The fear, real or imagined, of Genetically Modified Organism (GMO) based food in Nigeria, appears to have been heightened in recent time, particularly with the widely reported permit granted for cultivation of GM beans. Rufus Ebegba, director general, National Biosafety Management Agency (NBMA), addressed some of these concerns in an exclusive interview with Caleb Ojewale, highlighting processes in place to detect unapproved GMO and ensure they are not consumed.
What has the agency been doing to regulate GMO food in Nigeria?
The National Biosafety Management Agency was established in the year 2015. Our purpose is to ensure that the activities of modern biotechnology and the use of its products that are genetically modified do not have any adverse effect on the environment and human health.
The agency has the mandate to regulate genetic engineering and its products. In doing this, we look at safety from two angles, one, to the environment, and the other, to human health.
In the area of environment, we make sure that any genetically modified organism, before it can be confirmed safe for any purpose, will not cause harm to the environment. We ensure living organisms in the area it will be deployed will not be threatened, and for the genetically modified organisms not to become dominant or invasive that it causes total eradication of other living organisms.
Also, if the genetic modification is for specific target, it must not go beyond that target. For instance, if it is for insect or pest resistance, it must not affect other insects but specific to that particular insect posing a threat to it. Also, we ensure genetically modified organisms do not become super organisms that will now make other organisms uncomfortable or even human beings. We also look at the safety to human life, and GM product must not cause toxins or allergic reactions. We also look at the organism itself whether it has substantially deviated from its natural counterpart. It must not be different from the one not genetically modified in a substantial way apart from the gene of insert.
We have also developed various regulations in accordance with the 2015 NBMA act, in areas including transport, packaging, and also labelling. We developed various guidelines to ensure that operations of the act itself is made easier, and developing other guidelines not contained in the act, as it ought not to be a bogus document. Our regulations and guidelines have expanded operation of the act.
One other thing we pride our self for is the establishment of the genetically modified detection and analysis laboratory. The lab has some of the best facilities one can think of in detecting any small material that cannot be physically examined. The laboratory is used to confirm the status of any genetically modified organism and to train the staff. We have also decided to use it as a means of training critical mass of Nigerians, because we believe that over time, we need to recruit more staff, and as some are retiring, new ones will come in.
The essence of the agency is majorly to ensure that GMOs are safe for the environment and to human health.
What is the requirement in labelling of GMO products so that consumers can choose if they want to consume it or not?
The NBMA act itself prescribes that all Genetically Modified Organisms must be labelled. If this is not done and released commercially, it constitutes an offence. We have also come out with a labelling regime under our regulations, which includes how to label each particular GMO. Labelling is very mandatory.
However, I know that some people have said there is no labelling requirement in Nigeria, and that we have not made it mandatory , this is false. Labelling is very mandatory for consumer choice.
Which GMO permits have been granted so far?
We have granted permits for the use of genetically modified grains notably maize and soybeans, almost 12 of such. The importers of grains have been bringing in genetically modified grains over the years without them even knowing they are genetically modified. Working with the Nigerian customs service, we have been able to determine that some of these grains are genetically modified. We work with the Nigerian Customs Service to ensure that any grain coming from particular countries where GM grains are grown, are especially subjected to testing. The permitted GM grains are basically used to produced feed for poultry and other animals. Also, the soybean is used for production of vegetable oil.
We grant those permits after carrying out the risk assessment and find them safe. Products made from such grains are supposed to be clearly labelled that GM crops were used as raw materials.
What has been the level of compliance with labelling?
This sector is still very new (in Nigeria), so we decided initially to use the policy of self-regulation, and self determination to be able to declare, and we realised it worked in some instances. However, the superstores, some of them have genetically modified foods in different forms. These had been approved by sister agencies, but we needed to know the gene of insert so we carried out a survey and discovered there were quite a number of those products containing genetically modified ingredients.
We had meetings with managements of the superstores and we were able to agree they must apply before they bring in those materials. In achieving expected results, we have MOU with NAFDAC to ensure we work in synergy to prevent infringements on each other’s responsibilities.
On the issue of total compliance, we were alerted by the Customs service about a year ago, that a shipment of genetically modified maize of about 90,000 metric tonnes came to Nigeria without approval. We requested that the shipment be repatriated, and this was done, even though the defaulting importers later applied and followed due process.
One thing we try to do in the area of bio safety, is enlighten people that genetically modified organisms cannot be recognised on their face value unless through testing, or labelled to contain genetically modified ingredients. It is not something to be allowed if it is not safe. The expertise required in differentiating is why we have to do more due diligence in ensuring these materials are safe before they are allowed into the environment. If not we will also find them on our tables.
There have been more permits for maize and soybeans, why these two crops?
Maize and soybean are major staple foods, internationally, and even within the Nigerian context. So, those are crops usually genetically modified for insect resistance, herbicide tolerance and so on. GM of both crops are very common and large quantities are being produced. They are in high demand for food and feed, and that is why many people go for them. We also have genetically modified cotton, scanola, and some other crops. For now, what people import more in Nigeria is GM soybean and maize.
The GM beans recently granted a permit, could it be described as a response to the EU ban?
Not necessarily. I was a staff at the federal ministry of environment, and the application for the genetically modified beans was filed in 2008, with the permit granted in 2009. It has been undergoing confined (experimental) field trials since 2009 before it was formally approved in 2018; which is a period of nine years. The initial application was before the ban of beans (around 2016) for excessive chemical residue.
The truth is, if genetically modified beans is accepted by farmers, there are advantages, but I am not here to canvass those advantages. My interest is in the safety. We have to be sure it is safe not only for human consumption but also the environment. So far, the beans is safe and will not pose any problem to the environment.
How long before the GM beans is available in the market?
We cannot really say. We have finished with our own aspect of it, but there are other extant requirements to be met such as the varietal release requirement, and the National Agricultural Seed Council will also examine the viability of the seed in line with their law. In essence, requirements involving other agencies have to be met before it is allowed to finally get into the market.
What is required to enable your agency do more?
The issues surrounding bio safety are very dynamic. Currently, genetic engineering is taking a new dimension and there are new aspects of it that are emerging such as gene editing and gene drive, with some people suggesting these do not require regulation. The national assembly has proposed amendments to the agency’s act, with an inclusion of gene editing, gene drive, synthetic biology, and even bio security. Consequently, there is a possibility that the agency may be enlarged with more responsibilities. The agency is about four years old and we need to grow beyond where we are, all of which boils down to additional funding.
There is an approval for six zonal offices, and for now two will take off but we are still seeking accommodation from state governments in the other locations. However, I am happy that the current administration has given the agency very good support. Given that, we are a new agency and getting to this level, it shows serious political will on the part of government. This agency actually took off with this administration and it has been able to grow as part of its achievements, to ensure that in the area of food security, the food is not just going to be available but also safe for the people.
Another challenge is that of accommodation. We are here (National Parks Services headquarters) on a temporary basis, but I am very happy that the minister of environment has just written to the president to consider the possibility of them giving us a more befitting accommodation, so that we can better discharge our responsibilities.