The Director General, National Biosafety Management Agency (NBMA), Dr. Rufus Ebegba in this interview spoke on the roles and responsibilities of the agency as enshrined in the Act that set up. He shared his view on the reasons for seemingly unending controversy between the supporters and anti-GMO interest groups. Beyond that he allayed fear of the public saying the earlier Nigerians start trusting the government on GM products the better it is for everybody. He argued there is nobody that can protect the people more than the government. Bamidele Fashube of AgroNature Nigeria brings Excerpts:
Is it really necessary for Nigeria to join the league of countries using GM products?
Biosafety Management Agency does not really canvass for GMO, but ensures that they are safe, but I want to tell you that Nigeria cannot be an isolation of international community. Nigeria is a signatory to the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety; a signatory to convention on biological diversity. Apart from that, Nigeria is a major player in ensuring there is a global economic prosperity not only in Africa but in the African Union, ECOWAS, sub-region. Nigeria is a signatory to the decisions on those two regions to the decision that science and technology are used to drive the African economy.
In that regard, it is also agreed that biosafety and biotechnology should evolve together. So the issue of the technology being used for economic growth of Africa and Nigeria as a whole and ensuring safety by the introduction of biosafety are already in place and it ensures the safety of its technologies and products before they are released. Nigeria is a major player.
There is no organism in the world presently, either plant or animal that, that is the way they are created by God. They have been altered through human scientific expertise, endeavor and even some of them are undergoing natural evolution. So what we are doing is to ensure that these products are safe and we are not also working without taking cognizance of the fact of what the International bodies that regulate the sector also talk about. This agency’s manpower has one of the best training in Africa. Apart from that, we are involved in assisting the United Nations convention on biological diversity secretariat to develop biosafety risk assessment and risk management guidelines. Very few countries in Africa have genetically modified organism detection laboratory, we have that in place with some of the best equipment.
We recently reviewed our policy which was adopted by the Federal Executive Council (FEC). Apart from the fact that the regulation is in place, the country has invested in National Biosafety Development Agency to promote and develop the technology. We have colleges of agriculture, conventional university that are doing genetic engineering and they are all to come out with novel products. The agency is a safety valve that the federal government has put in place to ensure that the technology and the products are safe to human health and environment.
There are allegations that your agency and NABDA issued license earlier than expected to Monsanto and other international organisations dealing with GM products, Why is that?
If anybody is saying a document was signed on some day, that is their own perception about the whole thing. All we did was to give a date to a permit that was granted to an applicant and that date was validity date and that was what we did. Again in this country, there is no law that says you cannot do government business in the interest of the government in terms of for the Nigerian people at any time.
The NBMA is for the people of this country, the support and encouragement of the Nigerian people is very important for this agency to dispense its mandate towards the good of everyone in the environment. In 2015, Monsanto Agriculture Nigeria Limited, requested for a permit for genetically modified corn and commercialization of insect resistant cotton. We subjected it to all the normal legal process as required, making 21 days public notice in 3 national dailies, requesting for input comments from members of the public.
The application was around October 2015 and it went through the rudiments and in May, a permit was granted to the applicants after we have gone through all the processes and this process is not something that the NBMA will just sit down and grant you permit. We have the National biosafety committee made up of about 11 ministries and agencies. We have the National biosafety technical sub-committee made up of various expert, they all look into these genes and development of the Genetically Modified Cotton. All these processes were followed.
In this committee, we have agencies of ministry of agriculture, ministry of science and technology, NAFDAC, ministry of trade and investment and various agencies even the Nigerian Customs Service, trade and all were looked at. We looked at the risk assessment and analysed it whether it could cause any harm to humans or the environment in general. After looking at all these, the committee members, those two different committees revealed that the products would not cause any harm to humans or the environment and as such, the permit was granted after we were convinced that the product would not have any harm. We granted the permit and after granting, what we did was to put it at a validity period.
