By Nkechi Isaac, Abuja –
The National Agriculture Seed Council (NASC) has commenced sensitisation of Nigerian seed companies in preparation for the commercialisation of Genetically Modified Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) cowpea and cotton by 2018.
A sensitisation workshop organised in partnership with an association that represents private seed companies in Africa, the African Seed Trade Association (AFSTA) with support from Seed Enterprises Entrepreneur Association of Nigeria (SEEDAN); African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF); Open Forum for Agricultural Biotechnology (OFAB); Africa Harvest; and the National Biosafety Management Agency (NABDA), in Abuja, was staged to educate seed companies that are expected to play a major role in the distribution of genetically engineered seeds when the nation finally commercialises it next year.
Giving the opening remarks, the director-general of NASC, Dr Philip Ojo, said the meeting was very important for Nigeria because it was focused on educating major seed industry players from the public and private sector agencies registered and accredited to do seed business in the country on recent developments and technological advancements in agriculture particularly as it relates to biotechnology and GMOs.
He said: “The agriculture industry has traditionally been supportive of technological advancement, particularly in the field of genetic crop improvement; for decades, the industry has been mixing naturally the genetic traits of seeds in the search for particularly robust varieties through conventional plant breeding. Breeding has, however, evolved to engaging in genetic modification of crop varieties through non-conventional methods resulting to the production on of genetically modified (GM) seeds.”
According to him, “GM seeds are a significant step forward in the production of agricultural crops. GM seeds are seeds that have been modified to contain specific characteristics such as resistance to herbicides or resistance to pests. But the method of modification used with GM seeds varies from the conventional method in an important respect: the genes have not been modified over generations of cross-fertilization but rather inserted directly into the DNA of the seed.”
Speaking on the benefits and concerns raised by GM seeds, Ojo noted that though GM seeds are a revolutionary technology in agriculture neither full scale adoption nor full scale rejection was a viable option, stressing the need for stakeholders to be properly educated about the technology.
“Certainly, GM seeds are a revolutionary technology in the agricultural industry. Also, the potential benefits of these seeds promise to be considerable. But an uneducated acceptance of this technology by farmers should be supported. The best approach is for every stakeholder to be properly educated about this technology and I think this is one thing today’s meeting will try to do,” he stated.
Speaking to journalists at the side-line of the event, the national coordinator, OFAB Nigeria, Dr Rose Gidado, said farmers would have access to Bt Cowpea and Bt Cotton by 2018.
“Crop scientists in Nigeria have embarked on research to biologically enhance cowpea using the Bt method, which manipulates living organisms for purposes of developing another product in a bid to improve its quality and eradicate pests and diseases that have been destroying the traditional crop popularly called beans in Nigeria, which cowpea pod borer called Maruca testulalis has been a key problem affecting the crop globally, while BT cotton is an insect-resistant transgenic crop designed to combat the insect called bollworm, which has been destructive to it over the years,” she said.
She added: “Very soon next year BT Cowpea and BT Cotton should be ready for commercialization. And so we want the seed companies in Nigeria to be involved and to be in charge of this because the technology there is justice in it so that our won farmers would have access to these seeds and so that there would not be monopoly of the seeds by any international company as it is always like pre-empted by the opposition group, people who are opposed to the technology and there is equity, justice in it.
“Some farmers are already aware. Presently, the two crops I mentioned- the biotechnology cowpea and cotton are being managed by farmers. We have farmers’ management trial going on right now in the country. For the cotton I think it is going on in about 10 states in Nigeria that farms are managed.”
Earlier in his remarks, the communication officer of AFSTA, Aghan Daniel, noted that Africa still remained a minor player in the global seed trade, accounting for less than 2 percent, saying modern biotechnology provides Africa with tools for trait improvements in crop germplasm for increased grain yields in ways compatible to human and environmental welfare.
“It is important that farmers and consumers of crop products in Africa be given an opportunity to benefit from increased opportunities, productivity, and efficiency and perhaps costs of food by having GM crops commercialised in African countries,” he stated.
In his keynote address entitled “How relevant are GMOs to Nigeria and Africa?”, the principal investigator, Pod Borer Resistant (PBR) Cowpea Project, at the Institute for Agricultural Research (IAR) Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, Prof Mohammed Ishiyaku, said there existed several intractable constraints militating against Nigeria’s quest for more affordable food to its citizens and this could only be mitigated through the deployment of biotechnology, adding GM seeds once deregulated are no different from conventional seeds.
He urged government agencies responsible for development, marketing/distribution and cultivation of GM seeds to streamline their roles if the anticipated benefits of biotechnology, as envisioned by government, is to be realised, stressing that stakeholders, especially farmers, must take their proper position in determining direction of seed policy if crop agriculture were to be profitable.