs and Likely Health ImplicationsFor renowned Environmental Rights Activist and Director of HOMEF, Mr. Nnimmo Bassey, given his stance thatNigeria was not ready for GMOs because “our health system is poor and non-effective when compared to other country’s health system”, he stressed that GMOs are artificial crops that pollute and degrade. 
“GMOs have socioeconomic, social-cultural and religious implications. This will cause a lot of implications on out farmers and food system”, he posited,  adding that while small scale farmers leave the soil enriched, GMO products does the contrary. 
“It endangers the health of consumers and negatively has an impact on the ecosystem. 80 per cent of food in the world is produced by small scale farmers, using 26 per cent of the resources. We don’t need synthetic food in Nigeria, but protection and aids for our farmers,” he said. 
Accordingly, he added that GMOs produce for consumption causes harmful consequences to human health. 
“Although GMO is meant to kill weevils, it is poisonous to the health. Nigeria and Europe do not have the same health system”, Nnimmo insisted that the National Bio-safety Management Agency Act 2015 needed to be reviewed because it “will prioritise the precautionary principle, strengthen public participation and include strict provision for liability and redress”.

Amended Bio-safety Law 
Given the continuous clamour and concerns raised, in 2019, the government amended the Bio-safety law by expanding the scope of the NBMA Act to include evolving aspects of biotechnology such as ‘gene drives, gene editing, and synthetic biology.’

Senate InterventionJust this month, the consistent clamour by civil society organisations paid off as it elicited intervention from the Senate.

On April 5, 2022, Food Farm News reported that ‘Senate insists on GMOs thorough regulation’. For CSOs like GMO-Free Nigeria, HOMEF, Corporate Accountability and Public Participation Africa (CAPPA), Environmental Rights Action/Friends of the Earth Nigeria (ERA/FoEN), it was a big win.

Food Farms News had reported that the Presenter of the bill, the Senate Leader, Dr Yahaya Abdullahi stressed why the Bill for the Amendment of the National Biosafety Management Act (NBMA) must be supported for more diligent legislation that would make our country zero tolerant to any hazardous product as related to GMOs saying our soils and the good health of Nigerians must be well protected with eco-friendly environment. 
According to him ‘‘there have not been any conclusive finding regarding overall safety of GMOs on normal lives and environment. So Mr. President, my distinguished colleagues, caution must be our watch words in the handling of the GMOs because even as we speak about sixty countries around the world population have partially or totally ban the use of GMOs.”

The decision by the Senate, presided over by Senate President Ahmad Lawan, was supported by majority of the Senators in passing of the Second Reading of the Bill for an Amendment of the NBMA 2015 and other Related Matters of 2022, for a more diligent and integrity test of GMOs. 
According to reports, speakers on the Senate floor were of the opinion that our environment must be of priority and better soil ecosystem management through diligent regulation of GMO seed varieties and other products must be upheld. 
They added that caution must be central in what “we allow into our country through foreign partnerships in the interest of our environment and Nigerians health”. 

Commendation from CSOsApplauding  the Senate for considering a bill to review the National Biosafety Management Agency (NBMA) Act in the overall interest of protecting food safety and public interests in Nigeria, Bassey, stated that “this is a huge milestone towards defending the rights of Nigerian citizens to safe food and environment. 
“It is a step in the right direction for consumers and especially for small holder farmers who are directly impacted by GMOs and associated chemicals, and yet have little or no knowledge or choice about the entry of these unnatural varieties into our food system or of their potential risks. 
“We reject being fed with foods of dubious quality! We have always called on the government to interrogate the questionable authorisation of crops that would have irreversible impacts on our biodiversity, health, environment, and food safety. We applaud this intervention by the Senate in seeking to enforce law and order with proper regulation of Biosafety in Nigeria.” 
 He added that promoting food safety and security/sovereignty is a mandate that rests not just on the Biosafety Management Agency but also on the entire public and thus public opinion must be duly considered in decision making processes concerning GMOs. 

He further posited that it should never be forgotten that Nigeria shares extensive land borders with other nations and GMOs allowed into Nigeria are invariably being introduced to these neighbouring nations without their knowledge or consent.

