Anti-GMO groups lose court case in Nigeria

By Joseph Maina & Nkechi Isaac

July 20, 2022

A Nigerian court has thrown out a case challenging the National Biosafety Management Agency’s (NBMA) 2016 decision to approve genetically modified insect-resistant (Bt) cotton.

On July 20, Justice D.U Okoro of the Federal high court in Abuja dismissed the suit in its entirety. It was filed by 17 anti-GMO civil society groups groups led by Health of Mother Earth Foundation (HOMEF).

Dr. Rufus Ebegba, director general and CEO of NBMA, termed the victory a major win for the Nigerian biosafety system. He urged the public to trust the agency, stressing that safety is the NBMA’s watchword.

The decision marks yet another victory for the country’s biosafety agency against suits filed by Nigerian anti-GMO groups. They’ve been waging a persistent onslaught against the growth of GMOs in the West African nation.

In 2017, HOMEF and 16 other civil society organizations filed suit when the NBMA issued a permit for the commercial release of Bt cotton in Nigeria. They claimed that the permits were issued on a non-business day and a public holiday. They also maintained that issuing the permits to both Monsanto and the National Biotechnology Development Agency (NABDA)  constituted a threat to the fundamental human rights of the general public and a breach of the 1999 constitution as amended in 2011.

The suit was struck when Justice A.R. Mohammed  determined it was statute barred and the court lacked jurisdiction to entertain it. He said the matter was instituted over a year after the cause of action and it was not a fundamental rights issue, as claimed by the plaintiffs.  Though he advised against an appeal, explaining that the operational relationship between NBMA and NABDA did not breach any civil society laws or the laws of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, the groups proceeded to reinstitute their case at the Federal High Court in Abuja.

In delivering his judgment, Justice Okoro upheld the 2017 ruling and dismissed the suit in its entirety.

Ebegba maintained that the favorable rulings have given the agency further confidence in making decisions based in Nigeria’s biosafety regulations. The NBMA boss further said that the victory would give other African countries the impetus to stand firm in terms of regulating biotechnology products in their respective countries.

Ebegba said it is difficult to see why biotechnology products that had been carefully scrutinized by the biosafety regulator and found to pose no health risk or negative environmental impact should not be approved.

“As long as it has been declared safe for humans and the environment and has been verified to add economic value to the nation, it should be approved to strengthen the nation’s food security and economic development,” he added.

Since Nigeria commercialized Bt cotton, its first GMO crop, it has also approved Bt cowpea. Other GM crops are in the works, with farmer field trials beginning this year for insect-resistant, drought-tolerant TELA maize.

Editor’s note: This article was updated and revised to provide more information abut the decision and additional comments from Ebegba.