The Nigerian biosafety bill is one bill that has suffered a lot of legislative setback over the years, the bill was first presented to the parliament in 2006, and was passed eventually in 2010, during the sixth assembly, but failed to get presidential accent before the expiration of the last administration.

The bill, among other things, seeks to provide derived benefits from modern biotechnology under a legal framework for economic growth, improved agriculture, job and wealth creation, industry growth and sustainable environment, minimise risks to human health, confirm and harness potentials of modern biotechnology, protect and guard against any adverse effect of GMOs on biological diversity and the environment, and guard against any economic consequences, among others.

The bill was returned to the seventh assembly for further legislative actions with the hope that the president may accent to it this time around. It was on this belief that the Senate recently conducted a public hearing on it. One of the major issues that the bill seeks to address is the establishment of a National Biosafety Management Agency for the country.

The agency, if established, would be responsible for the developing of risk management plans and strategies for protecting human health, biological diversity and the environment from potential risk associated with genetically modified organisms. The agency is also to take samples and carry out laboratory analyses of crops, products or materials for purpose of determining if they contain genetically modified organisms and ensure compliance with the law.

The biosafety bill

The overall objective of the biosafety bill is to provide a regulatory regime and guidance for the sustainable development of the science of Modern Biotechnology, its application and safe use of GMOs and the products thereof without prejudice and risk to public health, environmental health, national sovereignty, human dignity and fundamental human rights.

The bill covers all Modern Biotechnology activities, Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) and products thereof including all germplasm, it defines modules of practice of Modern Biotechnology, the handling, transfer and use of GMOs and products thereof to ensure safety to the environment and to human health. It is also intended to guide different segments of society in contributing to safe application of Modern Biotechnology.

The bill recognises the complex issues to be addressed by central authorities in the judicious application of Modern Biotechnology, it ensures that modern biotechnology activities and their products (GMOs) are safe for the environment and to human health; it bases the deliberate release of GMO on advance informed agreement.

Furthermore, the bill defines offences and penalty for violation of the act, contains powers to authorise release of GMOs and practice of modern biotechnology activities, confers the power to carry out risk assessment/management before the release, handling and use of GMOs, covers all genetically modified organisms/living modified organisms, products food/feed and processing and also covers socio-economic consideration in risk assessment.

The Cartagena Protocol

Nigeria signed and ratified an internationally binding Biosafety Protocol Known as Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety in 2000 and 2002, respectively. The Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety is a protocol of the Convention on Biological Diversity. The Protocol entered into force on September 11, 2003, and currently has 160 members. The Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety addresses the safe transfer, handling and use of Living Modified Organisms (LMOs) that may have adverse effects on conservation and sustainable utilisation of biodiversity, taking into account risk to human health and focusing on trans-boundary movement of LMOs.

The Protocol requires parties to it to develop their Biosafety administrative and regulatory framework in order to effectively regulate activities of modern biotechnology, Genetically Modified Organisms and product thereof to avoid harmful effects on the environment, biodiversity and human health. The Biosafety bill is therefore to domesticate the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety which Nigeria has signed and ratified and to abide by the protocol in line with our national needs. At the 5th meeting of the Conference of Parties of the Convention on Biological Diversity serving as Meeting of Parties to the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety which was held on the 11th – 15th of October 2010 in Japan, Which Nigeria participated fully.

Modern biotechnology

Modern Biotechnology has been identified as an important tool that can help countries to achieve food sufficiency/food security, industrial growth, health improvement and environmental sustainability.

It entails the fusion of cells beyond the taxonomic family that overcomes natural physiological reproductive or combination barriers and that are not techniques used in traditional breeding and selection. It is gene specific. Nigeria adopted Biotechnology policy in 2001 as an alternative tool to achieve the objectives of biotechnology for national development. A National Biotechnology Development Agency was further established in 2001, to actualise the policy to promote biotechnology activities in the country.

However, the absence of a Biosafety law has hampered the activities of the agency in the research and development in genetically modified organisms in the country. Thereby denying Nigeria the benefits associated with Modern Biotechnology practice.

Benefits of modern biotechnology

Modern biotechnology helps to Produce plants that can reduce Green House Gases thereby reducing effect of Climate Change, its precise in its trait utilization, it develops plants that have greater tolerance to stress in marginal environment, it improves growth and productivity of plants and animals, improves food quantity, nutritional improvement and consistency for healthy living, Produces new breeds animals and plants, reduces use of pesticides and herbicides, reduces farming land area with higher yields, facilitates Job and wealth creation, leads to better health facilities, Industrial growth and Sustainable environment. In as much as Modern Biotechnology has great potentials, there are fears of possible adverse impacts on the environment and human health, which has necessitated Biosafety law.

Why biosafety law is necessary in Nigeria

Rufus Ebegba, a deputy director in the Biosafety Unit of the Ministry of Environment, said recently that: “The need for Nigeria to regulate modern biotechnology practice and GMOs has become very important due to some concern like health, environment and safety.”

Ebegba noted that until there was a law in place it would be difficult to regulate biotechnology, adding that already there were ‘GM suspect products’ in the country but the necessary laws to track down those products was lacking.

Shehu Ado of the Institute for Agricultural Research, Zaria, said the coming on board of the bill would equip Nigerian scientists to practice biotechnology as it relate to food, health and the environment.

Ado said the bill will protect Nigerians as all biotechnology activities and scientists would be subjected to strict monitoring to ensure that no harmful activities was employed to affect human, animals or the environment.

“It will help the country to harness the potentials modern technology has to offer under a legal regime, there is currently a lot of concern regarding the possible toxicity and allerginicity of food products derived from GMOs, there are equally concerns on the environmental consequences of the use of GMOS and their release into the environment, in particular the effects on biological diversity, it will ensure environmental, human and socio-economic safety,” he said.

Consequences of not having of biosafety law

The consequences of not having the biosafety law on the environmental, human health and on our economy may be unquantifiable, which might pose serious threat to our national security, particularly now that modern biotechnology has come to occupy a centre stage globally in nearly all facets of human endeavour.

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