Nigeria has joined the list of countries seeking to harvest good opportunities from agricultural biotechnology innovations in the seed system with the Bt. cotton and Cowpea. In this interview, the Head of OFAB and Biotech Awareness Unit at the National Biotechnology Development Agency (NABDA), Dr Rose SM Gidado highlights the progress so far, the challenges and other issues.
Let me begin by putting to you a statement credited to the Minister of Agriculture, Chief Audu Ogbeh where he was quoted as saying that the fear of GMOs is in the media not scientific bbv v . How would you react to that?
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The Minister is actually right that the fear of GMOs is in the media than in science because in science, whatever we do usually is backed up by scientific facts and evidence. We don’t just say things because we want to say them, we don’t go into rumor mongering and we don’t say things because of our personal beliefs or ideology. Whatever you say must have scientific facts behind it and has been proven.
What the Minister said was based on what he experienced since his assumption of office, being fed with a lot of negative information over and over and their stories don’t change, year-in-year-out, that GMOs are cancerous, sterile with no scientific evidence. He read them in newspapers, listened to the radio and watched Television. In science, whatever we do must be evidence-based and proven. Same experiment carried out independently in different parts of the world would give you same result, if the results don’t correlate, then there is something wrong somewhere and which if checked would be traced and corrective measures taken. So science is a provider of solutions and a collection of facts, that’s just it.
With the number of adopting countries and range of GM crops expanding, what role do you think the local seed companies need to play in the seed business?
The seed companies really need to come on board. We are building partnerships with them as well as the technology developers, a kind of public-private partnership at the same time doing technology transfer and capacity building. This goes to show that we are domesticating the technology and taking ownership. This is how it should be, at the end of the day, our many other indigenous crops will be improved and food security will be enhanced. So at this time that the technology transfer is on-going, we expect that the Nigerian seed companies will come on board to benefit from this technology transfer ignorer for them to become capacitated, knowledgeable and they can take up by the time we fully domesticate it in Nigeria just like what happened in Brazil, India, and Argentina.
However, one of our indigenous crops, Bt. cowpea whose gene of insert, having been certified safe by the National Biosafety Management Agency(NBMA) is expected to be commercially released by the National Release Committee. We are hoping that it happens very soon. It’s a homegrown crop and the varieties that were actually developed and improved are farmers preferred varieties. The gene was actually incorporated in the farmers-preferred varieties. It’s already what farmers are used to. It’s just that this improved variety has that new gene in it to control the insects that have been causing damages to them and bringing loses as high as 80 % and low productivity- sometimes nothing at all, because the insects destroy the flowers, the pods and everything goes off. But with this newly developed one, we expect that farmers will have bumper harvests and their livelihood will be improved because if they have a bumper harvest, their profit margin will go up and it means money. Suffice me to say here that as Nigeria is the largest producer and consumer as well, it means the market is already there, so we expect that our local seed companies will take charge at the end of the tunnel.
So how are you building the capacity of the indigenous seed companies to key into this technology?
For now, we have started involving the seed companies, building their capacities because they actually need to upgrade their facilities- and something is being done now by the Governing Board of the National Agricultural Seed Council (NASC) where I represent my Agency, NABDA. What the Board has decided to do now is assist NASC in the promotion of the use of improved and quality seeds. In doing so, we saw that there is a need to carry out the inventory and Needs assessment of the Nigerian Seed Companies. The Board Members chaired by the Minister of Agriculture, Chief Audu Ogbeh are going round to look at what they have, take inventory, look at the gaps that exist, look at their needs so that they will be able to access credit loans from the Central Bank of Nigeria or the African Development Bank (AfDB) so that their facilities will be upgraded and capacity strengthened to be able to meet up.
What sort of response do you get from the seed companies you visited?
In the places we’ve been, they’re very happy with this development because I know they have been complaining for the past four years that government owed them, but I think that has been settled. I think now they can start to do business. So with this need assessment, at the end of the day, they will have access to credit so that they can build up themselves and upgrade their facilities in order to upgrade their standard and maintain it for sustainability purpose so that we too, can export food to other countries. For you to be food-secured, seed matters because that’s the foundation.
Some of the argument is the public space is that even with the improved and hybrid seeds, affordability and adoption have been very low. How is GM technology going to change the game?
It’s going to be a win-win situation. I think when we want to start in earnest with the improved seeds-of course maybe the first one year or so and maybe subsequently, there is going to be the establishment of demonstration plots because the farmer is a practical person. Before he drops what he has, he has to see that what you say you are giving him is really improved, working and better than what he has. So there will be the establishment of demonstration plots and we’ve started. We have a committee on improved seeds promotion and advocacy in NASC. Every year we establish demonstration plots for farmers. You have to give the farmers your own improved seeds but not at a cost for the first time, he plants it side-by-side with his own seed, then you give him farm inputs and with good farm management practice, he should be able to at the end of the day judge by himself. All you need to do is to ask him: now between this and this which one do you prefer? So when he sees that the new thing you’re giving him is working, of course, he will go for it. That’s one of the strategies we have to use.
There have been some activists around the adoption of biotech innovations like GMOs in the country. Where do you think the anti-GMOs groups are getting it wrong?
They are been paid by agro-allied industries. They are taking salaries from them because most of them that are into this don’t have jobs; this is what they do as a source of livelihood. So, sometimes I don’t really blame them and they have to justify the money they are receiving from these people because of the use of genetically modified seeds reduces the use of farm inputs- use of agrochemicals and most of these agrochemicals producers are based in Europe. Mostly they are the ones who are sponsoring individuals, some civil society organizations and so they are not even ready to listen to any valid scientific information.
They’ll always run you down, always want to run government’s effort down, they will always look for one pit hole or the other because they are on pay, and the organic groups sometimes pair-up with them because they feel that if they allow this technology to run, the technology will take over. It’s a kind of trade war, trade issues and sometimes, ideology. So they go about spreading false information, rumor mongering causing people to panic and putting fear in the minds of people.
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