In view of the recent public hearing convened by the National Assembly to receive memoranda and submissions from stakeholders over a Bill for an Act to establish a national Bio-safety Law for Nigeria, it was clear from the submission of the generality of stakeholders at the event that the Nigerian Bio-safety Act is long overdue.

This deduction is hinged on the country’s fast evolving status as Africa’s agricultural power house. As a signatory to the Cartagena Protocol on Bio-safety in the year 2000 and later going on to ratify the document in 2002, Nigeria (along with some 159 member countries) have agreed to be bound by a retinue of rules guiding the “safe transfer, handling and use of Living Modified Organisms (LMOs) which have the propensity for adverse effects on conservation and sustainable utilization of bio-diversity, taking into account risks to human health”.

Undoubtedly, the broad based appeal of the country’s signing and ratification of this protocol is pivoted on the fact that there are benefits to be enjoyed from deploying biotechnology and as a result, there had to be a measure of compliance with set principles and standards that align with universal expectations. In this regards, the point needs to be internalized that bio-safety in itself pre-supposes a willingness on the part of countries of the world to cooperate and coordinate themselves in ensuring the existence of a regulatory system, particularly in relation to the reality of trans-boundary movement of GMOs. So being part of the 160 ratifying countries of the Cartagena protocol is in itself, indicative of an understanding of the need to be responsive to the benefits as well as challenges that the recourse to bio-technology portends.

Biotechnology Regulation in Nigeria: The Great Trek

Efforts at putting together a legal framework for regulating bio-technological activities in Nigeria have hitherto been largely arduous. The first presentation of an instrument which sought to bridge the regulatory gap in biotechnological research and development was in 2006 when the Nigerian Bio-safety Bill was first presented to the National assembly. The Bill was later passed in 2010 but did not receive the accent of the President thus having to re-commence its legislative journey at the 7th Assembly.

Interestingly, the same fate appears to be gearing up to befall this all important legislation as up till date, the National Assembly, which is in its twilight, is yet to pass the Bill into Law. But the Bio-safety legislation is a major requirement, indeed a sine-qua-non, for the advancement of the food security objectives of the nation among other laudable targets.

Thus, the recent public hearing which convened at the instance of the President of the Senate served as a clarion call regarding the importance of the legislation which amongst other things sets out to enable the country derive benefits from modern biotechnology practice under a framework which ensures economic growth, improved agriculture, job and wealth creation, industrial growth as well as a protected environment.

Other benefits include the minimization of risks to human health through concerted vigilance against the adverse effects of LMOs (Living Modified Organisms) on biodiversity and the environment. Given that the overall objective of the Bio-safety Bill is the provision of a regulatory mechanism and structural guidance for the sustainable development of the science of modern biotechnology as well as the deployment of its profound developmental benefits, it is difficult to see how Nigerian legislative authorities will be able to justify the time and resources expended over the last 4 years if such a legislation eludes the gavel.

It will be recalled that Nigeria had, as far back as 2001, adopted a National Biotechnology Policy in 2001, even going on to establish a National Biotechnology Development Agency in the same year. Without a Bio-safety Law however, as Professor Lucy Ogbadu, the Director General of NABDA puts it, “Nigeria is being denied the benefits associated with modern biotechnology practice”. Key areas of these benefits include improved food production, medicine, industrial growth, employment generation as well as environmental sustainability.

In Conclusion: A Look at Cotton and the Wonders of Biotechnology

Cotton is one area where biotechnology’s intervention has resulted in a dramatic turn-around for actors in the agricultural value chain. In Burkina Faso for instance, the introduction of BT cotton by Mosanto has totally revolutionized the entire industry, resulting in the country raking in as much as 1.2 billion USD into an industry that erstwhile was a laughing stock.

As the agriculture Minister has said over and over, Nigeria must leverage on science and technology to improve her agricultural productivity. The National Assembly needs to stand with the country’s farmers in the bid to revolutionalize our agricultural sector considering the extent of impact which the legislation will have on the larger economy.

The passage of the Bio-safety Bill into Law remains a clear litmus test in assessing the overall commitment of our Law makers to the well-being of the nation.