Nigeria is not backing down on the commercialization of its GMO products as stakeholders, comprising scientific community, government, civil society groups, media, legal practitioners and the organized private sector met in Abuja to review the progress made so far in the biotechnology and biosafety sector.

In his speech during the opening ceremony of the meeting championed by the Open Forum for Agricultural Biotechnology (OFAB) under the National Biotechnology Development Agency (NABDA), the president of the National Biotechnology and Biosafety Consortium (NBBC), Prof. Celestine Aguoru averred that modern agricultural biotechnology presented Nigeria with immeasurable economic benefits which must not be glossed over.

Saying genetic engineering has been beneficial to agriculture, medicine, environment, poverty reduction and the economy generally in developing nations, including Nigeria, he argued that we have the expertise to deal with issues arising from modern biotechnology and biosafety.

He said: “However, riding on the low level of awareness and understanding of modern biotechnology among Nigerians, the anti-GMO activists have turned the otherwise scientific and technical issues into moral, cultural and ideological debates. They systematically manipulate science, create alternative facts and distort scientific facts to create fear and despondency on the perceived health and environmental risks of modern biotechnology.

“It amounts to political sabotage by persons with no knowledge of genetic engineering. The case is even worsened to say we have no capacity in Nigeria to practice modern biotechnology.”

Aguoru assured that NBBC would ensure a unified voice and strategy for experts from universities, research institutions as well as government agencies to lend their voice to the technology while making sure that protocols committed to by Nigeria are respected.

“The consortium shall make sure that we keep abreast with critical issues and have opportunity of contributing to strategy development for Nigeria to benefit from this very important and beneficial science,” he pointed out.

Giving update of NABDA activities, the acting director-general of NABDA, Prof. Alex Akpa, said the agency had been implementing its mandate through coordinating the efforts of Nigerian scientists/breeders from agricultural research institutes, namely the Institute for Agricultural Research (IAR), Zaria; the National Cereals Research Institute (NCRI), Badeggi; National Root Crops Research Institute (NRCRI), Umudike; and International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA), Ibadan that had identified the indigenous food security crops and the productivity challenges, and thereby developing genetically modified varieties in collaboration with international partners (AATF, USAID, Africa Harvest, Dupont Pioneer etc.) to help solve the challenges.

He listed five biotech crops under confined field trails in the nation as Pod Borer Resistant (PBR) cowpea, modified to be resistant to Maruca insect larvae; Bt cotton, with resistance to pink bollworm; Africa Biofortified Sorghum (ABS) with enhanced levels of Vitamin A, Iron and Zinc to target malnutrition; Nitrogen Use Efficient, Water Use Efficient and Salt Tolerant (NEWEST) rice: Virus Resistant and Nutritionally Enhanced Cassava for Africa (VIRCA PLUS).

“Decades of documented evidence demonstrates that agricultural biotechnology is a safe and beneficial technology that contributes to both environmental and economic sustainability. Biotechnology crops have the potentials of increasing yield and lowering production costs. Farmers will get greater financial return while using more environmentally friendly farming practices through the use of agricultural biotechnology,” he stated.

The country coordinator of OFAB, Nigeria chapter, Dr. Rose Gidado listed the objectives of the meeting to include a review of the nation’s strategies in the last few years and to chart a way forward and also look at how best to promote understanding of the potentials of agricultural biotech and biosafety in the country.

She said despite being the fastest adopted crop technology in the history of modern agriculture, sub Saharan Africa was yet to benefit from the technology, pointing out that pundits attributed the situation to lack of political will, restrictive policies, low public investment and technology access.

“Agricultural biotechnology holds the promise of improving food security and better nutrition. AU member states must invest in agricultural biotechnology to address long-term issues such as nutrient deficiency and needed improvements to overall agricultural productivity,” she added.

In his remarks, the assistant director at the NRCRI, Dr. Chiedozie Egesi contended that stakeholders needed to distance themselves from issues that distract and focus on creating a roadmap in line with the Federal Government’s mission, which is to produce enough to feed our people and then begin to make money from agriculture.

He remarked that though biotechnology is not the silver bullet in agricultural development, it provides a firm foundation for any bumper harvest which drives agriculture.

“Bioengineered crops is the biggest technology in agriculture that has the highest level of adoption. It is over 20 years now and it’s the one that is driving agriculture in the big food export countries like Argentina, USA, China, Brazil. These are countries whose agricultural foundation has been changed to be based on bioengineered crops like soybean, maize and all the other crops. So, for Nigeria that is meant to become one of the largest populous countries by 2050 it is important that we begin to make agricultural biotechnology homegrown and to even cause it to be the foundation upon which we’ll produce our crops.

“I mean, there are other technologies that will help food security, help us to produce more food like improving our use of fertilizer and all the other agronomic techniques but the foundation for any bumper harvest is improved seeds and agricultural biotechnology is meant to help us have the best seed to drive our agriculture,” he said.

Similarly, the vice president of All Farmers Association of Nigeria (AFAN), Chief Daniel Okafor pointed out that science and technology cannot be without farmers and vice versa, agreeing biotechnology is the way to go.

“We welcome science and technology development in Nigeria because we have seen what science can do in other developed countries we’ve visited and we can’t make significant progress in the area of agriculture without science and technology tools like biotechnology,” he added.

Meanwhile, the director-general of the National Biosafety Management Agency (NBMA), Dr. Rufus Ebegba has underscored the agency’s preparedness to regulate the nation’s biotechnology sector, saying it has well equipped, state of the art laboratory and highly skilled manpower to effectively regulate modern biotechnology application in the country.