NBMA DG, Rufus Ebegba
The journey leading to the establishment of the National Biosafety Management Agency (NBMA) started a long time ago.
The quest for Nigeria’s biotechnology advancement dates back to 2001 when Nigeria adopted a National Biotechnology Policy and subsequent establishment of the National Biotechnology Development Agency in the same year.
It should also be noted that other research institutes and Universities are also players in the biotechnology sector. Nigeria as a major world player is not in isolation of global biotechnological growth and Biosafety matters.
It is a well-known fact that advancements in technologies are usually characterized by some potential adverse impacts and modern biotechnology is not an exception. It is in this context that Biosafety has become a means of addressing potential adverse impacts of modern technology and genetically modified organisms (GMOs), on conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity, taking into account risks to human health.
Government thinking was to create an avenue for the Nigerian Scientists to make breakthroughs in the areas of human health, environmental sustainability and food security in line with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
For Government to be able to benefit from modern biotechnology it has to put in place a legal framework that will effectively ensure the safety of its application and use, hence the establishment of the NBMA.
Permit me to briefly take you through the genesis of the actualization of the National Biosafety law in Nigeria. It is worthy to note that Nigeria is signatory to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, which is supplementary to the CBD. The development of National Biosafety Regulations dates back to 1994 when the first National Biosafety Guidelines were developed leading to the subsequent finalization of the National Biosafety Management Agency Act.
The process of the development of the Act followed a systematic involvement of major stakeholders and the public from 2002 to 2015.
The National Biosafety Management Agency (NBMA) Act 2015 is as a result of the commitment of Nigeria to international obligations, particularly to the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety (CPB), which the country signed in 2000 and ratified in 2003.
The Protocol’s major plank is to contribute to the global effort towards ensuring adequate level of protection in the transboundary movement, handling and use of living modified organisms resulting from modern biotechnology, focusing on protection of human health and environmental sustainability. Nigeria also signed the Nagoya-Kuala Lumpur Supplementary Protocol on Liability and Redress in 2012. The objective of this Supplementary Protocol is to contribute to the conservation of and sustainable use of biological diversity by providing international rules and procedures in the field of liability and redress relating to living modified organisms.
In the same vein, actualization of the National Biosafety Management Agency Act followed a systematic process. In 2002, a National Biosafety Committee was constituted under the Federal Ministry of Environment to develop a National Biosafety Framework for Nigeria. The Committee was made up of the Federal Ministries of Environment, Agriculture and Rural Development, Foreign Affairs, Education, Industry, Trade and Investment, Science and Technology, Justice, Health (National Agency for Food, Drug Administration and Control).
Other members were Veterinary Research Institute of Nigeria, Nigeria Customs Service, University of Agriculture Abeokuta, an NGO (Service for the improvement of Rural People) and experts in Biodiversity Conservation.
In 2006, the National Biosafety Policy and the First edition of draft National Biosafety Bill were the outcomes of the National Biosafety Committee. However, the Biosafety Bill went through further review processes with consultations of wider stakeholders in the six (6) geopolitical zones of Nigeria. The Bill went to the National Assembly in 2009 and initially passed in 2011 by the 6th NASS but could not be assented to before it elapsed. It went back to the National assembly in 2013 for further legislative process, passed by the NASS in 2015 and assented to in April 2015.
The Act established the National Biosafety Management Agency (NBMA) in the same year. The Act has penalty, liability clauses and labeling.
Ladies and Gentlemen, the Act empowers the NBMA which is an Agency under the Federal Ministry of Environment to formulate overall policy guidance on issues concerning biosafety in Nigeria. It is also to implement the Act as a whole. The Agency reconciles the need for safety of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) in international and national trade as well as biodiversity conservation. Essentially, the Agency is charged with responsibility for proving regulatory framework, institutional and administrative mechanisms for safety measures in the application of modern biotechnology in Nigeria to ensure safety of the practice of modern biotechnology, and use and handling of GMOs to avert adverse impacts on the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity, taking into account risk to human health.
With the acquisition of the National Biosafety Management Agency (NBMA) Act 2015, Nigeria has joined the league of countries in Africa with Biosafety laws and Agencies, which include South Africa, Egypt, Kenya, Mali, Burkina Faso, Tanzania, Sudan, Ghana, and Cameroun amongst others.
I want to assure you that the National Biosafety Management Agency is poised to effectively regulate modern biotechnology for the benefit of Nigerians and to allay the fears of the members of the public who so wish to consume GMOs. It should be clear that no one would be forced to use or consume GMOs in Nigeria. GMOS would be labeled. The Agency bases its decision on science, taking into consideration national interest, socio-economic issues, human health and safety to the environment.
The NBMA has capable personnel (scientists), who are well trained within and outside the country to effectively carry out its regulatory functions and also has well equipped laboratory to detect any smallest genes in GMOs. The Agency also carries out risk assessment on GMOs before approving their release for use. Nigerians should trust the Federal Government in its quest to diversify the Nigerian economy for the present and future generations.
Nigerians should be rest assured of the protection of their health and the environment by the National Biosafety Management Agency on matters concerning GMOs.
