Fred Itua, Abuja
Dr. Rufus Ebegba is the director-general of the National Biosafety Management Agency (NBMA ). The agency provides regulatory framework to adequately safeguard human health and the environment from potential adverse effects of modern biotechnology and genetically modified organisms, while harnessing the potential of modern biotechnology and its derivatives, for the benefit of Nigerians.
In this interview with Daily Sun, Ebegba speaks on fears, protests, misconceptions and other issues surrounding the consumption of genetically modified orgasms (GMOs) in Nigeria.
The agency was set up recently. So far, what would say you have achieved?
We have entrenched some things and have entrenched biosafety management. We have recruited relevant staff with needed knowledge to drive home our vision. We have created research institutes across the country. We have carried out a number of surveys to ascertain the level of Biosafety in Nigeria. We have collaborated with other agencies of government to develop the Biosafety sector. We have a strong laboratory for GMO products. Students on industrial attachment come here. We have been able to set standards. At the international level, Nigeria is the chair of the Africa Biosafety Regulatory Forum.
Recently, your agency waded into the issue of GMO foods in circulation in Nigeria. What is the update?
There are some GMO foods in our superstores. We have been able to profile them and have also advised the various superstores on how to ensure that only those approved by the agency will be sold. We are aware that there are other agencies that regulate food. But once they are GMO foods, we have a role. That doesn’t preclude other agencies from paying their roles. Apart from the ones processed and imported into the country, there are some we ha r also approved for commercialisation even though they’re not in the market yet. We have approved some beans, cotton and grains for commercialisation. The soya beans are for the production of vegetable oil. We have approved some fruit crops. We have approved GMO cassava for high content. Currently, we have GMO rice on the field. We have granted permit for tropical agriculture. One of the major achievements this year is the passage into law of an amended version of National Biosafety Management Authority.
We have realised within the country that there are activities leading to the release of agents that maybe harmful environment and human health. The amendment by the National Assembly has given the agency the mandate to ensure that biological substances that are harmful will be allowed in the environment.
Are you aware that, in many of the superstores you mentioned, there are no labels differentiating GMO foods from the rest?
It is mandatory in our laws that anybody dealing in GMO foods must obtain a permit. These products must be labelled. That’s the only way we can identify them. However, if anybody misleads the public by not labelling the products, it constitutes a serious offence. Such an offender, if found guilty by court, risks going to jail for five years.
Haveyou had cases like that, made arrests or instututed legal action against anyone?
The near case we had was in 2017. GMO maize was shipped into the country without biosafety permit. Incidentally, the products had not been offloaded. We were at the borders. We had a debate on whether to arrest the importers and bring them into the country or not. Since they had not entered the country fully, we felt we should repatriate them. I am sure the company lost a substantial amount of money. It was about 90,000 tonnes of GMO maize. To offload that would have cost money. The cost of destruction of the products and the environmental pollution were considered. We looked at the cost of prosecution. We felt it was better for us to repatriate the products.
If the cost of prosecution is the problem and you have many defaulters, should you look the other way?
If those defaulters had entered the country, we would have gone ahead to prosecute them. You must look at management strategy when implementing the law. You must not unduly commit the government when you can avoid certain things.
Despite your intervention, the level of awareness is still poor. Many Nigerians are oblivious of the dos and don’ts of GMO products.
We have made a substantial amount of progress in the area of awareness. We are always speaking. We keep assuring he public not to be scared about GMO products. Whenever you talk about GMO products, people tend to be scared. We are creating avenues through which we can talk to the public. It’s important. We are moving to the various geopolitical zones of the country to talk to people about what we do. It is not an easy job.
How about the fear that the consumption of GMO foods is inimical to human health?
The controversy surrounding GMOs will continue to be there for a long time. Even in the United States where it was developed, the controversy is still there. So far, all GMOs released within he country are safe. Any new technology is always treated like that. There is a great war going on against GMO and biotech industries. Technology is changing the way people do things. Those affected will always fight back. The information you read about are there to create fears that are not founded.
These fears you talk about, are they real?
There is no technology that has no adverse impact, if not properly regulated. The likely fears associated with GMOs are impacts on human health, environment and the social aspects. GMOs not well regulated can cause health hazards and allergies. We have this agency to ensure that these potential impacts don’t manifest. GMOs will give the desired results to farmers. We don’t regulate the medical aspects of it. We restrict ourselves to our functions.
Have you recorded any health hazards from consumption of GMOs?
So far, from the ones we have approved, we have not recorded any health hazards. So far, nothing like that. Just speculations. He who alleges must be ready to prove.
People have argued that GMOs are not as nutritious as the regular ones. How true?
That’s not true. GMOs have the same nutritional value as the normal ones. The claims are not founded. Many crops we consume have been altered. It doesn’t take away the nutrition at all. I can tell you that there is a trade war. There are those giving out these false information. That’s what they’re feeding from. We don’t have to join issues with them. We stand for the interest of Nigerians.
Talking about trade war, was that why you had a recent spat with some civil society groups?
No doubt, some civil society groups have been paid to campaign against us.
Paid by whom?
We talk about agrochemical and biochemical companies. They are not likely going to be Nigerians. We will always protect the interest of Nigerians. When you come up with a product that is changing the way things are done, people are bound to fight it.