Nigerian regulator says anti-GMO sentiments won’t stop GM crops

By Nkechi Isaac

May 10, 2018

Nigeria’s top biotechnology regulator said his agency won’t be cowed by the anti-GMO activism that has picked up steam as two GM crops near approval.

Dr. Rufus Ebegba, director-general of the National Biosafety Development Agency (NBMA), said his agency will not be bullied or blackmailed by sentiments, speculations or hearsay that aren’t backed by scientific findings and tangible, verifiable facts.

Ebegba, speaking in an exclusive interview with the Alliance for Science, was addressing a recent article in Nigeria’s Leadership newspaper. Written by Chika Okeke, it was riddled with outrageous errors and falsehoods that presented a totally distorted picture of GMOs.

In spite of the sentiments being expressed by some people, Nigeria is on its way to joining the league of nations that are currently benefitting from the application of modern biotechnology, Ebegba said.

His remarks came as Nigeria gears up for the commercialization of its first GM crops: cowpea and cotton that include a gene from Bacillus thuringiences, (Bt), a soil bacterium commonly used in organic pest control. Bt crops allow farmers to reduce pesticide use because they are inherently resistant to destructive insect pests, such as the pod borer and bollworm that prey on cowpea and cotton, respectively.

Chief Daniel Okafor, vice president of All Farmers Association of Nigeria (AFAN), said Nigerian farmers were ecstatically waiting for the commercialization of the Bt crops so they could reap the same benefits as other farmers across the globe. Describing biotechnology as having the potential to lift farmers out of poverty, he said any technology that provides solutions to the numerous challenges that farmers face should not be ignored.

Bt cowpea could help Nigeria save an estimated N16 billion annually through the reduced need for insecticide sprays, said Prof. Mahammad Ishiyaku, principal investigator of Nigeria’s Bt cowpea project at the Institute of Agricultural Research (IAR), Zaria.

“In trying to deal with the Maruca [pod borer] infestation, farmers are forced to use heavy doses of insecticides, which are expensive and come with myriad disadvantages.” Intensive insecticide use is associated with death, sickness, disability and environmental problems, he noted. It also uses up precious foreign reserves, creates financial hardships for resource-poor small-holder farmers and kills beneficial organisms.

“But Bt cowpea trials have shown a significant reduction in insecticide spray requirements, from eight applications, to at most two or three,” Ishiyaku said. “This is huge.”

Ebegba offered assurances about the safety of GM crops and the integrity of the nation’s biotech review process. “NBMA is a highly rated biotechnology regulatory agency in the world and among the best in Africa,” he said. “We have one of the most advanced labs for GM detection and analysis. And we also have some of the best trained staff all over the world. In biosafety, the agency is fully prepared to ensure that Nigerians and the environment are protected.”

Ebegba also clarified the difference between the hybrid fruits that are now on the market and GM crops.

“There are claims that the big mangoes, oranges, paw paw and watermelon are products of genetic modification, linking such to an increase in cancer, autism and other strange diseases. This is clearly coming from ignorant people who specialize in trading falsehood and fallacy, inciting unwarranted fear in the public,” he said, noting that no GM mangoes, oranges or melons are available anywhere in the world. “These folks who make such claims are not scientists. They are clearly being mischievous because we are the agency in charge of granting permits for any genetically modified product that enter the country. There should be a clear distinction between hybrids and GM products. These big fruits are grown through conventional means.”

Ebegba assured Nigerians that his agency is fully prepared to regulate biotechnology application in the country. The NBMA would never allow any harmful product into the country, he said, and it will ensure that the practice of biotechnology is done holistically, and in such a way that it will not harm human or environmental health.

Dr. Rose Gidado, Nigeria country coordinator for the Open Forum on Agricultural Biotechnology (OFAB) in Africa, said the commercialization of Bt cowpea would help reduce the nation’s deficit in terms of producing the staple food crop.

“Currently, we do not produce enough to feed the nation because of the pod-borer,  which damages the cowpea pods in the field,” Gidado said. In severe infestations, farmers can suffer yield losses of about 80 percent, she added.  As a result, Nigeria experiences a yearly deficit of over 500,000 tonnes of cowpea, which translates to about N16 billion yearly.

“However, studies have shown that the Bt cowpea can drastically reduce the use of pesticide and increase yields up to 20 percent, which translates to N48 billion annually at the rate of N120,000 per tonne,” she said.

Gidado also expressed optimism that Bt cotton holds the key to reviving the nation’s textile industry, which was the nation’s largest employer in the 1990s.  But the industry collapsed because so many textile companies were unable to break even, due in large part to boll worm infestations. “Bt cotton tackles this same challenge and once it is commercialized, we envision a revamping of the industry,” she said.

Ebegba noted that the NBMA tracks all imported GM products sold in the nation’s superstores, saying the products have been tested and certified safe for the country. “GM products have been consumed all over the world for over 20 years and there has been no reported case of harm coming from the consumption of GM products across the globe. We have reputable organizations like the EU, WHO, FAO, ISAAA passing a vote of confidence for biotechnology, but as a regulator, it still lies on us to cross check GM products imported into the nation to ensure they are safe for our people and the environment.”

Ebegba elaborated on the agency’s review process for GM crops, saying applications are rigorously scrutinized before they are even approved for field trials. Requests to conduct field trials are vetted by two independent committees: the National Biosafety Committee, which comprises experts, and the National Biosafety Technical Sub-committee, which is made up of independent experts drawn from government ministries, departments and agencies, as well as research institutes and NGOs.

“This is a rigorous process to ensure that Nigerians are not exposed to any form of danger whatsoever,” he said.