Presently there are no genetically modified organisms officially ready for consumption. What we have are for field trials. However the only one, cotton for commercialization, will not be ready for planting until the next two years.
With the Act in place, Nigeria as the giant of Africa has taken laudable strides in order to adopt the necessary legal framework and policy to direct development and use of modern biotechnology bearing in mind that if Nigeria gets it right, it will guide other African countries.
With the Regulatory Framework put into effect, the NBMA has the onerous task to ensure that potential impacts of the Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) on human or animal health, on the environment and the socio-economic impact are carefully weighed and the risk assessment fully carried out or estimated before ever they are released.
The Act which established the NBMA has sufficiently set up guidelines and regulations to govern the practices of the modern biotechnology in such a manner that will ensure that potential risks are eliminated. The law equally addresses other aspects such as the handling and packaging, transportation, labeling and off course the liability clause.
Therefore, it is safe to say that the Biosafety Act is very comprehensive ad well balanced and it went through different Legislative Houses to achieve holistic status. Some people have expressed or entertained concerns on GM foods and feeds claiming that the risks outweigh the benefits. Such views are expected especially as it relates to a new technology but it is however paradoxical that these set of people accept the advances that GM has recorded in healthcare hook, line and sinker.
There is no doubt that people’s level of knowledge or lack of it will obviously lead them to point to cases or data that seem to confirm their position while ignoring a significant portion of related cases or data that may contradict that position.
The National Biosafety Management Agency has the mandate to provide regulatory framework and institutional administrative mechanisms for safety measures in the application of modern biotechnology in Nigeria.
No individual or groups can protect Nigerians more than the government. The National Biosafety Management Agency Act is the only safety valve for the adoption of safe modern biotechnology and the deployment as well as the use of GMOs in Nigeria. The NBMA will NOT compromise on its mandate to ensure holistic biosafety in Nigeria.
The Agency Act is in full force and any breach will attract appropriate consequences. Institutions, individuals and companies that are involved in GMOs activities have been advised to formalize their dealings with the Agency to avoid being sanctioned.
The public should therefore trust the Agencys decisions and avoid unscientific information and acts capable of causing public distrust and panic. In the event of any doubt on matters concerning biosafety, the NBMA is available to clarify such. The Agency will partner with all relevant stakeholders in the discharge of its functions in the interest of the Nation.
Between the 3rd and 4th May, 2016, the Agency called a meeting of stakeholders to some the existing draft Biosafety regulations that would govern the application of GMOs in the country with a view to strengthening them.
There are several issues to be considered with regards to modern biotechnology. Most importantly are the issues of safe food and feeds, environmental consideration and the socio-economic impacts.
The controversy surrounding the food and feeds are quite germane. However, it will suffice to say that till date there is no reliable evidence that GM crops pose any health risk whatsoever. Recent FAO, WHO and other credible authorities attest to this.
The review conducted by the National Biosafety Committee made up of notable scientists and stakeholders on the Biosafety applications for maize and Bt cotton indicated that there were no evidence of harm, including allergic reactions.
Gentlemen of the Press, I can boldly assure you that before any GM crop is turned into food, the NBMA would have been sufficiently satisfied of its safety for human and animal consumption.
The application dossier before the National Biosafety Committee contains data that indicates that it is substantially equivalent to the conventionally bred counterpart and does not pose any new health risk.
Another area of interest is the environmental concern. The products of modern biotechnology are often living organisms which have the capacity to spread and multiply and infuse into our environment.
GM crops are planted in the fields much like the traditional crops. The main concern here is the possibility of interactions and effects of the transgenes and GMOs on the biodiversity and the functions of the ecosystems including the target and non target effects and ecological interaction. The pollen from the plants is distributed in the environment like that of any other plant.
It is refreshing to note that our Agency is presently carrying out a confined field trials of some GM products to assess the potential for transgenic plants to affect the non-target organisms before approving their commercial release.
Then there is the issue of control and socio-economic aspect. Like I earlier said, Government thinking for adopting modern biotechnology is to broaden its scientific and economic scope. This is exactly where the NBMA comes into play. The NBMA as a regulatory Agency is expected to create the enabling environment by providing the expert advice, knowledge and strategy. Biosafety is a very complex and specialized field of relevance to modern biotechnology because it covers aspects of science, law and commerce. It touches on broad areas of international law, trans-boundary agreement, treaties and protocols such as the Cartagena Protocol to mention but a few. What this means is that we at the Agency have both national and international responsibilities.
The NBMA is well positioned to face these responsibilities. We are not working alone, we are partnering with critical stakeholders such as the Nigerian Customs, the Nigerian Civil Defence Corps (NCDC), the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC), the Ministry of Justice, Science based institutions, the New Partnership for Africa Developments (NEPAD), African Biosafety Network of Expertise (ABNE) etc.
Gentlemen of the press, I urge you to use your various medium to reassure Nigerians that the NBMA is poised to ensure safety of human health, animal health and the ecosystem in the use of modern biotechnology. Nigerians should feel free to join hands with the Agency to attain great height. We will continue to review the Act until we reach the desired goal.
We solicit the collaboration of the Press to do more, we are not unaware that without your active support our successes will be limited.
Thank you for your attention.