When Franklyn D. Roosevelt said the only thing to fear is fear itself, during the Great Depression of 1933, his main intent was to help Americans see beyond the shackles of their economic downturn and fixate on possibilities of a turnaround.
On Monday, January 28th 2019, the Nigerian government, working through its intermediary; the National Biosafety Management Agency (NBMA), approved the commercial release of the Pod Borer Resistant (PBR) Cowpea.
Of course, this was followed by mixed reactions from stakeholders, not only in the agricultural space, but the larger society.
It is common knowledge that for years, a major battle had raged in the sector over the propriety of biotechnology enhanced agricultural commodities. There is a segment of the Nigerian public which remains unwilling to accept artificial life forms as a veritable ally in the quest to attain food security [the anti-GMO lobby] and constantly cries foul each time the government [buoyed by a need to address pressing challenges] leans towards research-offerings from biotechnology. The granting of Permit No AAT709A was, for them, a clarion call to battle – their weapon of choice being the dissemination of the ‘age-long doomsday narrative about GMO’.
A Worthy Need-based Response.
Beyond the sentiments, it is critical to beam a searchlight on what prompted the Federal Government’s decision to give biotechnology a chance in a country where vested interests had conspired to keep it right out.
At the core of the PBR Cowpea project was the need to intervene technologically in enhancing farmer capacity to sustainably produce Cowpea in an affordability manner right across board. This was against the backdrop of researchers’ battle with the challenge of the Maruca Vitrata pest; a proficient destroyer of cowpea harvests across the continent. The lepidopteran insect pest is credited with 70 to 80 per cent loss of cowpea yields in Nigeria and, according to Mohammed Ishiyaku, the Institute of Agricultural Research (IAR’s) national cowpea breeding lead scientist, efforts to address the problem through conventional breeding methods had met with overwhelming failure, forcing a recourse to self-help on the part of farmers – one of which is intense pesticide use – to protect their harvest. The implication of this state of affairs on public health and the farmers’ economic well-being made a case for recourse to life science and true to type, “results from the early trials demonstrated a promissory trajectory of increased yield upon deployment of biotechnology”.
Indeed, the practical field entries churned out very compelling numbers. For instance, figures coming from Nigeria’s key northern states of Kano and Kaduna indicated that as against a 46.9 per cent for conventional cowpea, the biotechnologically enhanced variety suffered a mere 1.9 per cent destruction rate at the hands of Maruca Vitrata. It was this positive outlook that appealed to the then Minister of Agriculture [currently the President of the AfDB], Dr. Akinwumi Adesina. Defending his decision sometime in 2013 [against the Anti-GMO Lobby], Adesina was consistent in pointing to the overwhelming need to ensure that Nigerian farmers are saved from the devastation that “drought, floods, virulent black sigatoka disease that can wipe out all of Nigeria’s bananas and the cassava bacteria blight that can wipe out Africa’s largest source of food”, could bring on the country’s food security efforts.
Who is Afraid of Science?
The world over, advancements in artificial life forms are extending the frontiers of man’s ability to appropriately address hitherto intractable problems in fields such as healthcare and energy, as well as nutrition.
Biotechnology has tremendously enhanced mankind’s capacity to disarm nature’s weaponry of limitation and in our view, Nigeria needs to embrace it head-on.
The ‘against’ camp has been consistent in its opposition to this line of reasoning however, and has fielded the same set of voices over the years. Indeed, Nnimo Bassey, Gbadebo Rhodes-Vivour and others have become proficient in opposing all policy attempts to consider biotechnology in Nigerian agriculture.
For instance, when the current Minister of Agriculture, Chief Audu Ogbeh and his Science and Technology counterpart, Dr. Ogbonnaya Onu held a press conference on the 19th of November 2018, to brief the media on plans to commercially release transgenic cotton varieties in line with the country’s cotton rejuvenation policy, Rhodes-Vivour, [who is Coordinator of the GMO-Free Nigeria Alliance], labeled it a brewing conspiracy.
“We were utterly embarrassed” he said “to see the Minister of Science and Technology, Dr. Onu merely regurgitate the claims of the biotech industry that GMO would bring about increase in agricultural yields, reduce pesticide use and increase the economic situation for farmers, all of which have serially been proven to be false”. He capped it by accusing the pair of being ‘hired helpers’ of biotechnology companies like Mosanto.
The fact however is that the Maruca Vitrata [pest] has, to its credit, decades of successful pillaging of Nigeria’s cowpea crop. Speaking from his base in Abidjan, Dr. Adesina puts the issue in perspective. “Nigeria is the number one producer of cowpea globally and if Maruca is not prevented from destroying the crop, we will find ourselves having to eat insects for protein and not cowpea”.
Safety: A Legitimate Concern.
As stated earlier, given its dense nutritional content, cowpea is appropriately fitted as an intervention crop for tackling Nigeria’s food and nutrition security challenges. PBR Cowpea in particular ensures increase in yield and an elongated shelf-life for the stored produce. However, as the first edible GMO approval in Nigeria, the issue of safety remains a paramount concern from a public viewpoint, and quite fittingly so.
Interestingly, having learnt from its historic relationship with the opposition, the Nigerian regulatory authorities raised the bar of the regulatory protocol by incorporating separate regulatory approvals for food, feed and environmental safety to the existing requirement. Dennis Kyetere, Executive Director of the African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF) – which supported the research effort – alluded to this as an extra layer of challenges of commercializing the PBR Cowpea. But, with the benefit of hindsight, it becomes easy to see that the NBMA was looking to dispel the safety concerns. The wordings of the permit granted to IAR is categorical as it asserts that the three-year permit was granted upon considering the advice of the National Safety Committee as well as the National Bio-safety Technical Sub-Committee, which certifies “that there are no known adverse impact to the conservation and sustainable use to biodiversity, taking into account risk to human health”. Thus, the process of ensuring due diligence, by etching an acceptable genome trajectory had been painstakingly done.
Rose Gidado, an Assistant Director with the NBMA in her response to Rhodes-Vivour and his cohorts, pointed out that the vigorous 10 year process adopted by the team of researchers at IAR deployed the “substantial equivalence rule” in developing the PBR cowpea. This rule hinges on the principle that, apart from scientific assessment [indeed upon its culmination] the scientists are enjoined to ascertain that the genetically modified version of the product or commodity is as safe as its traditional counterpart. Where the engineer pinpoints any difference in such indicators like nutritional density or toxicological build-up through the excretion of proteins, a red flag is immediately raised. All of these had been done, hence the approval.
Accordingly, Gidado dismissed the insistence by the ‘Against Lobby’, that the decision to grant the permit “represents nothing but disaster for farmers, the entire public and our agricultural system”, as “fictional and unscientific”. Dr. Adesina agrees with Gidado and asks very befitting rhetorical questions: “offers a set of rhetorical questions: “If GMO is bad, why do Heads of State go to the UN General Assembly and eat America’s GMO foods? So far, how many of them have grown horns and why is it that the US Embassy cannot keep up with visa requests?”
Undoubtedly, Nigeria can celebrate!!!