Dr Issoufou Kollo Abdourhamane is the project manager of African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF). In this interview with JULIANA AGBO, he speaks on the health and environmental impact of Genetically Modified (GM) crops and the economic importance of Pod-Borer Resistant (PBR) cowpea.
Can you tell us about the PBR Cowpea project?
The Pod-Borer Resistant (PBR) Cowpea Project is a public private partnership coordinated by African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF to promote technological interventions that will optimise cowpea productivity and utilization in Sub-Saharan Africa. The partnership entails developing cowpea varieties with genetic traits that would make the plant resistant to the pod borer and provide farmers with an alternative to costly and hazardous insecticides. The project entails transferring the BT gene into improved cowpea varieties, which confers resistance to the plant. The project is being implemented in three countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, including: Nigeria, Burkina Faso and Ghana. It is also coordinating studies on safety for food, feed and environmental risk assessments for regulatory approvals in the target countries before seed release to farmers.
What is the current status of the project in Nigeria?
In Nigeria, the release of genetically modified crops involves two steps. First, the National Biosafety Management Agency (NBMA), has released this variety by granting a biosafety permit for the environmental release. We provided all the necessary information on the work we have done to the agency. The agency constituted a panel of experts comprising biotechnologists, genetics and stakeholders in line ministries, departments and agencies who analysed the specie and concluded that the cowpea is safe for human consumption, the environment and animals and it is on that basis that the environmental release permit was granted. The second step, which is the commercial release to farmers, is determined by the National Naming and Variety Release Committee (NVRC). The permit to be granted by the NVRC is based on the agronomic data of trials we carry out in different ecological zones in Nigeria according to the rules of National Variety Release Committee. This is the stage we are at currently.
How long will this take?
We will be concluding the collection of the data required by National Variety Release Committee this coming season. Hopefully, by next cropping season, the variety will be commercially available to all farmers and seed companies in Nigeria.
What is the expected benefit of the PBR Cowpea?
The new varieties are expected to reduce the health risks and improve the economic standing of millions of farmers and their families. The varieties are also expected to improve food security of the country as a whole. It is expected to contribute to better health, environment and income for farmers. The need for frequent spraying with insecticide to control the pod borer will be reduced and smallholder farmers are expected to increase their yields by at least 20 percent.
How safe is this cowpea to the environment?
The PBR cowpea is highly safe for the environment. It was analysed in specialised labs with such criteria as toxicity, allergic reaction and nutritional changes and the results didn’t show any difference with the local cowpea variety which was transformed. It has not posed any threat to any human health or animals. I know there are some folks who are trying to scare people out there against genetically modified crops, saying they cause cancer and other deadly diseases. They are absolutely wrong and therefore have no basis for these assumptions and no evidence to support these fears. All the genetically modified crops released in the world so far are very safe, and in the case of some crops, safer than the conventional crops. Only one French group financed by the organic farmers tried and misinterpreted the data and analysis. They did it purposely to misinterpret the data, results have also shown that these group of people are liars. Even six French National Academies including Veterinary, Technology, Science, Agriculture, Pharmacy and Medicine came out strongly against that data, and rejected the paper. The European Union (EU) Safety Agency totally rejected the conclusion of that paper. People are not aware of this, today in the world, no one references that paper, except the anti GMO activists use it because it supports their cause.
What is the financial benefit of this cowpea?
The economic benefits are tremendous, because this insect has been identified as one of the major constraints in cowpea production in West Africa. If we can solve this, many other insect control measures will be easy. Secondly, by increasing the yield of cowpea financial benefits will accrue. Many Nigerians don’t know that the country imports a lot of beans, in terms of gains, we increase the yield and cut down on the import. In addition, we can cut down on the number of insecticides used, and reduce human and environmental contamination in terms reducing the use of chemicals. In the terms of money, we are talking billions of Naira a year injected in the Nigerian economy.
How can this be achieved?
To reach small holder farmers, the seed companies will be allowed to produce and sell the seeds to farmers, all group will be allowed. We will be working with seed companies to get them quality seeds.
Can farmers replant this seed every year?
Yes, any farmer can harvest and replant these seeds. They will not have to go back to a single company to buy every year. Most of the arguments by anti-GMO activists are false. What they may be alluding to are hybrid seeds. A hybrid seed is developed when you take two different varieties and cross them, the resulting offspring is what we call a hybrid; the offspring usually have higher productivity. You cannot replant it because it won’t segregate. During the next season, the parent will appear; so for hybrids, farmers go to buy seeds every year. Hybrids are not GMOs. Anti GMO activists are working against the food security of the country. What they are using is that farmers will become slaves to companies if they adopt genetically modified crops. However, there is nothing like slavery to companies. United States farmers adopted it in the 1990s and the European Union also adopted these crops. People are lying to Africans every day and our production is going down because Africa has refused to fully adopt technological innovations and bring the right technology. Africa is in the planet earth just like other continents, let’s embrace the right technology to boost our production.
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