One of the bills passed by the National Assembly that has been gathering dust on the desk of President Jonathan is on the National Biosafety Management Agency. Okay, we do not expect dust on the President’s desk, so we may say it is under a pile of files somewhere in that office. In this piece we are arguing that there is no need for the file to remain in the President’s office and that he should simply send it back for serious work to be done on it. The “National Biosafety Management Agency Act 2011” needs a critical, open and inclusive review and we are pleased that the President has not endorsed it.
Biosafety is a serious concern and we recognise the fact that some people may already be taking advantage of an absence of a bill to wreak havoc on our environment and food systems. There may indeed already be genetically modified crops illegally being imported and planted in our farms. With the rise of multi-national retail chains in Nigeria many of such products may already be on the shelves. Market surveys and tests conducted by civil society groups over the years have shown the presence of unauthorized products in our markets. This is a thoroughly objectionable situation.
The Bill defines Biosafety as “the range of measures, policies and procedures for minimizing potential risks that modern biotechnology may pose to the environment and human health.” The major output of modern biotechnology that we are concerned about are genetically modified organisms (GMOs) which the Bill defines as “any organism living or non living that possesses a novel combination of genetic material obtained through the use of modern biotechnology.”
The global convention by which the world keeps watch over biosafety issues is the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). Health of Mother Earth Foundation (HOMEF) recently hosted an interaction around this convention between experts and farmers. At that engagement many of the farmers said the CBD was too technical and needed to be broken down in simple terms for them to understand and that government should not just endorse such conventions and treaties without taking time to consult with citizens who stand the risk of being affected adversely if necessary and acceptable controls are not in place.
The absence of provision for public consultation is a key flaw in the Biosafety Bill sitting in the President’s office. Part VIII, Section 6 of the Bill has provisions for public display of applications from individuals or corporations intending to import or introduce GMOs into the country. However, Section 6(2) of the Bill indicates that the announcement of the display of such applications is not mandatory. Everything in the section is optional. The announcement of where or when the display would be made is optional as well as whether the agency would convene a public hearing on the matter. In fact the Bill does not even say if comments made by members of the public that may get to see the application would be considered. Seeing an application by chance and commenting on it cannot be construed as public consultation.
This disdain for public participation is serious and cannot be overlooked.
The Bill as passed and sent to the President left wide gaps that would ensure that those who wish to pollute our environment get away with slaps on the wrist sort of chastisement. The provision of fines of up to N2.5 million for individuals and N5 million for corporate bodies may appear huge, but they are actually not significant when we consider, as stated in the Bill, the “potential risks that modern biotechnology may pose to the environment and human health.” One good point is that where corporate bodies are fined, the directors or officers of the corporation could still be individually liable and may be jailed for periods of not less than 5 years.
The downside of these penalties is that there is no redress for individuals or communities who may be impacted individually or collectively. There are no clear provisions for polluters to be liable and compelled to remediate impacts. Without clear liability and redress provisions we securing our biodiversity will remain challenged. What happens, for example, when damage is irreversible? In October 2010 the Nagoya-Kuala Lumpur Supplementary Protocol on Liability and Redress to the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety was adopted and Nigeria cannot overlook it. In the campaign towards the inclusion of liability and redress provisions in the protocol, the Third World Network had argued, “Liability and redress should be substantively provided in the protocol. Without such a regime, the protocol would at best be meaningless, and at worst be irresponsible.”
The Bill has provisions for confined field trials and commercial release but is silent on the possibility of large-scale field trials conducted with low or no containment measures. Researches have shown that there is a huge potential of GMOs to contaminate nearby farms and, by our farming practices, farmers may simply take the seeds home and mix them with natural varieties. Seed sharing and open pollination can lead to very wide unintentional spread of GMOs. Seed sharing is an intrinsic part of our food security web.
Experts fear that from an ecological perspective, GM crops would lead to uncontrolled large-scale spread and persistence of transgenes within the smallholder agricultural systems in Africa. The result would be a disastrous and unpredictable recombination and that would negatively impact on our crop diversity.
The Bill only deals with confined field trials and commercial release.
There are also issues with risk assessment as the Bill does not include criteria for such assessments, nor does it show the need for a clear focus on the effect of the GMO on non-target organisms measured against non-target organisms that exist in Nigeria and are ecologically important to us.
Another big flaw of the Bill is that farmers who will no doubt be very closely affected by the law do not have any space on the governing board of the agency.
We cannot end this short piece without pointing out another fundamental flaw in the Bill that has rightly not been endorsed by the President. The Bill completely ignores the Precautionary Principle of the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety. African and other governments fought hard for the principle with the hope of protecting their environments, agriculture and food systems. It gives governments power to either decide against approval or to restrict entry of certain organisms in cases of incomplete or controversial knowledge.
In Simple terms, the precautionary principle says when in doubt proceed with caution. Such a fundamental and common sense principle cannot be ignored just because some powerful forces want to open the Nigerian environment to GMOs and related products. The catch-up-with-other-nations arguments put forward by policy makers in this field are not only puerile but obnoxious.