With the Federal Government’s recent approval of the commercialization of Bacillus Thuringiensis (Bt) Cotton, Nigeria has officially joined the league of countries utilizing advanced cutting-edge technology, biotechnology, as another window to boost its economic development.
The government through the national committee on naming, registration and release of crop materials at its 26th meeting in Ibadan approved the official registration of two of its homegrown Bt Cotton varieties known as MRC 7377 BG 11 and MRC 7361 BG 11.
The genetically modified (GM) variety of cotton was developed by Mahyco Nigeria Private Limited in collaboration with the Institute for Agricultural Research (IAR), Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria.
Speaking during the official release in Ibadan, the chairman of the committee, Chief Oladosun Awoyemi, remarked that the genetically modified (GM) cotton was revolutionary to agricultural and textile development of the nation and could lead to future adoption of GM technology in the country.
Nigeria’s Textile Industry in the 70s – 90s
Nigeria’s textile industry used to be the second highest employer of labour in the country in the 70s. At its peak, 1970–1990, the textile industry featured about 130 modern factories and supported numerous other ancillary firms, providing about 350,000 direct jobs and 1.2 million indirect jobs – farmers, suppliers, transporters, dealers, traders and exporters – according to the Nigerian Textiles Manufacturing Association. Between 25 and 30 per cent of local production was exported, said the Central Bank of Nigeria in its 1995 Annual Report with over 60 per cent of raw materials sourced locally, thereby supporting agriculture.
Present Day Reality/Why Bt Cotton?
Alas, the story has since changed with only about 33 factories still standing and the local cotton industry in comatose.
The major pests threatening the growth of cotton varieties in Nigeria are sucking pests and bollworms. The sucking pests, aphids, jassids and thrips, attack the tender parts of the plants, suck the plant’s sap, make plants weak and may cause a considerable loss in yield if not controlled in time.
The bollworms belonging to insect order Lepidoptera, derogate, all attack the cotton plants at different stages of the crop. Their feeding and breeding activities intensify as the crop enters reproductive phase when plenty of squares and bolls become available.
A viable alternative to the conventional repeated spray of chemicals at various stages of growth to control these pests is modern technology, the use of Bt cotton. It produces cry proteins which are toxic to many species of insects which cause a major yield loss in cotton up to about 60 per cent.
Bt cotton farming reduces the use of pesticides and also results in the reduction of the cost of cultivation and hazards associated with its application on humans, animals and environment. Bt technology for control of bollworms is made available in the seed itself. This is a situation where farmers just sow the Bt cotton seeds as they do with conventional seeds. The resulting plants have the inbuilt ability to produce Bt protein within their parts and defend themselves against bollworms.
Speaking during a press conference in Abuja, the acting director-general of the National Biotechnology Development Agency (NABDA), Prof. Alex Akpa, said the new variety that had been officially registered had the potential of being adopted in all the cotton growing zones of the nation with maturity of 150-160 days, describing it as resistant to bollworm complex, high seed cotton yield, early maturity, tolerant to suckling insect pest with fibre length of 30.0 to 30.5mm.
According to him, “This new variety also has fibre strength of 26.5 to 27.0g/tex (tenacity) and micronaire (strength) 3.9 to 4.1; it is highly viable when compared to the local alternative, the yields are higher as it gives 4.1 to 4.4 tonne per hectare while the local variety is 600 to 900kg hectare. The BG 11 has the potential of producing 50 to 100balls as compared to the potential to withstand drought.”
Akpa further stated that the varieties would save farmers the trouble of contending with the local conventional variety which is no longer accepted at the international market.
Getting the seeds in the hands of farmers
Securing federal government’s approval for the cultivation of Bt cotton means farmers are expected to access the seeds for onward planting. Throwing more light on how this would get into the hands of farmers, Akpa said Mahyco Nigeria in collaboration with IAR, Zaria, would drive the process of making sure that the Bt cotton rapidly gets to all farmers.
He said: “The company would work with over 1,000 farmers to locally produce this high-yield cotton for the whole country. So, it has the capacity to do that and they have assured us they can do that. And with our support, and the support of all the researchers and scientists involved in this project we have no doubt in our minds that in the next few weeks or even months at most it would be widely available to all our farmers. But initially the company is starting with 1,000 registered farmers across the six geo-political zones of the nation, who will mass produce this cotton and to make farmers have adequate access to the product.”
Speaking to our correspondent on this development, the managing director of Cotton Ginning Company Limited, Alhaji Salmanu Abdullahi, said it was a dream come true for cotton farmers.
The ecstatic cotton farmer said the nod from the federal government for the official release of cotton to farmers would definitely make quality seeds available for cotton farmers and invariably change the textile industry landscape of the country, adding the adoption of Bt cotton would midwife the resuscitation of the nation’s comatose textile industry.
Similarly, the national president of the National Cotton Association of Nigeria (NACOTAN), Anibe Achimugu, said the Bt cotton varieties had the potentials to improve quality and yield, two major factors, he pointed out would keep farmers interested in cotton farming.
“We expect that they will earn more money because their yield will go up significantly from maybe 500/600 on the average to a minimum of 2 tonnes. From what we hear if they follow the agronomic processes properly they should be able to get up to four tonnes and with that we expect that cotton would be more available and the textile industry will now have enough cotton,” he added.
Anibe described the development as light at the end of the tunnel for Nigerian cotton farmers and thanked the government agencies that put on the work to get the varieties approved.
The Future of Biotech In Nigeria
With a massive population of over 190 million people, many African countries are looking up to Nigeria to lead the way. Experts have postulated that the success of Nigeria in agricultural biotechnology opens up the entire African continent to adopting the technology. Speaking on the future of the technology in Nigeria, the country coordinator, Open Forum on Agricultural Biotechnology (OFAB) Nigeria chapter, Dr Rose Maxwell Gidado, said the feat achieved showed that Nigeria was not in isolation from other countries across the globe as far as adopting technological innovation in advancing the nation’s development was concerned.
She said other GM crops at various stages would also be released after going through all the required due processes.
“Cowpea has reached advanced stage and very soon it would be available to farmers, we just have one more process before it is fully ready to be released. It has gone through all the stages of the safety trials. Cotton was approved for commercial release and cowpea has to go through all the research stages. So, the next thing for NBMA to give approval for commercial release just like cotton and it would go before the varietal release committee afterwards. We are hoping that before the end of the year all the due processes would have been completed. We have to comply with the existing guidelines and regulations and protocols in order to get through to farmers,” she added.
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