Constructive activism for strengthening modern biotechnology regulation in Africa

Constructive activism for strengthening modern biotechnology regulation in Africa

Extended paper presented at the Third National Biosafety Conference of the National Biosafety Management Agency (NBMA) held at the Conference Hall, Turkish Nile University, Abuja on 14th September 2017

It is with deep pleasure that I stand here this morning, as part of this noble gathering, to speak on behalf  of myself and for Every Woman Hope Centre (EWHC), an Abuja based NGO, that advocates for better health for humans, sustainable development, good governance and the publishers of Lifecare Journal

I wish to thank the organizers; National Biosafety Management Agency (NBMA) formally for inviting EWHC and for organizing this important conference for exchange of ideas and information on: ‘’Biosafety: Paving the way for Safe and Sustainable Environmental Management, Agricultural Development and Economic Recovery’’.

The issues lined up for discussion today are indeed of interest to us in EWHC because we have on many public occasions and fora both nationally and internationally joined in canvassing and indeed supported the application of modern biotechnology under proper  biosafety regulations for safe agricultural development, sustainable environmental management and economic recovery. EWHC has been expressing its support on these issues through the media and I think what we are doing is right. It has the support of science and greater people globally, especially in Africa have now come to terms that if the fight against hunger and malnutrition is to be defeated, the application of safe modern biotechnology to agriculture must be given a priority.

In our discussions today Ladies and Gentlemen, we must put at the back of our minds, what is trending globally and listen to institutions that are in the forefront of the discussion. The United Nations Food & Agriculture Program (UNFAP) has noted for instance, that global production of food, feed and fibre will need to double approximately by 2050 to meet the demands of a growing global population. Coincidentally, the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO) has predicted that to satisfy demand, food production will need to increase by 70%. Besides, land and water resources are increasingly being degraded and depleted and these have serious implications for developing countries and in particular, the African continent. There are myriads of critical global changes that also affect the continent especially Nigeria and these are huge challenges.

Addressing these challenges requires adoption of safe technologies that would foster green economy; address the factors that mitigate the impacts of climate change, ensure food security and nutrition and enhance economic growth which are of national priority towards improving the wellbeing of citizens. Fortunately, the genetically modified (GM) crops so far produced and globally commercialized are for herbicide tolerance, insect resistance, disease resistance, drought resistance and bio fortification.

Creating rice with beta-carotene content for instance was not possible until the advent of biotechnology. Golden Rice (GR) is genetically modified to provide beta-carotene in the rice grain and it could potentially address widespread vitamin A deficiency in poor countries where rice is a staple. Very significantly, GR improves vitamin A status so that it could become a solution to address vitamin A supplementation, the promotion of breastfeeding, nutrition education, homestead food production and food fortification. The idea behind GR is to improve the food that people have access to or can grow themselves. It is very important to note that earlier, on November 7, 2013, Pope Francis also gave his personal blessing to Golden Rice during the visit of Ingo Potrykus, the creator of golden rice (Google Pope Francis blesses Golden Rice, Biology Fortified, news blog).

Organizations opposed to modern plant breeding, have repeatedly denied these facts and opposed biotechnological innovations in agriculture. They have misrepresented their risks, benefits, and impacts, and supported the criminal destruction of approved field trials and research projects. Although modern agricultural science was the key to reducing rural poverty and preventing starvation in Asia, similar advances is being kept out of Africa. The cultural turn against agricultural science among affluent societies is now being exported to Africa whereas it has been noted that sustaining African economic prosperity will require significant efforts to modernize the continent’s economy through the application of science and technology in agriculture.