When that was granted, some people were against the decision, but those issues are not substantial enough when you look at the issue of safety. In this country, elections are conducted and results are released on Sundays and Saturdays, why shouldn’t those ones be validated. Why is just an ordinary permit becoming an issue because the validity period from 1st of May is a public holiday? It is a process; the date that it was signed was not actually that 1st of May. It is a validity period, because it could have been on 1st of January; it is a duration period that has been commencing from one period to the other.
The issue of whether the permit was issued or signed is not even the issue. Are these products safe; did we really do diligence to confirm them suitable for human consumption or the environment? Apart from the scientific analysis of it we look at the socio-economic impacts as well. Would these products be economically viable to the Nigerian economy, farmers and everyone that could be concerned with it?
The people who file these cases, some of their reactions after we made public advert for comments, we took them to cognizance and we discovered that the claims they were making were not valid enough to grant approval for the permit. I want to tell Nigerians that they should not dwell on humor mongering or fear mongering. They should trust the NBMA. This agency is just about three years old and so far the issues of biosafety and GMOs have been brought to the forefront and we are here to ensure that the environment and Nigeria is protected. Should anybody have any cause to worry about any genetically modified product, particularly the ones we approved and the ones we have not approved which are suspects, they should draw our attentions to them and we should take the appropriate steps to ensure that whoever releases any GM product without approval, would fail serious jail terms and we are ready to prosecute anyone that contravenes the act.
How would you react to the recent judgement where your agency, NBMA, NABDA and others were joined as defendants over GM products?
The recent judgement on the suit instituted against the National Biosafety (NBMA) and other aligned government agencies by the plaintiff is in fact commendable. The Nigerian judiciary was up to date and was a beacon of justice and hope for the Nigerian growing system. The judgment as a matter of fact was a test to the fact that NBMA knows what it is doing. It also shows that the people of this country are the judgement for Nigerians because safe science technology would continue to drive the economy and there are obvious attempts by people to put obstacles in the progress of this country through frivolous court cases and I don’t think the country would move forward that way.
However, I am very happy the Nigerian judiciary is up to date to ensure that the right things are done in this country and all these cases that are becoming obstacles to the progress of the country, would not see day light.
This is the first time the NBMA act is tested in the court of law. This law took more than 10 years to become a legal instrument with all stakeholders involvement and even those who were against the law were also part of the stakeholders that refuted the law when it was a bill and it’s now being tested. I think such a law is a sound law and I think the NBMA law is one of those laws that actually have proven the Nigerian legislative system to be one of the best in Africa.
Another issue was the issue of mixing Monsanto with GMO, they are not the same at all because that case is glyphosate, purely chemical. A chemical used in the production of weed killers. The product they were talking about is not genetically modified and not just used for GMO. So when people think of Monsanto, they just think about GMO, think about Nigeria. They are different issues entirely.
One other thing people must understand too is Monsanto has been a chemical company even before becoming a biotechnology company. So the idea of people linking chemicals with GMOs makes no sense. We don’t regulate chemicals and they are not genetically modified.
Nigerians should not always listen to rumors that are sensational. There are lots of news items these days that does not have any scientific fact behind them. Those, who are campaigning against the agency have not for one day made effort to see what we have in the agency, but they would just go to the internet, cut and paste, say they said this somewhere in India and link it to Nigeria and start selling wrong information to the Nigerian public, creating fear in minds of the people. The earlier Nigerians start trusting the government on this GM products issue, the better it is for everybody. There is nobody that can protect the people more than the government because it has the sole responsibility to protect Nigerians. The government may not be perfect, but the cooperation, belief and encouragement of the people, will help government to be more effective in the protection of the people. This agency that is set up, with the history of genetically modified organism, if they are bad, the essence is to ensure there are no genetically modified organism that are bad. If you see genetically modified corn and the one that is not genetically modified, you cannot differentiate. It’s like water in a stream and we all drink from it. So why will we allow genetically modified organisms that are bad be in the market when you know fully well that they can also come to your table.
We must reason beyond this idea of people waking up and carrying rumors. Activism should not be berated, should not lack patriotism. Patriotism should be the basis of civil society struggles, but in a situation where you just wake up to discredit an individual that has sacrificed to take the right decision or do his duty statutorily enshrined in a law, you see him as an enemy and want to paint him black and create a monster of the person and mislead the public saying he is collecting bribe and sorts.
