Nigeria commercializes Bt cotton, its first GMO crop

By Nkechi Isaac

July 30, 2018

Nigeria has commercialized its first genetically modified crop, approving pest-resistant-resistant Bt cotton as a means to revitalize its comatose textile industry and boost economic development.

GM cotton will revolutionize the nation’s agriculture and textile sectors and could lead to future adoption of GM technology in the country, said Chief Oladosun Awoyemi, chairman of the National Committee on Naming, Registration and Release of Crop Materials, at the official announcement of its release in Ibadan.

With a population of over 190 million people, Nigeria is known as the giant of Africa and many African countries are looking to it to lead the way. Experts have postulated that Nigeria’s success with agricultural biotechnology could open up the entire African continent to adopting the technology.

Nigeria’s two homegrown cotton varieties — MRC 7377 BG 11 and MRC 7361 BG 11 — were developed by Mahyco Nigeria Private Ltd. in collaboration with the Institute for Agricultural Research (IAR) at Ahmadu Bello University in Zaria. The cotton has been genetically modified to include a gene from Bacillus thuringiensis — a soil bacterium used extensively for insect pest control in organic agriculture — to provide pest resistance within the plant itself.

Nigeria’s new Bt cotton can produce 4.1 to 4.4 tonnes per hectare, compared to the local variety, which yields just 600 to 900 kilograms per hectare, said Prof. Alex Akpa, acting director-general of the National Biotechnology Development Agency (NABDA), during a press conference in Abuja. And since Bt cotton can resist the devastating bollworm and tolerate sucking insects, it will help farmers reduce their use of pesticides, thus minimizing environmental impacts and lowering production costs.

Akpa said the new varieties are suitable for cultivation in all of Nigeria’s cotton growing zones. In addition to the pest-resistant traits, they offer early maturity, fiber length of 30.0 to 30.5 millimeters and fiber strength of 26.5 to 27.0g/tex (tenacity) and micronaire (strength) of 3.9 to 4.1. The new varieties will save farmers the trouble of contending with the local conventional variety, which is no longer accepted at the international market, he said.

Nigeria’s textile industry

In the 1970s, the textile industry was Nigeria’s second highest employer. At its peak, between 1970–1990, it comprised about 130 modern factories and supported numerous other ancillary firms, providing about 350,000 direct jobs and 1.2 million indirect jobs among farmers, suppliers, transporters, dealers, traders and exporters, according to the Nigerian Textiles Manufacturing Association. About 60 percent of the raw materials were sourced locally, thereby supporting agriculture, and 25 to 30 percent of its production was exported, according to the Central Bank of Nigeria’s 1995 annual report.

Today however, only 33 factories remain standing and the local cotton industry is comatose, primarily due to low yields and high production costs associated with insect damage. Sucking pests like aphids, jassids and thrips weaken plants by sucking the sap from the tender new growth. Bollworms, which belong to the insect order Lepidoptera, attack cotton plants at different stages, though the feeding and breeding activities intensify as the crop matures. These pests can reduce yields by up to 60 percent. Bt crops, however, produce cry proteins that are naturally toxic to many harmful insect species.

Getting the seeds in the hands of farmers

Now that the federal government has approved the commercial release of Bt cotton, Akpa said Mahyco Nigeria, in collaboration with IAR, will drive the process of making sure that the seeds are rapidly made available to farmers.

“The company will work with over 1,000 farmers to locally produce this high-yield cotton for the whole country,” he said. “It has the capacity to do that and they have assured us they can do that. And with our support, and the support of all the researchers and scientists involved in this project, we have no doubt in our minds that in the next few weeks, or even months at most, it will be widely available to all our farmers. But initially the company is starting with 1,000 registered farmers across the six geo-political zones of the nation, who will mass produce this cotton and make sure farmers have adequate access to the product.”

Farmers are overjoyed

Alhaji Salmanu Abdullahi, managing director of Cotton Ginning Company Ltd., told the Alliance for Science that approval of the new varieties is “a dream come true for cotton farmers.” The ecstatic cotton farmer said the official release of the cotton to farmers would invariably change the country’s textile landscape, noting that adoption of Bt cotton would midwife the resuscitation of the nation’s ailing textile industry.

Similarly, Anibe Achimugu, president of the National Cotton Association of Nigeria (NACOTAN), said the Bt cotton varieties had the potential to improve quality and yield, two major factors that would keep farmers interested in growing cotton.

“We expect that they will earn more money because their yield will go up significantly from maybe 500/600 kg (per hectare) on the average to a minimum of two tonnes. From what we hear, if they follow the agronomic processes properly they should be able to get up to four tonnes, and with that we expect that cotton would be more available and the textile industry will now have enough cotton,” he added.

Anibe described the development as the light at the end of the tunnel for Nigerian cotton farmers and thanked the government agencies that conducted the work to get the varieties approved.

The future of biotech in Nigeria

By achieving the feat of developing Bt cotton, Nigeria showed it is not isolated from other countries across the globe, as far as adopting technological innovation in advancing its development is concerned, said Dr. Rose Maxwell Gidado, country coordinator for the Open Forum on Agricultural Biotechnology (OFAB) Nigeria chapter.

Other GM crops now at various stages of development will also be released after going through the required regulatory processes. “Bt cowpea has reached the advanced stage and very soon it will be available to farmers,” she said. “It has gone through all the stages of the safety trials. We just have one more process before it is fully ready to be released. NBMA needs to give approval for its commercial release, just like it did with cotton, and then it will go before the varietal release committee. We are hoping all the due processes will be completed before the end of the year. We have to comply with the existing guidelines and regulations and protocols in order to get it to farmers.”