By Edel-Quinn Agbaegbu
The greatest global challenge today, especially in Africa is how to make our food more sustainable by 2050. In Nigeria, as in many other African countries, food security and nutrition remain a critical challenge. Production constraints like inversion of insects/pests and diseases, inadequate rainfall and poor quality of agricultural input are some of the major contributors to low agricultural output. Despite the clear link between agricultural productivity and malnourishment, there were uncertainty and confusion in many of government responses to a wide range of agricultural, health, social, economic and environmental issues associated with the application and regulation of modern biotechnology in agricultural practice. Thus many African countries were reluctant to approve the use of GE crops as their governments are juxtaposed between the opponents and proponents of the technology.
In the third decade of the launch of modern biotechnology came a new era for genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in Nigeria as she commercializes some of its GMO products in line with global standards. On Thursday, July 26, 2018, the National Committee on Naming, Registration and Release of crops, livestock/Fisheries varieties at National Centre for Genetic Resources and Biotechnology (NACGRAB), released and registered some biotechnological improved varieties at its 26th meeting at Moorplantion, Ibadan, Nigeria.
The newly released and registered products include; two transgenic hybrid cotton; MRC 7377 BG11 and MRC 7361 BG11 with outstanding qualities of high yield of 4.4 and 4.1 respectively per hectare and resistance ability to diseases. They were developed by Mahyco Nigeria Pvt. Limited in collaboration with the Institute for Agricultural Research, Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria. The chairman of the committee, Chief Awoyemi said that the Bacillus thuringiensis cottons (Bt. Cotton) were released and registered as an approved improved variety for the use of farmers as it has been tested not injurious to both human and animals. Chief Awoyemi remarked that the release and registration of GM cotton is revolutionary to the agricultural development of the country as it would lead to the future adoption of the GM technology in Nigeria food crops.
This is the first ever officially approved GMO product in Nigeria for use by farmers and Nigerians are delighted as the world celebrates Nigeria’s entrant as the 14th cotton grower nation of the globe like India, Mexico, Pakistan, Australia, China, Columbia, Costa Rica, Myanmar, South Africa, USA, Brazil, Paraguay and Argentina. Nigeria is now the 7th African country to commercialize GMO products after; South Africa, Kenya, Sudan, Zimbabwe, Burkina Faso and Malawi.
Also released and registered in the livestock sub-sector is the FUNAAB Alpha chicken with principal breeders including Prof. (Mrs) O. A Adebanbo of the Federal University of Agriculture, Abeokuta. It was approved based on its ability to adaptability to the production environment of local rural farmers with performance characteristics of body weight, live weight at the end of lay, high egg lay and weight which surpass those of the existing Nigerian local chicken. Others that are released and registered are listed as follows – Soybean variety (SC-SL01) 5 maize hybrids (P4226, P3966, P4063,WE3205 and DKB350), 3 groundnut varieties (SAMNUT 27, SAMNUT 28 and SAMNUT 29), 2 maize varieties (AMANA-1 and AMANA-2: 1 sweet potato variety ( Solo gold): 3 Sorghum varieties and (SAMSORG 47, 48, 49) 2 Cowpea varieties ( SAMPEA 18, 19).
In her remarks Dr Rose Gidado, the country representative of Open Forum on Agricultural Biotechnology (OFAB) Nigeria, expressed confidence in the adaptation of biotechnology. She said that the development signals better things to come in agricultural sector and stressed that it would fast track development of commercial farming in Nigeria especially in the textile industry. The acting Director General/CEO of the National Biotechnology Development Agency (NABDA), Prof. Alex Akpa at a press conference on Friday, July 27, 2018, in Abuja, said that this official registration of these biotechnological products marked their entry into the nation’s agricultural system.
Recall that the government of Nigeria recognised biotechnology as a reliable technology for sustainability in agricultural practices and capable of delivering economic, social and environmental benefits. About two decades ago, the Federal Executive Council (FEC) approved the National Biotechnology Policy on April 2001 and later in November 2001 established the National Biotechnology Development Agency (NABDA), for its implementation. FEC also approved the Biosafety guidelines same 2001, to enhance research and development of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) and the regulation of the modern biotechnology in the country. The National Biosafety Management Agency (NBMA) was eventually established in April 2014 and saddled with the responsibility of implementing biosafety regulations.
Despite government disposition to explore the gains of biotechnology in national development, various social and political considerations led to unjustified delays in the approval process of these crops, resulting in the bizarre situation where technologies that increase consumer and producer surplus fail to reach the market. The anti-GMO activists turned scientific issues into moral, cultural and ideological debates; systematically manipulating science and creating alternative facts to distort science so as to create fears and despondency on the perceived health and environmental risks of modern biotechnology. They held tenaciously to the belief that our agricultural and food systems are compromised and corrupted and were ardently committed to forging erroneous notion and pedalled unscrupulous concerns and perceptions to imperil acceptability.
Contrary to their anticipation, advances in science have accelerated development for decades, including the application of biotechnology in agriculture, to improve overall livelihood, productivity and food security. For about three decades, biotechnology have been globally offered as alternative to address the onslaught of pests and diseases, the vagaries of weather and other challenges to growing crops and breeding livestock, because of its higher economic and yield benefits and dramatic reduction in pesticide use. A number of new crops have been developed to address important traits of relevance to smallholder farmers in through genetic modifications by our Nigeria Scientists like their global counterparts.
The truth is that our primitive agricultural practices are facing various challenges and from global experiences, Science, Technology and Innovation (STI) hold the key to overcoming these challenges. Government appreciates the fact that STI are contributing effectively to improve the value chain in the global food system especially in emerging economies like Nigeria. In his remarks during the OFAB Nigeria Media Award on August 1, 2018, Mr Bitrus Bako Nabasu who represented the Honourable Minister of the Federal Ministry of Science and Technology, Dr. Ogbonnaya Onu stated that, ‘’The Federal Government has recognised that globally, STI are shaping development and the way people think and act, hence the recent decision to increase funding for research and development in the country. As a country, we must encourage our Scientist to continue to work for the good of the country and the people’’
‘’Government has demonstrated its determination to make STI the hub on which the wheel of development revolves. The establishment of the NABDA over 2 decades ago to prepare the ground for the deployment of modern biotechnology in all sectors of the economy; health, environment, industry, agriculture is a testimony of government’s deliberate efforts to use STI to boost food production, ensure affordable healthcare delivery system, make available industrial raw materials and establish a sustainable environment in the country. These institutes must be encouraged to carry out their mandates in order to ensure that the country attains food sufficiency in food production’’, he added.
As the support for modern biotechnology continues to grow, it is being mainstreamed gradually to add value into the country’s agricultural sub-sector. Dr, Rufus Ebegba, DG/CEO of NBMA has severally said that the country is ripe for commercialization of safe Genetically Modified (GM) products. “Global Status of Commercialized Biotech/GM Crops: 2016” demonstrated the long-standing benefits of biotech crops for farmers in developing and industrialized countries, as well as consumer benefits of approved and commercialized varieties. We should therefore realize that the eras of distractions are gone and Nigeria has been liberated from isolation from Science. Our joy is that at last, Science Prevailed and we shall ensure that it excels beyond the 25 year old biotechnological modifications.
Edel-Quinn Agbaegbu is the Executive Director of Every Woman Hope Centre (EWHC), an Abuja based Non-Governmental Organisation and the Secretary of National Biosafety and Biotechnology Consortium (NBBC).