Expanding scope of NMBA Act to include modern biotechnology is dangerous – HOMEF

The director, Health of Mother Earth, Dr. Nnimmo Bassey in this interview with JOHN OBA, said the proposed amendment of the bill National Biosafety Management Agency Act in the National Assembly to include aspects of modern biotechnology potend danger for Nigerians. He spoke on other issues.

HOMEF have been silence for some times now, are you giving up on the fight against GMOs?

It is incorrect to assume that HOMEF has been quiet. And no; we have not stopped advocating for a ban on GMOs and for better protection of our food system, health environment and economy. We are actually doing more now than ever before because the situation in Nigeria and Africa generally is getting more threatening.

Can you expatiate on the inherent danger of the proposed bill to expand the scope of National Biosafety Act to include Biotechnology?

As stated in the memorandum we sent to the House of Representatives, expanding the scope of the Act to include evolving aspects of modern biotechnology is a  dangerous proposal that would compound the risks already posed by the application of the basic aspects of the technology. The use of gene drive organisms may benefit corporate interests, but has potential of wiping off whole species of organisms as it allows for artificial genetic changes to be forced through entire populations/generations of animals, insects and plants. This poses a severe threat to biodiversity, ecological systems and environmental sustainability. No scientist can claim that she completely understands how genes interact and the genes do not work in isolation. The global food and agriculture movement opposes release and experimentation of gene drives, advising that their use will entrench a system of genetically-engineered industrial agriculture and foster corporate control over food systems, undermining the food sovereignty of farmers, food workers and consumers. The ability of these new technologies to alter populations and cause extinction within short time frames, make them important biological weapons and a threat to global security.
The United Nations’ Convention on Biological Diversity at the 14th  Conference of Parties (COP) in November 2018 called upon Parties and other Governments “taking into account the current uncertainties regarding engineered gene drives, to apply a precautionary approach, in accordance with the objectives of the Convention, and to only consider introducing organisms containing engineered gene drives into the environment, including for experimental releases and research and development purposes, when scientifically sound case-by-case risk assessments have been carried out,; risk management measures are in place to avoid or minimize potential adverse effects, and appropriate, prior and informed consent or approval of potentially affected indigenous peoples and local communities is obtained. (Decision 14/19)

Until a global agreement is reached on how to carry out risk assessments, we would be concerned that any new framework enabling new gene-edited changes might also have the effect of creating loopholes allowing for gene drive organisms release unless there is a clearly stated prohibition. The Amendment Bill also seeks to include in the Act, a clause on synthetic biology stating that “Synthetic biology approach in genetic engineering involves the use of re-designed existing principles of engineering molecular biology, physics, chemistry and computer science to generate a new organism with traits which does not exist in nature. By this definition,  doors will be open for all sorts of synthetic organisms to be released or experimented in Nigeria  as long as they have traits that can be found in nature although these organisms themselves” are in no way natural. 

This is a loophole that will be harnessed to bring in every kind of dangerous and artificial product. We have to critically look at this proposition because synthetic biology applications have tremendous implications for local economies and biodiversity. Natural products will be replaced with synthetic (unnatural) ones and markets will be concentrated in the hands of corporations thus increasing corporate control over the product processes. In addition to the negative impacts on local livelihoods, ecosystems and cultures, synthetic biology processes themselves may create unexpected contaminants, toxins or allergens that may be hard to control.  Our stand on this proposed bill is that the current regulatory system should first be strengthened. Or better still there should be an outright prohibition of the dangerous, evolving technology. An amendment of the Act to include evolving or extreme aspects of modern biotechnology will mean an unhindered movement of these products into Nigeria as the current biosafety regulatory agency acts as a promoter of the technology rather than an unbiased regulatory body. 
We have been hearing of bio-warfare globally, don’t

you think proper implementation of this bill will enhance Nigeria ability in bio-warfare?

What we should be asking is what is responsible for the threat of a bio-war and how can this be avoided? In fact, opening Africa to these needless experiments or releases could actually make us vulnerable to bioterrorism.

If Nigeria reject GMO now, what happens to the products already released into the market?

It is better to halt the adoption of GMOs now than later. Once these organisms are released into the environment it is virtually impossible to recall them. However, the processed products can be stopped, removed from our shelves and destroyed. This is a good time to withdraw all the permits granted for importation of GM products whether for feeds processing, for food or for field trials. We also have to keep a closer surveillance on our boarders and prevent the importation of foods produced with genetic engineering or containing genetically modified ingredients.

What other actions do you propose the authorities take to stop this?

The biosafety regulatory system has to be strengthened and the loopholes in the already existing law fixed. One of such loopholes is the absence of provisions for strict liability and redress which mandates that the biotechnology corporations take responsibility for immediate and future negative impacts of use of their products as is the case in a similar Act in Uganda. Also, too much discretionary powers are given to the agency on processing of applications on modern biotechnology. There should be put in place, chain regulatory system that actually involves major regulatory bodies such as the National Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC), Standard Organisation of Nigeria (SON) and the Consumer Protection Council (CPC) to ensure more thorough regulation of the technology. It is hard to imagine an unbiased regulatory regime, with the board of the agency populated by promoters of modern biotechnology. To assure food sufficiency/ food sovereignty, we have to commit to proper research on sustainable alternatives that works with nature/ecological systems, build on indigenous knowledge and support local economies. Nigeria should focus on reducing wastage occasioned by lack of processing/storage facilities and poor road networks and provide support for farmers in terms of credit schemes, extension services and access to land.  In response to challenges of pests and diseases, we should invest in biological control measures and not quick/temporary solutions.

What’s your plan for the year?

Our theme for the year is de-colonizing minds and that means our focus is to decolonize our food systems, protect our farms and farmers. We believe that there are deep threats to our food systems, biodiversity and overall ecosystems in our nation due to considerations and policy actions that are not anchored on the right of our people to a safe and healthy environment.  Speaking truth to power and those that pretend to have power is the task before all of us. 

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