Efforts by activists to block Nigeria’s progress with genetically modified (GMO) crops amounts to “political sabotage,” said one of the nation’s top research scientists.
Genetic engineering has been beneficial to agriculture, medicine, the environment, poverty reduction and the economy generally in developing nations, including Nigeria, argued Prof. Celestine Aguoru, an environmental consultant and president of the National Biotechnology and Biosafety Consortium (NBBC).
“However, riding on the low level of awareness and understanding of modern biotechnology among Nigerians, the anti-GMO activists have turned the otherwise scientific and technical issues into moral, cultural and ideological debates,” he said during the opening ceremony of an Abuja meeting held to review the nation’s progress in biotechnology.
“They systematically manipulate science, create alternative facts and distort scientific facts to create fear and despondency on the perceived health and environmental risks of modern biotechnology,” he said. “It amounts to political sabotage by persons with no knowledge of genetic engineering. The case is even worsened to say we have no capacity in Nigeria to practice modern biotechnology.”
Aguoru, however, said Nigeria does have the expertise to deal with issues arising from modern biotechnology and biosafety, and agricultural biotechnology presents Nigeria with immeasurable economic benefits which must not be glossed over
His remarks were made during a meeting championed by the Open Forum for Agricultural Biotechnology (OFAB) and the National Biotechnology Development Agency (NABDA) and attended by scientists, government officials, civil society groups, media, legal practitioners and members of the private sector.
Aguoru confirmed that NBBC will ensure experts from universities, research institutions and government agencies have a unified voice and strategy in supporting the technology while making sure that the biosafety protocols Nigeria has committed to are respected.
Dr. Rose Gidado, country coordinator of OFAB, Nigeria chapter, said the meeting was held to review the nation’s strategies over the last few years and chart a way forward, while also looking at how best to promote understanding of both the potential of agricultural biotech and the country’s biosafety measures.
Despite being the fastest adopted crop technology in the history of modern agriculture, sub Saharan Africa has yet to benefit from the technology, she said, pointing out that pundits attributed the situation to lack of political will, restrictive policies, low public investment and limited access to technology.
“Agricultural biotechnology holds the promise of improving food security and better nutrition,” she said. “African Union member states must invest in agricultural biotechnology to address long-term issues such as nutrient deficiency and needed improvements to overall agricultural productivity.”
Prof. Alex Akpa, acting director-general of NABDA, said the agency had been implementing its mandate by coordinating the efforts of Nigerian scientists and plant breeders from public agricultural research institutes, namely the Institute for Agricultural Research (IAR), Zaria; the National Cereals Research Institute (NCRI), Badeggi; National Root Crops Research Institute (NRCRI), Umudike; and International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA), Ibadan. These agencies have identified the productivity challenges facing indigenous food security crops and developed genetically modified varieties — in collaboration with various international partners, including AATF, USAID, Africa Harvest and Dupont Pioneer — to help address the challenges.
He listed five biotech crops currently undergoing confined field trails in the nation: pod borer resistant (PBR) cowpea, modified to resist maruca insect larvae; Bt cotton, with resistance to pink bollworm; Africa biofortified sorghum (ABS) with enhanced levels of vitamin A, iron and zinc to target malnutrition; nitrogen use efficient, water use efficient and salt tolerant (NEWEST) rice; and virus resistant and nutritionally enhanced cassava for Africa (VIRCA PLUS).
“Decades of documented evidence demonstrate that agricultural biotechnology is a safe and beneficial technology that contributes to both environmental and economic sustainability,” he said. “Biotechnology crops have the potentials of increasing yield and lowering production costs. Farmers will get greater financial return while using more environmentally friendly farming practices through the use of agricultural biotechnology.”
Dr. Chiedozie Egesi, assistant director at NRCRI, contended that stakeholders needed to distance themselves from issues that distract and focus on creating a roadmap in line with the federal government’s mission, which is to produce enough to feed Nigeria’s people and then begin to make money from agriculture.
Though biotechnology is not a silver bullet in agricultural development, it provides a firm foundation for achieving the bumper harvests that drive agriculture, he said, pointing to the example set over the past 20 years by food-exporting countries like Argentina, US and Brazil.
“These are countries whose agricultural foundation has been changed to be based on bioengineered crops like soybean, maize and all the other crops. So, for Nigeria, which is meant to become one of the most populous countries by 2050, it is important that we begin to make agricultural biotechnology homegrown and to even cause it to be the foundation upon which we’ll produce our crops,” he said. “There are other technologies that will help food security, help us to produce more food, like improving our use of fertilizer and all the other agronomic techniques, but the foundation for any bumper harvest is improved seeds and agricultural biotechnology is meant to help us have the best seed to drive our agriculture.”
Chief Daniel Okafor, vice president of All Farmers Association of Nigeria (AFAN), agreed that biotechnology is the way to go, pointing out that science and technology cannot proceed without farmers and vice versa.
“We welcome science and technology development in Nigeria because we have seen what science can do in other developed countries we’ve visited and we can’t make significant progress in the area of agriculture without tools like biotechnology,” he added.
Meanwhile, Dr. Rufus Ebegba, director-general of the National Biosafety Management Agency (NBMA), underscored the agency’s preparedness to regulate the nation’s biotechnology sector, saying it has a well-equipped, state-of-the-art laboratory and highly skilled manpower to effectively regulate modern biotechnology application in the country.