To intensify efforts at promoting biosafety in Nigeria, Health of Mother Earth Foundation (HOMEF) organised a roundtable with lawyers and stakeholders in Abuja.
Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs), Emerging Technologies such as Gene Drives and Synthetic Biology, Agroecology, Biosafety Act/Regulation in Nigeria, were the major issues discussed during presentations and panel discussions.
Biosafety entails protecting the ecosystem and human health from harmful incidents. This is achievable through dependable Biosafety laws and regulations. Where biosafety regulations are strong, biodiversity is sure and food systems are secured.
According to Nnimmo Bassey, HOMEF’s Director, modern agricultural biotechnology which threatens biosafety is promoted for two main reasons:
First is to create genetically modified (GM) crops like GM cotton, canola and sugarbeets that tolerate herbicides/weed killers which are produced by same companies that make the GM crops.
Second is to manufacture crops that kill target pests (e.g. Bt Cotton, maize and cowpea).
These crops produce their own insecticide thus can be called pesticides and are unsafe.
There is also GMO 2.0 which is the next generation genetic engineering also known as synthetic biology or ‘extinction technology’. This technology is being used in different sectors- agriculture, military, health and conservation.
Ifeanyi Nwankwere, who is currently handling (with a team of experts) the court case against the approval for introduction of GM cotton and maize into Nigeria, explained the challenges of biosafety in Nigeria.
According to him, the challenges are found in certain clauses in Nigeria’s Biosafety Act of 2015 which was amended in 2019. He explained that the Act gives room for regulatory capture which occurs when a special interest is prioritised over public interest, leading to a net loss for society.
This is demonstrated by the presence of major promoters of biotechnology such as the National Biotechnology Development Agency (NABDA) on the board of the regulatory agency, National Biosafety Management Agency (NBMA), created by the Act.
Another deficiency in the Act is that it institutes a fault-based type of liability and redress in which a petitioner must prove that a defendant’s conduct was either negligent or intentional.
This is against “a Strict liability which is more consistent with the principle of precautionary measure as it allows imposition of liability on a party without a finding of fault (such as negligence),” Nwankwere stated.
The Precautionary Principle states that where there are threats of serious damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation. Thus, cost-effective measures such as halting promotion of GMOs should not be dependent on scientific proof.
The Act is meant to implement provisions of international treaties like the Convention on Biological Diversity and the Cartagena Protocol to the Convention on Biological Diversity on matters relating to GMOs.
These treaties uphold the Precautionary Principle but “Nigerian courts are yet to take the Principle seriously,” Nwankwere lamented.
Lawyers at the roundtable agreed that threats posed by GMOs should be continuously challenged through litigations, with concerned experts in Biosafety and lawyers working side by side.
Chima Williams a Lawyer and Acting Director of Environmental Rights Action/Friends of the Earth, Nigeria (ERA/FoEN), thus, encouraged stakeholders to question issues of fairness, equity and justice in GMO conception, development and distribution processes.
“The question that should be asked is: What fundamental rights are violated if the process is not equitable?” Williams stressed.
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