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Genetically modified crops have exposed agro-chemical firms, dealers, says NABDA

By Femi Ibirogba, Head, Agro-Economy Desk
19 August 2019   |   4:15 am
The relevance of biotechnology in the development of the seed subsector cannot be overemphasised. Biotechnology is a tool that can be used to enhance crop productivity.

Rose Gidado

Dr Rose Gidado, Deputy Director/Country Coordinator of OFAB Nigeria, National Biotechnology Development Agency (NABDA), spoke with FEMI IBIROGBA, Head, Agro-Economy, on the importance of biotechnologies to the textile industry, economic prosperity and food security. She argued that antagonists of genetically modified crops have no valid evidence to back the purported misconceptions.

What is the relevance of biotechnology in the seed development, multiplication and food productivity in Nigeria today?
The relevance of biotechnology in the development of the seed subsector cannot be overemphasised. Biotechnology is a tool that can be used to enhance crop productivity. You can use the tool to develop the seeds and make them to become high-yielding. Performance of the seed depends on the kind of traits you put in it.

You can develop a seed to be insect-resistant, and if you are doing so, you are enhancing the quality of that seed. Insect pest infestation of crops is a very common thing and that is what farmers have been fighting, especially the Fall Armyworms that happened in the last three years in Nigeria. Through that, most farmers lost their productivity in maize. It is a big menace. Even if you use chemicals to control it, the infestation still reduces the yield.

We are using biotechnology to bring succour to the farmers. If they spray chemicals, they have to spray many times before they can get something substantial.

Have you been able to develop armyworm-resistant maize variety?
There is a variety of maize that is armyworm-resistant, but it is not yet in Nigeria. But we are also working on the Nigerian variety. We have Tela maize. The Tela maize has two advantages. One, it is drought-tolerant. It is pest-resistant and third, it is high-yielding.

When you take care of those problems that cause yield losses, there will be higher yields, because if I plant a crop and it gets infested with insects or I experience drought on my farm, I may lose everything. But if I have a technology that can take care of that without spraying chemicals so many times, my yields will be enhanced, productivity will go high, and the profit margin will go high and the farmer becomes economically empowered.

So, seed is the life wire of agriculture because if you have quality seeds, it is a very important aspect of agriculture.

Once you have quality seeds, production cost reduces. Improved seeds would tolerate drought, be insect-resistant and could have some micro-nutrients in them through bio-fortification.

People have been protesting against Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) in Nigeria. What is your stake about this?
Some people have been countering the efforts. It is not everybody. They are particularly environmentalists. People who do not believe that the technology is useful. But GMO technology have been proven to be useful in the United States of America, Canada, Brazil, Argentina, India and in South Africa. It has improved the income of farmers, added to the GDPs of those countries and the economies. But here in Africa, the adoption rate is very slow, because of false information against the technology.

What are the misconceptions about the technology?
The negative misconceptions are that they cause cancer, they are not high-yielding, cause infertility, and so many others which are not true.

One, those environmentalists are being sponsored by some movements and foundations. They are supported by some agro-chemical companies and organic movements. The agro-chemical giants who are not making sales because of the use of these crops are behind the misconceptions.

They are not making much profit because the varieties are insect-resistant and have traits of high yield, so much that farmers need less insecticide for crop protection and less fertiliser.

We have BT cottons and beans here in Nigeria. The space required for the conventional cowpea or cotton is eight to 10 times higher than the BT cotton or cowpea. So, chemical and other inputs used on the farms are going down. So, it is not palatable for those agro-chemical companies and they are doing everything possible to protect their businesses. So, it is about market and business politics. The protest against the GMOs is protectionism.

But with awareness creation, and right and quality information sharing, I think people’s fear will be allayed. Those moving against it just talk of ideologies and sentiments. They are not talking based on scientific facts.

You talked about the Bt Cotton, but most of the textile firms are dead. Is there any justification for promoting this cotton?
With the BT cotton, some of the textile companies will be revamped, because the cotton variety was just released for commercial farming last year.

How many hectares are on cultivation now?
I cannot say exactly because before the approval for commercialisation, we had only demonstration plots which were about one hectare in each of the sites. The demonstration plots were meant to expose the qualities and benefits of cultivating the variety to the farmers. In the demonstration plots, farmers were given some seeds to plant alongside their conventional seeds so that they could compare the inputs, resources, and yields and decide which one is better.

So, is there any reason for cotton production when textile factories are still closed and electricity has not improved?
The CBN is involved. It is going to provide facilities to the farmers, and the issue of power is being taken care of in the plan. The processes are on and the off-takers are also involved.

Are there off-takers even when the factories are not working?
There are off-takers. They are the textile factories.

But they are not producing anything for now?
They will be revamped. They will resume production. We are going full commercial next year with the cotton variety.

Don’t you think that we should first revive the industry and then rev up production?
Why the industry went down was because of raw materials. We have to have stable sources of raw materials.

What of power?
The CBN is taking care of that, I have told you. They are going to facilitate electric power in those areas where the factories are concentrated. And they are going to give the farmers credit facilities to up-scale production of the cotton.

The aim of developing the BT cotton for Nigeria is actually to revamp the textile industry. There is so much drudgery in cotton cultivation and it is highly labour-intensive as well a highly susceptible to insect infestation.

Are you saying that with the variety of cotton, the industry would be back?
Yes. I am optimistic that it will revive the industry and it will create jobs.

What exactly is the OFAB mandate?
Our mandate at OFAB is to ensure that Africa benefits from available technologies to become food-secure. The technologies have the potential to help boost food security.

What are these technologies about?
We have genetic improvement technologies where you improve on genes of plants by removing genes that, for instance, make your crops to be susceptible to certain insects and others. And we have bio-fortification to bring in micro-nutrients like iron and zinc, because malnutrition is very rampant in Nigeria and Africa in general.

We also have the tissue culture technologies. The tissue culture actually helps in rapid multiplication of disease-free planting materials.

And we have many others like gene editing, molecular markers and so many other technologies that can help in the food security efforts.