Nigeria’s GMO crop research to advance in 2019

By Nkechi Isaac

January 17, 2019

Building on landmark events from the past year, Nigeria’s biotechnology sector is expecting significant progress on two key food and fiber crops in 2019.

Last year, the Nigerian government approved the commercialization of pest-resistant Bt cotton, a major cash crop; began the process of deregulating Bt cowpea, an important food crop; and won a landmark court case that had been filed by anti-GMO crusaders.

Bt cotton is currently being planted in demonstration trials, side-by-side with conventional cotton so farmers can see the difference between the two varieties.

The trials are in preparation for seed multiplication, as seeds will need to be available before full commercialization starts to ensure as many farmers as possible can access the Bt variety, said Dr. Rose Gidado, Nigeria Chapter country coordinator for the Open Forum on Agricultural Biotechnology (OFAB) in Africa.

“After the demo trials then the 1000 farmers that will take part in the seed multiplication take off,” Gidado said. “There will also be seed certification by the National Agric Seed Council (NASC). By 2020 we’ll be seeing Bt cotton in farmers’ fields and anyone who is interested can buy the seeds and plant.”

Status of Bt cowpea

The leading institutions in the Bt cowpea project submitted their dossier of research studies on the project to the National Biosafety Management Agency (NBMA) in December and expressed optimism that it would be approved and commercialized in the nearest future, Gidado said, noting that “it was a painstaking process transparently done.”

To date, NBMA has received no objections to the dossier.

“The fact that it is an African-led project done by Nigerian scientists in Nigeria — that’s what we want,” she said. “it’s like a technology transfer and the newly-bred-improved cultivars are all Nigerian varieties of beans.”

Researchers bred the insect-resistant trait into lead commercial varieties that farmers are familiar with to make adoption easier, Gidado noted. “So it’s the beans the farmers are actually used to. All the scientists did was to add the genes to give it protection against the devastating insect maruca so farmers can maximize their yield.”

More GM crops in the pipeline

In addition to Bt cotton and cowpea, Nigeria has other GM crop projects in the pipeline. Confined field trials (CFT) are about to begin on the VIRCA Plus project, which involves virus-resistant cassava nutritionally enhanced with iron and zinc. The project is being developed by the National Root Crops Research Institute and the US-based Danforth Plant Science Centre. Research is already ongoing in Uganda and Kenya.

Meanwhile, other crops currently in various stages of CFT in Nigeria include the salt-tolerant, nitrogen- and water-use efficient NEWEST rice, the African bio-fortified sorghum (ABS), Bt maize and GM cassava improved to prolong the shelf life of root starch.

The National Biotechnology Development Agency (NABDA) is also gearing up for its first transgenic research and development project on the herbicide tolerant (HT) soybeans, a collaborative project with Michigan State University. Gidado noted that NABDA had already secured approval and planned to commence a CFT once the seeds arrive in Nigeria.

“They’re [Michigan State] giving us two lines and we’re going to backcross the genes into Nigeria’s leading commercial varieties of soybeans, which will be obtained from the National Cereals Research Institute, Badeggi,” she said. “We hope that by February or March the seeds would have arrived so that the next planting season would be ready.”

Preparing farmers for Bt crops

Gidado also stressed that farmers are being included in the nation’s preparations to commercialize its first GM crops.  Trainings and sensitization workshops already have been held, and NABDA and other key biotech players are planning a special stewardship training in preparation for full-scale farming of the approved crops.

“They are also being taught farm management practices, because without that it’s difficult to realize the kind of yield that you desire to have,” she said.

A stakeholders’ meeting on Bt cotton, to be convened by Mahyco and Bayer in collaboration with IAR and NABDA, is also in the works.

“The aim of the stakeholders’ meeting is to discuss how the commercialization would roll out and also details of stewardship, which is actually very important,” she said.  Extension workers in the various cotton-growing states will be trained on good crop management practices for Bt, so that they can in turn train the farmers.

Farmers expectations

Alhaji Salmanu Abdullahi, managing director of Cotton Ginning Company Ltd., said farmers are in support of any technology that will improve their livelihoods.

“Anything to improve the welfare of the Nigerian farmer is very important and a welcome development, he said. “You know, cotton is not only meant to augment the textiles industry, it is part of the cash crop produced and sold for foreign exchange. You see countries like the United States, Pakistan, China and India making huge foreign exchange from cotton. If we are able to produce enough in Nigeria we will be able to revive our textiles industry, make our ginneries work at 100 percent and be able to export to earn foreign exchange for the country.

“So, it is very important and once our youths get back to the business of farming, all this insurgency will be drastically reduced,” he added.