Nigerians take pride in being a nation of many firsts. In 1985, Nigeria emerged as the first nation to win the maiden edition of the Under 17 World Cup. The country is still in euphoria of that feat.
Our history is steeped in being bold and believing in our abilities when others doubt; and in trusting the facts. The latest – the Green Bond – launched penultimate week by the federal government as part of climate change mitigation action.
Application of biotechnology in agriculture and medicine has produced a growing number of organisms and products. Along with the increasing commercial success of application of biotechnology, a widespread debate focusing on the ecological, human health and socio-economic effects of biotechnology is taking place at national and international levels.
The recent criticism by some non-governmental organisations, under the auspices of the Home of Mother Earth Foundation (HOMEF), is misguided, unjustified and unpatriotic. The group has objected to a permit granted by the National Biosafety Management Agency (NBMA) to a highly reputable research organisation, the International Institute for Tropical Agriculture (IITA). The permit allows highly trained scientists to follow rigorous regulatory procedures to conduct a small field test of a potential new cassava.
In a press statement, Nnimmo Bassey, leader of HOMEF stated that the small field test was the first in the world and that it was a deliberate attempt by IITA to contaminate one of Nigeria’s most staple foods.
Is HOMEF and co aware of what cassava farmers in the country are going through? A recent visit to the cassava growing belt of Oyo, Osun and Ogun revealed a great deal of suffering. Farmers are not getting value from their hard work. The uprooted cassava tuber loses starch value before reaching processing companies located at Sango Otta where the products are then grossly underpaid.
Researchers at IITA asked for permission of the NBMA – as required by law – to test a new variety of cassava that could potentially solve this issue for farmers. This small field test must follow strict guidelines to keep the new cassava within the confines of the scientists until other data can be collected to determine whether or not the new cassava is safe and effective.
To stop this kind of research, as HOMEF is suggesting, is to keep Nigerian farmers at a severe disadvantage and in poverty.
In the last 17 years, the federal government, in the area of modern biotechnology, has invested substantial amounts on capacity development, institution strengthening and infrastructure expansion for the country to deploy the technology responsibly. Over 16 research institutes and agricultural universities across the country are spearheading the deployment. The National Biotechnology Development Agency (NABDA) promotes the technology while NBMA has been entrusted to implement the regulatory framework.
When scientists apply for a permit to test genetically modified crops, the NBMA is mandated by law to assess the application by constituting a committee of experts. These reputable Nigerian scientists evaluate the application based on science and internationally-backed protocol; and advise the Agency on an appropriate decision. The assessments take human health and safety, and environmental safety into consideration. The committee also considers socio-economic benefits that might accrue to the country from such product.
While HOMEF and co may have sent in a 37-page petition against the application, the key question is: Was their petition backed up with scientific evidence or data and proof?
Science does not thrive on emotion or hear-say and the Director General, NBMA, Dr. Rufus Ebegba, has continuously harped on the fact that the decisions made by NBMA are not based on emotion or democracy but on verifiable scientific evidence which can be proven anywhere in the world.
The statement issued by HOMEF deliberately uses fear and discredited publications.
It is laudable that HOMEF and co have acknowledged the vital role of cassava in the nation’s food chain, but it is also worthy to note that they lack an understanding on what the modification proposed by the IITA research was all about.
For the avoidance of doubt, the Permit granted to IITA was to enable them to conduct a small field experiment, under confinement, using genetic modification techniques with a long safety track record, with the purpose to reduce starch breakdown in the storage roots post-harvest.
This small test will allow researchers to gather information on the safety and potential viability of the proposed solution. The potential new cassava would have to go through additional years of testing prior to release to farmers. This is in keeping with Nigerian regulations that the NBMA oversees.
According to Mr Audu Ogbe, Minister of Agriculture, Nigeria is the largest producer of cassava in the world with an annual output of 45 million metric tons. Cassava forms part of the daily meal for households across the country making it one of the important staple foods in the country. So why shouldn’t Nigeria be a leader to undertake such research if it intends to maintain its current position as well as to enhance the potential of the root crop?
Activism can be good for transparency and good governance, and sometimes serves to lubricate the democratic process but it must not try to stop the Government actions or programmes that enhance the good and welfare of the people.
By Prof. Paul Chidozie Onyenekwe, research scientist with the Sheda Science and Technology Complex (SHESTCO), and President, Nigeria Biotechnology and Biosafety Consortium (NBBC)