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[ABUJA] Supporters of genetically modified (GM) crop technology fear that their four-year effort to get a biosafety bill enacted in Nigeria may have been in vain if the country's upper house fails to pass it before its tenure ends next month (29 May).

The 2007 bill, passed by the country's lower chamber last July, is with the Senate. It is one of more than 400 bills introduced to the National Assembly between 2007 and 2010 that were highlighted by the Nigerian Bar Association last December as needing passage before 29 May.

Stakeholders are concerned that, since Nigeria — which is in the midst of elections — has a poor culture of continuity between governments, they may have to start again, delaying plans to move from confined trials of biotechnology products to commercialisation.

National biosafety bills provide a framework to ensure that the development, and use, of GM organisms and products do not negatively affect plant, animal and human health; agricultural systems; or the environment.

With these standards in place, multinational biotechnology companies could do business in Nigeria, said Bamidele Solomon, director-general of the National Biotechnology Development Agency, a promoter of the bill.

"Research and development grants and opportunities, which in the past had been inaccessible because of a lack of enabling facilities, would be easily available," he said.

Mohammed Ishiyaku, a researcher at the Institute of Agricultural Research involved in a cowpea biotechnology project, said that if the bill failed to pass it would demoralise many scientists.

His project uses GM cowpeas to fight insect damage and, it is hoped, increase farmers' yields by 40 per cent.

"All of us are enthusiastically looking forward to this bill," he told SciDev.Net. "We will then be able to conclude the steps required before the cowpea can proceed to farmers."

Daniel Aba, a sorghum breeder at Ahmadu Bello University is trying to develop a variety that contains vitamin A, iron and zinc. "If the biosafety bill is not in place, it means that the research will remain within research centres," he said.

Ibrahim Abubakar, president of the Agricultural Society of Nigeria, said: "We cannot make any significant progress without the enabling law, especially now that there is some pessimism about the use of biotechnology."

But Environmental Rights Action (ERA), a Nigerian advocacy group, said the urgency to pass the bill may stem from other motives.

"Nigerians are yet to understand and adequately contribute to the bill," an ERA spokesperson said. "We suggest it is stopped in its tracks.

"The eagerness to get the bill passed is coming from biotech industry allies in this country.

"ERA is not against biotechnology as a whole but against a system unequivocal in its conviction to foist alien and unverified technologies on our farmers, and the nation as a whole, without checks."

He said the public hearing on the bill, organised by the Joint Committee on Science and Technology and Agriculture of the House of Representatives in 2009, allocated little time for protesters to voice their opinions — compared with the time offered to proponents.