People should think beyond some of these things and ask themselves what is the intention of this people. What do they do for a living because activism is not a job. Even if you are a social activist struggling for survival of a country, is it not proper for you to go to the government agency and say, what are your procedures and what are you doing. They have never for once done that.
The agency is not created to stop GMOs, but to ensure they are safe because they are under agencies created by government to come out with this products. Our responsibility is to make sure they are safe. Why is the NBMA becoming their problem; we are not the producers of GMOs, ours is to ensure they are safe. Sometimes they would say NBMA is promoting GMO, have they seen us telling anybody to eat GMO.
If we say they are safe, they are safe based on the fact before us, but that does not imply that we are promoting. It’s just like saying one drug is safe and it fails, you say the only solution is surgery. NBMA has no blame on this matter. Let nobody see us as anybody here to promote anybody’s interest. We are here for the interest of Nigerians. When we say they are safe, there are still mechanisms to find out whether there would be manifestations. Science and technology is elastic and the issue of people fighting against this technology and fighting against the regulators is not going to end now because it’s a business and people are involved in it.
Recently, with the issue of codeine, people know fully well that it is dangerous but they still go into it. People would still know that this is the falsehood but they would still peddle it to sell their struggle to make money. So why is GMO a major topic. If they are really serious people who want to protect Nigerians, they should come and say since we are to regulate, why are there GMOs. GMOs are not just there to come into the market because they just want to create a new product. They are products of intervention for problem solving like the genetically modified maize that is insect resistant.
They have discovered that conventional maize have not been able to achieve result so they went ahead to develop using genetic engineering to solve the problem of that particular pest and government has put in place measures to ensure that these things don’t cause harm. GMO are products that come into the market because the conventional maize of solving problems failed, so you now do genetic engineering.
NBMA has been having a run-battle with these CSOs and NGOs over GM products, don’t you think you should find a lasting solution?
As far as we are concerned, there is no rift but just an opinion they are trying to canvass. The issue of going against GMO is not new only to Nigeria but the world, even in America. Some people are saying they don’t want it. There is a trade war going on between Hydro-chemical companies, those who call themselves organic farmers and also those who are promoting the technology. All the parties are involved in that trade war and we would not want to be part of that trade war and nobody should try to lure us into it. We would continue to look at every application based on its merit and take decisions in the best interest of this country. We would not want to be involved in their trade war.
I know in this trade war there are some people that have been paid to discredit the agency, government positions just to cause confusion because that is what they do as their means of livelihood. Those people who are parading themselves as social activist are people who do not have credentials to support what they are talking about. So they should be truthful to their fatherlands and not mislead their country if they need to survive.
What are your challenges in the agency?
It’s not unusual what other agencies have but funding is the major concern and inadequate accommodation, these are the two major challenges we have. Apart from the government angle another challenge is misinformation of the public and campaign of calumny against the agency by some civil society and environmental groups.
What are the short, long term goals for the agency and how do you see NBMA in the next three years from now?
The first objective of the agency is to establish the agency fully, which we have more or less done. Condition of savings have been developed, salary structure have been made for the agency, some staffs have been recruited, guidelines, regulations policies developed.
Right now we are also building the capacity of the staff and capacity building is an ongoing thing which would be part of our annual event, which we would be doing. We are also looking towards the situation where we would have more biosafety application and what we need to do is continue to check the capacity of the staffs to be able to do that.
Another major thing we have done again is the establishment of the national biosafety genetically modified organism testing laboratories. This we shall continue to update and strengthen from time to time because new equipment is emerging. We would continue to acquire new equipment that the agency needs to be on top of its mandate. We are also looking to establish some zonal offices and also acquire Headquarter for more accommodation for the staff of the agency and more effectiveness because it has not been comforting and adequate. The effort being made in that regard, working with relevant government agencies to see that the agency will be relocated to a more befitting adequate office accommodation. We have been trying to make special appeal to Ministry of Finance for special intervention funds because we need constant monitoring to make sure that it’s only the GMO that are good are allowed into the Nigerian market and environment.