The suspicion often caused by the anti-globalization activists against GMO crops but not GMO processed foods like cheese and beer or medical applications like insulin and many new drugs paradoxically reinforced an “environmentally justified” set of regulatory hurdles, which only large companies can afford. As such, they end up shooting themselves at the foot while the farmers and consumers who would benefit from those crops are collateral victims as there seems to be no scientific justifications for these high regulatory costs. “Scientific and regulatory agencies around the world have repeatedly and consistently found crops and foods improved through biotechnology to be as safe as, if not safer than those derived from any other method of production. The worldwide scientific consensus on the safety of genetic engineering is as solid as that which underpins human-caused global warming. Yet this basic truth on GMOs, that they’re as safe, as conventionally cultivated food, is ignored when ideological interests are threatened.

There has been various myths concerning the genetically modified organisms (GMOs) but they have no scientific proof and remain untrue. Further studies have revealed some of these myths and their realities as carefully listed.

Ladies and Gentlemen, there is no doubt that advancement in any technology also goes with some potential adverse impacts and modern biotechnology is not an exception in this regard. This is the basis for the domestication of the Categena Protocol in Africa particularly Nigeria by enacting the National Biosafety act of 2015 as a means for addressing potential adverse impacts of modern technology and GMOs on the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity, taking into account risks to human health. This act established the National Biosafety Management agency (NBMA) and charged it with the responsibility for providing the regulatory framework, institutional and administrative mechanism for safety measures in the application of modern biotechnology in Nigeria.

There has been a lot of campaign by anti-GMO activists against modern biotechnology and the regulatory body, the NBMA, creating fears in the minds of Nigerians. They refer to the agency as a local collaborator that is aiding a cooperate takeover. To them, it is a great problem that besets Nigeria while the commendable efforts to regulate and ensure a safe application of modern biotechnology in agricultural process are dismissed as ‘Food Politics’. This is so mean. It is very destructive and condemnable to perceive a federal government agency in this light. This is most unpatriotic.

 NBMA like many other government agency is charged with various responsibilities and mandates. She is responsible for providing the regulatory framework for safety measures with the view to protecting the human health and the biodiversity from potential adverse effect of modern biotechnology. In Nigeria, NBMA is the only national authority on Biosafety to ensure safety in the use of modern biotechnology and provide holistic approach to the regulation of genetically modified organisms. One of its mandates is to safeguard the environment and ensure food safety.

The management of the 3-year old agency has demonstrated special competence and efficiency in biosafety management and deliverables. The Director General/CEO of the Agency, Dr. Rufus Ebegba has on various occasions stated that ‘’The Agency is committed to adoption of safe modern biotechnology in the diversification of the Nigeria’s economy under sound biosafety regulatory framework. He has also stated the Agency’s resolve to ensure safety to human health and the environment of any GMO that would be released for any purpose in Nigeria’’. The fact still remains that irrespective of the sensitivity of this agency, the voice is still too low to be heard, even worse in sister African countries.

The time has come for a constructive activism for strengthening modern biotechnology regulation in Africa. All efforts should be concentrated on making this system work. There should be adequate funding and support for regular sensitization programmes and interactions within African states for greater awareness and appreciation of the regulatory roles in safe modern biotechnology applications. I call on the Federal Government of Nigeria and the relevant Ministries, the African Union (AU), the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and other related bodies and multinational companies to hype their activities and support for strengthened modern biotechnology regulations in Nigeria and Africa in general. Oppositions must be very constructive and should not clog the wheels of development.

Ladies and Gentlemen, it is very instructive to note that the pro GMO regulation advocacy has been growing from strength to strength globally and should be encouraged for informed policy and choice.  Let us sustain the tempo. IN EWHC, WE SHALL AND WE WILL. Constructive Activism has become imperative now as a tool towards paving way to contain hunger and malnutrition, ensure agricultural development, safe and sustainable environment and economic recovery. Outright opposition to modern biotechnology practices and its proper regulation contributes directly to the continued growth of poverty and hunger and should be completely eliminated at this juncture.

Thank you.

Edel-Quinn Agbaegbu, is the executive Director Every Woman Hope Centre, a Nigeria- Based NGO and Publishers Of Lifecare Magazine


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