The director-general of National Biosafety Development Agency (NBMA), Dr Rufus Ebegba, has said in spite of sentiments being expressed by some people, Nigeria is on its way to joining the league of nations that are currently benefiting from the application of modern biotechnology.
This is even as the nation gears up for the commercialization of its leading biotechnology products, the Bacillus thuringiences (Bt) Cowpea (beans) and cotton, which have been fortified against pod borer and bollworm infestations.
Nigeria, it would be recalled, had in 2009 commenced trials on cowpea to test the efficacy of Bt gene insert which confers resistance to the major Lepidopteran pest that inflicts severe damage to the cowpea plant, the pod-borer, Maruca vitrata while the Bt cotton, which commenced its general release in 2016 because it is a nonfood crop, is being tested for resistance against boll- worm. Both products are currently going through the final process before their commercialization this year.
Speaking exclusively to our correspondent in Abuja, Ebegba, who heads the nation’s biosafety agency, said the nation could not be cowed or blackmailed into not approving the commercialization of biotechnology product or crops that had been improved through genetic modification by sentiments, speculations or hearsay without any tangible, verifiable facts backed by scientific findings.
He said: “The NBMA is in charge of vetting every biotech application, in terms of importation of trials in the nation. So, when an application is brought before the agency, it goes through a rigorous process of vetting and if certified fit for consumption for the nation it would be approved on its merit. NBMA is a highly rated biotechnology regulatory agency in the world and among the best in Africa. We have one of the best advanced labs for GM detection and analysis. And we also have some of the best trained staff all over the world. In biosafety, the agency is fully prepared to ensure that Nigerians and the environment are protected.”
Giving update on Genetically Modified (GM) crops in Nigeria, Ebegba, said Nigeria does not have officially released GM crops as the ones in the country at present undergoing experiment, adding the only crop being grown for commercial purpose is cotton which is still undergoing station trials to meet the requirements of regulatory agencies.
Clearing misconception on the presence of giant looking fruits labelled as GMOs by uninformed people, Ebegba pointed to distinction between hybrid crops and genetically modified ones.
“There are claims that the big mangoes, oranges, paw paw and water melon are products of genetic modification, linking such to the increase in cancer, autism and other strange diseases. This is clearly coming from ignorant people who specialize in trading falsehood and fallacy, inciting unwarranted fear in the public. These folks who make such claims are not scientists, so I wonder where they are getting their facts from.
“They are clearly being mischievous because we are the agency in charge of granting permit for any genetically modified product that enters the country. There should be a clear distinction between hybrids and GM products. These big fruits are grown through conventional means. These folks should look at the list of GM fruits in the world, there are no GM mangoes, oranges or melon in the world, so where are they getting their facts from?”, he asked.
According to the NBMA boss, the agency tracks all imported GM products in superstores in the country, saying they have been tested and certified safe for the country.
He added: “GM products have been consumed all over the world for over 20 years and there has been no reported case of harm coming from the consumption of GM products across the globe. We have reputable organisations like the EU, WHO, FAO, ISAAA passing a vote of confidence for biotechnology but as a regulator, it still lies on us to cross check GM products imported into the nation to ensure it is safe for our people and the environment.
“As I mentioned earlier, the approval goes through a rigorous process before it is granted. In terms of getting approval for trials, such requests goes through a rigorous process through two independent committees, the National Biosafety Committee made up of experts and the National Biosafety Technical Sub-committee, made up of independent experts drawn from ministries, departments and agencies of government, research institutes, NGOs, who critical take an in-depth look at the request, analyse it, give recommendations before it is tabled to the agency for approval.
“This is a rigorous process to ensure that Nigerians are not exposed to any form of danger whatsoever. So, products are subjected to such rigorous process by a team of independent experts to ensure that any form of harm is identified and removed before it gets to the public,” he stated.
He assured Nigerians that the agency is fully prepared to regulate biotechnology application in the country, saying it would never allow any harmful product into the country, adding that the agency will ensure that the practice of modern biotechnology is done holistically in such a way that such activities will not compromise our health system and our environment.
Also, speaking to our reporter in Abuja, the country coordinator of Open Forum on Agricultural Biotechnology (OFAB) in Africa, Nigeria Chapter, Dr Rose Gidado, said the commercialization of the Bt Cowpea would fill the nation’s deficit in terms of production of the staple food crop.
She said: “Nigeria is a cowpea producing nation but currently we do not produce enough to feed the nation because of the pod-borer, Maruca vitrata which damages the cowpea pods in the field and in severe infestations amounted to yield losses of about 80 per cent. This leads the nation to a deficit of over 500,000 tonnes which translates to about N16 billion yearly.
“However, studies have shown that the Bt (Pod Borer Resistant (PBR) Cowpea can drastically reduce the use of pesticide and increase yield to up to 20 per cent which translates to N48 billion annually at the rate of N120,000 per tonne.”
Gidado also said the Bt cotton which is currently on general release held the key to reviving the nation’s textile industry.
“Nigeria’s textile industry used to be the highest employer of labour in the 90s but went under because of so many textile companies were unable to break even because of a myriad of reasons, a major one being boll worm infestation. Bt cotton tackles this same challenge and once it is commercialized we envisage a revamping of the industry.”
Listing more gains, the principal investigator of the PBR Cowpea project in Nigeria, Institute of Agricultural Research (IAR), Zaria, Prof. Mahammad Ishiyaku also said Nigeria could save over N16 billion annually on reduction of insecticide spray requirement on cowpea.
“In trying to deal with the Maruca infestation farmers are forced to use heavy doses of insecticides which is expensive and comes with myriads of disadvantages such as being unaffordable to resource poor farmers; uses up precious foreign reserve; unsafe to health; causes death, sickness, disability; unsafe to environment; kills beneficial organisms; residual etc.
“But Bt cowpea trials have shown significant reduction of insecticide spray requirement from eight to two or three times at most. This is huge, it invariably means reduction in the use of insecticide, making it more environmentally friendly, reduce human health problems, because the fumes can also affect those spraying. It will also reduce the destruction of biodiversity in causing ozone layer depletion because of the release of gas when these products break down which is the cause of greenhouse gas,” he added.
Also speaking exclusively to our correspondent, the vice president of All Farmers Association of Nigeria (AFAN), Chief Daniel Okafor, said Nigerian farmers were ecstatically waiting for the commercialization of the Bt crops as they are the end users of the product and must reap the benefits like their counterparts across the globe. Describing biotechnology as having the potential to lift farmers, he said any technology that provides solution to the numerous challenges of farmers should not be ignored.
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