Dr. Rufus Ebegba is the director-general of the National Biosafety Management Agency (NBMA). In this exclusive chat with NKECHI ISAAC, he says Nigeria stands out in terms of regulation of products that come out of biotechnology, urging Nigerians to trust the agency’s due diligence before the release of any genetically modified crops.
Many Nigerians believe the country is not of age or well equipped to regulate biotechnology application, so what is the status of biosafety regulation here?
Anybody that is saying Nigeria is not of age to regulate modern biotechnology in the country is either not informed or he wants Nigeria to continue to remain in an obsolete, obscured scientific world. Nigeria is over-ripe, this modern biotechnology application is more than 25 years old, and you think Nigeria is not ripe to innovate?
Nigeria is already much into it, we have the National Biotechnology Development Agency (NABDA) established in 2001, we have the Agricultural Research Council of Nigeria (ARCN), research institutes and universities that are doing genetic engineering and these institutes are going to be churning out various biotech products and you say Nigeria is not ripe? It’s either the person does not really understand the dynamics of science and technology or the person just wants to cast aspersion on scientific evolution. Nigeria is highly sophisticated in the development of this technology.
Why Nigeria has not been able to come up with enough products developed by Nigerian institutions, one of the challenges of research problems in Nigeria is in the area of energy, power is very key for them to have a consistency in the development of the sector. So, without those things being made adequately available Nigeria will not be able to come up with much of such innovations.
But I can tell you that the genetically modified cowpea is the major approval in Africa and the whole world for now. Nigeria had major input in the development of it with some partners, so if Nigerians are doing very well and are able to come up with such products it should let you know we are ripe for it, and apart from that even the regulatory aspect of it, Nigeria is one of the strongest African biosafety regulators on the continent. It is in lieu of this, that is Nigeria’s competence and capability that the nation wants to become the chair of African Biosafety Regulators Forum. It might also surprise you that Nigeria is still the chair of West African Biosafety Regulators. So, West Africa and African Union as a whole. So, if Nigeria is not competent, I don’t think the world will recognize us as everyday we get commendation from the international community. They tell us our biosafety system is wonderful, send us your guidelines, regulations, format in some applications.
It is as a result of what we are doing here that the international community is recognizing Nigeria. So, if those in Nigeria are not recognizing us it is indeed unfortunate.
Most people’s concern about biotechnology are especially the areas of health and environment, shouldn’t we have any concerns in the application of this technology?
There is no technology in the world that does not have concerns, every endeavour in the world has concerns and I think it is in view of this that biosafety has come into play because the likely potential harms that modern biotechnology products will cause in the area of environment, invasiveness, becoming a superweed, superorganisms or non-target effects and so forth, and also in the human aspects in the area of toxins, allergy, biosafety has been able to address such challenges and Nigeria has been able to put in place mechanisms to see that risk assessment and management are key in our approach to biosafety and so far all the products we have approved have been confirmed safe. Nigerians need not worry about such apprehensions, and these apprehensions we’ve been talking about are sponsored by some people who call themselves activists. Activism is not a job; it should be done in partnership with government so we can have best standards rather than coming across as malicious.
So, you said all the products approved by the NBMA are proven to be safe. What are the processes these products go through before they are approved and released to the market?
As I mentioned, risk assessment is very key. Before any product is released the developers carry out risk assessment of that product. They look at the nutritional composition of the organisms, the food safety aspect is also critically looked at vis a vis the nutritional components, are these organisms producing new toxins that can be harmful to human health?
They also look at the issue of environmental factors, are they creating problem for the environment in the area of becoming invasive, predominant in the environment leading to the depletion of nutrients, making other organisms not to survive apart from them. The issue of also GMO ensuring non-target effect does not affect other biodiversity bodies so the usefulness is not destroyed and the development of resistance to one organism or insect does not affect others inadvertently.
However, we also look at the socio-economic impact in the final decision-making process. Does the GM crop have economic value, is it cheap and accessible for farmers, can it enhance the nation’s GDP? Then we’ll look at the social aspect of it, does it have any negative impact on our cultural values and so on. It is a totality of safety package.
You mentioned that Nigeria has approved Bt cowpea and cotton, is your job done after their release or you are still going to monitor and follow their deployment?
Apart from the permit holder and farmers being advised to reach out to the agency if there are manifestations, the agency will still go round the farms when they are planted to look at the seeds, interview farmers from time to time and take samples to ensure there are no new developments or manifestations of behavioral changes or toxins. It is an ongoing process to see the crop is safe and stable.
There’s been some apprehension in the country about very big, robust looking fruits, banana, mangoes and others, are they genetically modified, do we have other GM products in the market?
Those ones you are talking about are either hybrids or gotten through tissue culture, they are simply improved varieties gotten through conventional breeding techniques. They are not genetically modified.
Another thing I want to say is that the poultry industry has imported quite a substantial amount of grains for feed production, and some vegetable oil companies have also imported soybeans for vegetable production. We have done due diligence before those products were imported into the country. They are not meant for planting but for processing.
Finally, should we have any concern as a nation that we’re using improved technologies and innovations that may harm us healthwise or the environment?
As a nation we should not be afraid of development because of unfounded fears. Anybody can feel concerned but I want to assure Nigerians that all GMOs that will ever be released in this country will be certified safe before they are released and the best interest of the people is what the government is out for through the NBMA. So, let nobody be afraid. Nigerians are in safe hands.