Nigerian officials are seeing positive results as they engage in a comprehensive outreach strategy to educate citizens about biotechnology as the nation moves to commercialize its first GMO crops next year.
The strategy includes media engagements, interface with professional organizations, courtesy visits to policy makers, one-on-one meetings and other measures, said Dr. Rose Gidado, Nigeria chapter coordinator for the Open Forum on Agricultural Biotechnology (OFAB) and deputy director at the National Biotechnology Development Agency (NABDA).
“One big strategy we have employed in sensitizing the public on the benefits of biotechnology is the involvement of the media,” Gidado said. “We have been engaging and training the media on the science behind the development of genetically modified crops and products because they are the ambassadors of information; they are close to the grassroots and policy makers and other sectors of the society.
“Media engagement is first and foremost on the agenda because it gives you a multiplier effect,” she continued. “If the media understand, they know the different ways of passing on the message to the people.”
Nigeria recorded a milestone in the domestication of modern biotechnology when the federal government signed the biosafety bill into law on April 18, 2015. The law allows Nigeria to join the league of countries using this cutting edge technology as another means to boost its agriculture sector and thus economic development by contributing to its national Gross Domestic Product (GDP).
As was expected, the new law also ushered the nation into the global controversy surrounding modern biotechnology (GMOs), with two conspicuous camps made up of those in favor of the technology and those staunchly against it.
Rufus Ebegba, director-general of the National Biosafety Management Agency (NBMA), said his agency has also embarked on a massive public engagement effort to sensitize Nigerians on steps the federal government has taken to ensure safe practice of the technology.
“If you could recall in 2016, the agitation about GMOs was very high, but you will discover it has abated for some months now,” Ebegba said. “It is as a result of enlightenment activities that we’ve been carrying out. A lot of awareness creation has been ongoing. We’ve had various media chats, we’ve also created avenues to discuss with stakeholders and we’ve also created a platform to sensitize Nigerians. It is called the annual biosafety conference.”
The biosafety law created NDMA in conformity with established national and international laws, procedures and rules that govern the safe adoption of modern biotechnology practice and use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) globally, he explained.
“Nigeria is also a major player in the area of biosafety regulation globally,” Ebegba said. “The agency was established with well-trained staff and a well-equipped genetically modified organism detection and analysis lab. These are some major steps that the federal government has taken to allay the fear of anybody and also give confidence to that sector."
Thanks to the outreach effort, Nigerians are becoming more enlightened on the potentials the technology holds for boosting the nation’s agriculture sector and ensuring food security, said Dr. Mathew Dore, coordinator of the Program for Biosafety (PBS) Nigeria, in a recent talk on the state of biotech in the country.
Dore maintained that credible facts about the benefits of the technology, as recorded by both developed and developing countries, attest to the enormous potentials and benefits the nation stands to gain by adopting the technology.
“Another strategy is engaging the people directly, interacting with the different sectors in the society, and different professional groups in their fields,” Gidado noted. “This is a scientific field and we know that science is multifaceted, so you don’t expect that just because someone is a scientist he knows what you’re doing. Everybody has his own area and you have to go down to the various fields and engage the professionals and that is what we have been doing. We’ve held seminars, and capacity building workshops with professional bodies such as the Genetic Society of Nigeria, the Biotechnology Society of Nigeria, Biochemical Society, the Microbiology Society of Nigeria and the Nigerian Medical Association. We’ve also engaged with the different sub associations. We have the Nigerian Medical Association, the Catholic Medical Association and Practitioners, the private and general medical practitioners.
“They invited me to give them a lecture on genetically modified organisms recently,” she said. “This was a timely engagement because we discovered that some of them had very different illusions about this technology because they were not informed. This is because all the news they have been hearing about this technology is all very negative.”
Gidado further explained that NABDA was also engaging farmers under their umbrella body, the All Farmers Association of Nigeria, and meeting with policy makers one-on-one during courtesy visits to their offices. Churches have not been left out , either, as the agency interfaces with them at the various places of worship.
The strategies employed by the agency are paying off, she said, because a good percentage of Nigerians can no longer claim ignorance of the technology and its benefits, as was the case when the law was passed in 2015.
Ebegba added: “Government is doing all it takes to ensure that biosafety in this country is totally holistic and the agency will live up to its responsibility towards Nigerians. The agency will also continue to enlighten Nigerians, create awareness so that Nigerians will know that government has not just adopted this technology without ensuring that potential adverse impacts are prevented, minimized or eliminated entirely, and if there is a need to manage potential adverse impact, the agency has also put in place what it takes to also manage such potential risk.”
Meanwhile, farmers — the immediate direct beneficiaries of the technology — have thrown their weight behind agricultural biotechnology, saying it has the capacity to take them away from poverty.
Arch. Kabiru Ibrahim, president of the farmers’ umbrella body, AFAN, was speaking on the organization’s behalf when he said Nigerian farmers were completely in support of the introduction of agricultural biotechnology as it has the capacity to improve yield and eliminate waste.
“We embrace biotechnology,” he said. “We support it because it is the only thing that can take farmers out of poverty. The world is changing and farming is also changing because change is the only thing that is permanent in the life of every man. Anyone who is not ready to change will always remain behind.”