Biotechnology experts and seed companies are expecting great changes for Africa’s seed sector and agriculture in general now that Nigeria, the continent’s most populous country, has approved genetically modified Bt cotton and its first GMO food crop, Bt cowpea.
“Seeds are the basic unit of farming but we can’t produce quality seeds without science and agricultural research, which are critical in seed development,” said Stephen Oludapo Adigun of the Seed Entrepreneurs Association of Nigeria (SEEDAN), the country’s national seed trade association.
Consisting primarily of private seed companies, SEEDAN is a prominent member of the African Seed Trade Association (AFSTA) and an influential voice among its roughly 100 members across the continent.
Given that Nigeria has adopted GM technology to enhance agricultural production, Adigun told the Alliance for Science that stakeholders within the seed industry need to work together to develop a market that can harness the benefits of GM technology.
“[The government] cannot commercialize any seed variety without the participation of seed companies in Nigeria, so we need to involve all the stakeholders, including farmers and processors who are involved in manufacturing the finished products along the agricultural value chain,” said Adigun. “Some people are skeptical because they want to know the impact of cultivating GM seeds. Thus, we must not leave anybody behind in the discussions and decisions.”
Friday Alabi, a research and development officer at TecniSeeds, agreed that getting farmers on board is key.
“We’re fully prepared to adopt the GM technology but farmers must be ready to adopt it as well,” he said. “Our farmers have varying needs, so we will keep observing their needs to bring the best technologies to them.”
Alabi added that Nigerian seed companies like his are prepared to play a role in developing improved quality seeds that are resistant to pests and diseases.
The lack of quality seeds and an abundance of disease-causing pests are some of the major challenges faced by African farmers, said Nana Aisha Bashir, vice president of the All Farmers Association of Nigeria (AFAN). Bashir noted that GM technology can help solve the problems bedeviling farming and agriculture in Nigeria and lamented that some groups remain against the adoption of GM technology in the country.
“The problem we have with GM technology is that some groups are against it, but they’re opposing it for economic reasons and personal interests. For instance, somebody who sells insecticides and pesticides in the market believes that if you bring in GM seeds that offer higher yields and less use of pesticides, farmers will end up buying those seeds. Thus, they condemn GM seeds,” Bashir told Alliance for Science.
According to Dr. Rose Gidado, the Nigerian country coordinator for the Open Forum on Agricultural Biotechnology, Bt cotton seeds have been distributed to farmers at no cost throughout Nigeria’s cotton-growing zones so that they can begin planting the seeds on demonstration farms alongside conventional varieties. She noted that the farmers were also trained on how to plant the GM cotton seeds to ensure good farm management and agricultural practices.
“Farmers have been given the Bt cotton seeds for this year’s planting season. There’s also going to be follow-up to check on the farmers as well as capacity building in terms of good farm management practices because you must ensure that you follow good agricultural practices in order to get the desired results,” Gidado said.
“This is an evidence-based approach to decision making,” she added. “Farmers can plant the seeds and make up their own minds,” she added.
Bashir backed that approach, saying that farmers should be allowed to see for themselves whether they want to adopt the new seeds.
“We have to enlighten the farmers on the benefits of GM technology because a lot of people don’t know about it yet,” Bashir said. “Farmers are business savvy. They want high-yielding seed varieties that are resistant to pests and require less use of insecticides. Thus, if the farmers plant the GM seeds and see the results, they will buy them.”