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Eliminate the Bait of Evolving Extinction GMOs

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While the world was debating the future of new and extreme genetic engineering, proponents of the technology in Nigeria were busy proposing amendments to the National Biosafety Management Act, 2015, with a view to opening the door for the very risky experimentations in Nigeria. The contentious issue of extreme modern biotechnology, especially of the variant known as gene drives, was one of the topical matters deliberated upon at the 14th Conference of Parties (COP14) of the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), held in November 2018 in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt. Civil society groups and other African participants at COP14 did not feel represented by the official African delegates led by Nigeria and South Africa as spokespersons due to slack corporate positions they championed during the negotiations.

Parties to the CBD had to decide between two texts that framed as follows: “Apply the precautionary principle (with regards) to gene drives,” or “apply the precautionary principle (and refrain from) releasing gene drive organisms.” The Africans opposed refraining from releasing gene drive organisms, contrary to the strong positions that informed the drafting of an African Model Law on biosafety by the African Union – then known as the Organisation for African Unity, OAU.

On November 2018, the CBD made a landmark decision calling on governments to conduct strict risk assessments and to seek indigenous and local peoples’ consent before proceeding with the potential release of the “exterminator” technology. In the words of the outcome document, the COP “Notes the conclusions of the Ad Hoc Technical Expert Group on Synthetic Biology that, given the current uncertainties regarding engineered gene drives, the free, prior and informed consent of indigenous peoples and local communities might be warranted when considering the possible release of organisms containing engineered gene drives that may impact their traditional knowledge, innovation, practices, livelihood and use of land and water.”

This global decision on the governance of the high-risk “evolving” genetic engineering, gene drives, may not have been foreseen by the Nigerian and other pro-GMO African delegates at COP14. And so, on 11 December 2018, less than two weeks after COP14, the Nigerian House of Representatives had the first reading of the Bill for an Act to Amend the NBMA Act, 2015 “to enlarge the scope of the Application and include other evolving aspects of the applications of Modern Biotechnology in Nigeria with a view to preventing any adverse effect on Human Health and the Environment; and for Related Matters (HB1578)” as proposed by representative Obinna Chidoka. Not deterred by the outcome of COP14, a second reading of this Bill took place on 17 January 2019.

Enlarging the scope of the NBMA Act 2015 to include “other evolving aspects of the applications of Modern Biotechnology in Nigeria” is an extremely dangerous proposition that would lead to risks that will compound the ones already being posed by first generation modern biotechnology governed by the existing law. Since that Act came into force, over thirty applications have been approved by the agency in a manner suggesting they are mostly after the revenue derivable from the application fees.

There are huge gaps in the NBMA Act 2015 – including a lack of strict liability clauses to immediate and future negative impacts of genetic engineering, as well as conflict of interests. The existing law also virtually confers discretion on public consultation on the regulatory body, a situation which is contradictory to the spirit of the COP14 decision. From our experience, NBMA pays scant attention to expert rejection of the applications it has been receiving and grants rapid-fire approvals. It is hard to imagine that the National Biosafety Management Agency (NBMA) would accept to go through a thorough and painstaking process of free, prior, full informed consent as required by the COP14 decision. No doubt, the NBMA Act, 2015, requires to be amended, but that should be to safeguard the Nigerian people and our environment, not to place a wedge in the door for Nigerians to be used for dangerous experimentations.

Jim Thomas, co-executive director of the ETC Group explained the outcome of COP14 this way, “This important decision puts controls on gene drives using simple common-sense principles: Don’t mess with someone else’s environment, territories and rights without their consent. Gene drives are currently being pursued by powerful military and agribusiness interests and a few wealthy individuals. This UN decision puts the power back in the hands of local communities, in particular, indigenous peoples, to step on the brakes on this exterminator technology.”

A gene drive is a genetic engineering technology that aims to propagate a particular suite of genes throughout a population. With this technology a species can be engineered to produce only male offspring, thereby condemning itself to extinction. They are proposed to disrupt natural reproductive and other processes and to genetically modify specific populations and entire species. It is a technology that can drive species to extinction. It is therefore not surprising that powerful military groups and agribusiness are the forces sponsoring this technology.

Important voices raised against these “evolving” aspects of the application of Modern Biotechnology include that of Dr. Vandana Shiva, one of the world’s best thinkers on biodiversity and biosafety, who insists that “This technology would give biotech developers an unprecedented ability to directly intervene in evolution, to dramatically modify ecosystems, or even crash a targeted species to extinction.”

Expanding the scope of the regulatory oversight of NBMA to cover “evolving” Modern Biotechnology will be a dangerous move and the National Assembly would help the Nigerian people, and indeed the African continent by not endorsing the proposal. Proponents say that Nigeria must not be left behind in the application of the new technologies, but it is essential that we question this needless aping posture or catch-up mentality. Will we aim to catch up with the gene drive or CRISPR gene-edited or designer human babies already produced in China with the aim of making them immune to HIV/AIDS?

We must not forget that given that gene drives are designed to spread through a species and across geographic regions, the environmental release of a gene drive organism has the potential to affect communities beyond the location where the release may have been authorized. The United Nations’ COP14 decision is a signal for global caution because the evolving technology has a real possibility of negatively impacting “traditional knowledge, innovation, practices, livelihood and use of land and water” of our communities.

Burkina Faso communities are currently facing the risk of having gene drive mosquitoes rained on them. Meanwhile, neigbouring communities to the target areas are not aware of what is happening next door. The movement of most living organisms are not limited by political boundaries and gene drive organisms released in Nigeria can easily migrate to neigbouring countries and beyond.

The interest of modern biotechnology merchants in Nigeria is increasing because, despite the often repeated false claims of having the best biosafety system on the continent, we are actually the weak link in the chain and the adventurers are having an easy ride through this soft underbelly towards the destruction of African agriculture and food system. It is clear to see that we may be setting ourselves up for a massive species annihilation. According to the ETC Group, “the ethical, cultural and societal implications of gene drives are as enormous as the ecological consequences.”

We call on representative Obinna Chidoka and other backers of this NBMA Amendment Bill to back off for the sake of present and future generations of Nigerians. Time will be better spent amending the NBMA Act 2015 along the lines proposed by Health of Mother Earth Foundation (HOMEF) to strengthen it and close the yawning gaps that make for wishy-washy regulation. That will be the pathway to the promised Next Level by Mr. President.

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