It does appear the government at the centre is playing the ostrich over its continued silence on the controversy trailing the back and forth arguments between two of its agencies on the use or ban of methyl bromide (an agrochemical used as soil sterilant and pesticide) by farmers for pest control. While the controversy has been on for about four months, the ministries which birthed these agencies are yet to give official statement of clarification to guide the farmers and manufacturers of agricultural produce in the country aright. These two agencies which have overlapping responsibilities in areas of our food and health have differed in their opinion and submission on the use of methyl bromide pesticide. These opposing views and directives held by the two agencies from the Ministries of Health and Agriculture must have delayed the decisions of some farmers who use the agrochemical for crop pest control.
In February this year, the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC), an agency under the control of the Federal Ministry of Health, announced the placing of a ban on the use of methyl bromide for pest control with reason being that the use of the agrochemical contributes to depletion of Ozone layer. According to NAFDAC, methyl bromide is colourless, odourless, noncorrosive and non-flammable, highly toxic to a broad spectrum of insects from egg to adult stage and it was primarily used as fumigant in stored product pest management. The agency added in its press release: “Methyl bromide is a class I Ozone Depleting Substance (ODS)…Methyl bromide is a scheduled chemical under the Montreal Protocol for substances that deplete the Ozone layer and was placed on a phase-out procedure from 2001. Nigeria effected the phase-out of methyl bromide by January 2015 and since then the product has not been permitted for importation into the country.”
Apart from contributing to the depletion of the ozone layer, NAFDAC further revealed that methyl bromide is an extremely toxic vapour which is readily absorbed through the lungs in humans by inhalation. The agrochemical is regarded by NAFDAC as a dangerous poison which damages the nervous system when inhaled. The agency therefore advised farmers, agro-input dealers, and exporters of agricultural produce in the country to use alternative pesticides which are safer, cheaper and more effective. Farmers and those concerned were also encouraged to contact the nearest NAFDAC office for advice on safer alternatives to methyl bromide.
However, in a swift reaction to the announcement made by NAFDAC on methyl bromide ban, the Nigeria Agricultural Quarantine Service (NAQS), an agency under the supervision of the Federal Ministry of Agriculture and Rural development, argued that the use of the agrochemical is still permissible for controlled quarantine due to lack of suitable alternatives in Nigeria. NAQS said its agency is the statutory agricultural quarantine authority in Nigeria and that NAFDAC overstepped its mandate to have issued a ban on the use of methyl bromide as pest control or fumigant. NAQS is of the opinion that it is within her purview to make pronouncement on the permissibility or otherwise of methyl bromide and other agrochemicals for phytosanitary treatment of agro-commodities. Recall that NAQS is saddled with the responsibilities of preventing the introduction, establishment and propagation of animal and plant diseases. According to NAQS, it is mandated to promote and regulate sanitary and phytosanitary measures in order to minimise the risk to agricultural economy, food safety and the environment.
Dr Vincent Isegbe, the Director General of NAQS, admitted that all agrochemicals are potentially harmful if not used safely. He added that the major concern of methyl bromide use is the effect on climate change, particularly on the depletion of ozone layer, and that exemption has been provided for individual countries on its usage based on special quota system by the Montreal Protocol. The NAQS DG, in order to buttress his point on the continued use of methyl bromide, cited that Mexico specifically requests the use of the agrochemical in the treatment of Hibiscus shipments to their country. According to the DG, in 2017 alone, the trade yielded Nigeria over 35million dollars within nine months.
Few days ago, in a statement signed by NAFDAC boss, Prof Mojisola Adeyeye, the agency reiterated and reaffirmed once again that the use of methyl bromide as fumigant is banned and remains banned in Nigeria. The agency said in exercising her mandate as entrenched in NAFDAC Act Cap N1 LFN 2004, it had to draw the attention of the general public to the ban.
It is therefore hightime the ministries supervising these agencies stopped the needless media war between NAFDAC and NAQS over the use or ban of methyl bromide as fumigant. Since human health is involved, the argument over whose purview it is to announce the ban of such poisonous pesticide is unacceptable. These are professional agencies that the public rely on for information, guidance, and directives on issues relating to food and health. And as such, nothing short of the best is expected from them. We urge the Ministry of Environment to wade in as well in order to make further clarifications on the environmental effects of using the controversial agrochemical as fumigant.
The concerned ministries should as a matter of urgency engage scientific experts and seek legal advice in taking a final decision on this issue. In order to reach a consensus, we advise the federal government to prevail on the two disagreeing agencies by carefully considering their reasons for and against the use of methyl bromide as pest control.
If the two lead agencies that are established to safeguard public health are unable to reach a logical conclusion or provide a uniform solution, and are at loggerheads with each other by overruling their directives on a national issue that affects all, then Nigerians should brace for a longer time of confusion in our health and agricultural sectors.
The methyl bromide argument should not be supremacy-based as suggestively implied by NAQS, rather it ought to be that which is laced with scientifically backed-up reasons in the overall health interest of the Nigerian populace. This way, even the layman will be convinced to take a well-informed decision about his food and health. Our health far outweighs the monetary benefits we stand to gain from any trade or transaction that comes with a potential health hazard. Things must be done in a proper way regardless of the agency or ministry involved or profit it stands to make. In the end, it is our health that matters, not the money we have acquired or amassed.
Ojewale writes via [email protected]