Nigeria’s approval of GMO crops boosts Africa’s hopes for the technology

By Joseph Opoku Gakpo

April 2, 2019

Nigeria’s decision to approve the introduction of genetically modified (GM) cowpea and cotton has boosted hopes for the technology across Africa.

Farmers and other stakeholders in the agricultural sector express confidence that their nations will soon follow in the footsteps of the continent’s most populous country to help ensure food security.

“Lessons should be taken from what Nigeria has done. If they have embraced GMOs, then why will we say we are not accepting it? What Nigeria has done is inspiring us all,” Davies Korboe, the 2009 national best farmer in Ghana, told the Alliance for Science in an interview.

With a gross domestic product of more than $376 billion, Nigeria is the biggest economy on the continent and what happens there greatly influences economic activities in other parts of Africa. Nigeria’s actions, particularly in approving GM cowpea (beans), will have extraordinary impact on the rest of the continent, predicted Dr. Margaret Karembu, director of the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA) AfriCenter.

“The approval of biotech cowpea in Nigeria heralds a bright future for Africa,” she said. “In particular, this will set a precedent for approval of the bean in Ghana, Burkina Faso and Malawi, who are also doing research with insect-resistant cowpea.”

Cowpea is the first GM food crop to be approved for open cultivation in Nigeria and West Africa as a whole. Burkina Faso previously approved and planted Bt cotton, which is not a food crop.

Karembu explained biotech cowpea approval in Nigeria is evidence that African agencies are equal to the task of developing and regulating these crops, and other African countries must replicate their efforts.

“This important development shows Africa has enough capacity to conduct agricultural biotechnology research,” she told the Alliance for Science in an interview. “It clearly proves that the continent has a rich pool of agri-biotech experts. The approval also demonstrates Africa’s ability to make decisions independently and confidently for the benefit of her people. Further, it shows decision-makers are awake to the problems bedeviling communities and have them close to their hearts.”

Across Africa, GM crops are commercially grown in only two countries: South Africa and Sudan. More than a dozen other nations are currently undertaking trials on about eight GM crops, including banana, cassava and maize, in preparation for their introduction into the food supply. Cumbersome regulatory procedures and the work of anti-GMO civil society groups have for several years stalled progress in a lot of countries but it’s now clear the barriers are breaking.

Last year, Nigeria’s National Biosafety Management Agency (NBMA) approved the commercial release of Bt cotton, which has inherent resistance to the destructive bollworm pests. Earlier this year, the agency again approved the environmental release of Bt cowpea, which can resist the destructive maruca pests. The varieties are now being examined at the levels of the nation’s Variety Release Committee and National Seed Service and will get into the hands of farmers by next year.

More reactions

Dr. Richard Ampadu Ameyaw of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research in Ghana said it will be in the nation’s interest to follow Nigeria’s example and approve production of GM crops. The crops, when finally released to farmers in Nigeria, will definitely find their way to Ghana through inter-country trade, he said.

“What is happening in Nigeria has to inspire us to do what we are doing,” Ampadu said. “So we can get the right materials for our people here. Because with the West Africa seed law, once the seed is accepted there, we can’t do otherwise here.”

Scientists in Ghana have completed trials on Bt cowpea and will soon apply for environmental and commercial release. Ampadu is certain that Nigeria’s example will give Ghanaians confidence to accept the varieties. “The Nigeria example shows we can also accept it and nothing will happen to us,” he explained.

In Uganda, two GM crops (Bt-cotton and Bt-maize, with inherent resistance to the stem borer) are currently under trials at the National Agricultural Research Organization (NARO). Peter Wamboga-Mugirya of the Science Foundation for Livelihoods and Development in Uganda told the Alliance for Science his nation and other east African countries are looking forward to following Nigeria’s footsteps soon.

“Nigeria’s breakthrough would inspire the rest of Africa to approach biotech crops in a more hopeful manner to take Nigerian-like bold steps,” he said. “Our countries need a firm and serious political stewardship in order for progress such as Nigeria’s. Both Presidents Goodluck Jonathan and Muhammadu Buhar’s governments have provided the political leadership that has not interfered with technical scientific and regulatory processes. Uganda also stands to learn that….” he added.

Other east African countries, such as Ethiopia, are learning from Nigeria, Wamboga-Mugirya said. “Ethiopia, which suffers annual food shortages, also stands inspired by Nigerian commercialization of Bt cowpea to release her Bt maize and drought-tolerant maize, to contribute to reduction of stem-borer and drought destruction of the crops,” he explained.

Despite a two-decade effort to introduce Bt cotton in Malawi, the crop has yet to get to the stage of commercialization. At a time when a deadly cyclone underlined by climate change has caused widespread flooding in Malawi, Mozambique and Zimbabwe, Malawi more than ever needs to follow Nigeria’s footsteps, said Yohane Chimbalanga, the research services officer responsible for agriculture sciences at the National Commission for Science and Technology.

“Currently in Nigeria, soon their farmers will start to reap the benefits of GM technology,” Yohane told the Alliance for Science. “This should be a wakeup call to Malawi, which has all the necessary instruments (including biosafety regulatory framework) to allow the country to safely use the technology and commercialize its products and realize the benefits.”

He continued: “Malawi and the rest of Africa should be inspired by the bold step taken by Africa’s number one economy in allowing commercialization of GM technology, if we are to realistically challenge the effects of climate change and food insecurity in Africa. We need to allow all the necessary tools that can help solve the challenges we are facing now, and GM is one such a tool.”

In Kenya, processes to allow for the introduction of GM crops stalled after the Ministry of Health imposed a ban in 2012. The National Drought Management Authority has warned more than a million Kenyans face starvation this year due to poor performance of the October-December rains last year. In an article in Kenya’s Daily Nation newspaper, a program manager at the African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF) asked government to re-consider the ban. “The ban on GMOs is not only baffling but tantamount to denying smallholder farmers an opportunity to improve their lives and holding hostage the advancement of biotechnology research,” he wrote. “The lifting of the GMO ban will not only be a timely intervention but also a major step towards attaining food security.”

Nigeria’s message to the world

Dr. Rose Maxwell Gidado, Nigeria country coordinator for the Open Forum on Agricultural Biotechnology, said her country’s success with GM crops shows the rest of Africa it can do same. The success proves the anti-technology claims against GMOs are over-exaggerated, she said, and contrary to general perception, farmers and policy makers are willing to accept this technology.

Prof. Mohammad Ishayaku, principal investigator in charge of the Bt cowpea project in Nigeria, said there are great lessons for the rest of Africa in what Nigerian regulators have done, and he challenged African leaders to help the continent move forward.

“Firstly, I would like African regulators to know that regulation does not mean prevention,” he said. “Regulations should facilitate doing things in a right way. Secondly, regulators should stop the attitude of re-inventing the wheel; we have global and universal principles. What is applied in Rwanda can be applied in Kenya as long as it is healthy and environmentally friendly. Lastly, they should bear in mind that the financial burden through regulations reduces the profitability of the technology.”