The Director of Corporate Accountability and Public Participation Africa (CAPPA), Akinbode Oluwafemi, whilst congratulating the Senate for this bold step said, “We strongly believe that scientific integrity and social responsibility and accountability are not negotiable, and no technology should be exempted from these values.” 
He went on to say that those saddled with the duty of protecting our food must look away from the industrial yield-output paradigm and adopt a more integrated, systems approach to food and agriculture that takes into consideration many factors, including local food security and sovereignty. 
 He further said “there is need for very effective independent, credible, regulatory authority to ensure rigorous oversight of GE crops, without the least hint of any conflict of interest.
” Priority should be given to rural communities, livelihoods, and the interests of resource-poor and marginal small-scale farmers rather than serving corporate interests and their profits. 
“GMOs will bring about seed colonisation, distorting of our food culture and foster dependency on local and international corporations. Instead of ensuring the well-being of the people, it only stands to benefit the corporations and their Nigerian cohorts.”
Barrister Chima Williams, The Executive Director of Environmental Rights Action/ Friends of the Earth Nigeria (ERA/FoEN) said this a welcome development and the position of the Senate resonates with what they have being telling Nigerians and the government for over a decade.
 “GMOs are regulated because their safety is not guaranteed. There are good reasons why in Europe robust regulatory mechanisms are in place for GM food and GM crops. GMOS are not the same as natural varieties and they are also not substantially equivalent.
” If they were indeed one and the same thing, as the GMOs proponents claim, why are they modifying them and why have patents on them? The claim of substantial equivalence as touted by the promoters of the technology, is an industry get-out tactic to avoid the rigour of proper assessment and regulation.”

According to Williams, GM technology has undeniably become associated with profit seeking corporations and rolled out as a tool to further consolidate their dominant market positions and colonisation of our food systems and processes.
“We must consider too that many things that scientists are trying to achieve with GMOs have already been provided by nature and by our local farmers through conventional breeding. 
“We should not accept the proposition that only GM Crops and GM food can solve problems in agriculture. Certainly, there is sufficient evidence to show that Non-GMO options and innovations have out-performed the much touted GM options.”  

Mariann Bassey-Orovwuje, the Coordinator for Food Sovereignty Program for Friends of the Earth Nigeria and Africa and the Chair of the Agroecology and Land Working Group of the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa (AFSA) said “There is enough reasons to hold back on commercialising GM Crops in Nigeria.”
 She urged that the Senate should subject all the “GMO crops and food approved into our environment to an independent, transparent, environmental, social and health impact evaluations”.
 She said as a matter of urgency they should be subjected to stringent regulatory scrutiny, and they would know that the Groups’ concerns about them were justified. 

ConcernsStrongly reiterating their concerns, the  Groups strongly rejected “the non-circumspect modus-operandi of the National Biotechnology development Agency, National Biosafety Management agency and partners to foist GMO crops/foods upon undiscerning Nigerians via their introduction and marketing into our agricultural system and food supply chain.
 “We have valid concerns about GMOs, and we have compelling and cogent reasons to support our views even though they are constantly being vilified by the promoters of the GM technology.”
According to the Groups, instead of engaging in open and honest debate, they have seen some scientists and promoters of the failed GM technology hardening their positions, lashing out at critics, and forwarding personal opinions or parroting corporate opinions and agenda. 
The group retorted ‘We refused to be swayed by industry-inspired lobbying and spin and mere rhetoric designed to shut off debates.

Need for Public Hearing on Bill The Groups equally urged the Senate to convoke a Public Hearing on the Bill to allow other Nigerians add their voices in support of the path the Senate has chosen by presenting their concerns, views and evidence before the Senate on why there should be stronger and more stringent conditions for admittance of any product that is unknown to the Nigerian households.
 “We need truly innovative and culture relevant systems such as agroecology that protect and enhance ecosystems, support small holder farmers while cooling the planet, increasing productivity, and promoting food sovereignty. 
“Nigerians should support the Senate in the move towards protecting our food varieties and ensuring that GMOs are not forced on our people without their knowledge of what they are planting or eating.

“We shall not fold our arms and watch our food and agricultural systems colonised and destroyed by profit seeking businesses working with public agencies serving unabashedly as middlemen,” they added.

Quote“We reject being fed with foods of dubious quality! We have always called on the government to interrogate the questionable authorisation of crops that would have irreversible impacts on our biodiversity, health, environment, and food safety. We applaud this intervention by the Senate in seeking to enforce law and order with proper regulation of Biosafety in Nigeria”