Prof. Lucy Ogbadu is the director-general of the National Biotechnology Development Agency (NABDA). In his interview with NKECHI ISAAC, she talks about the current state of agricultural biotechnology development in Nigeria.
How many confined field trials are currently going on in Nigeria?
We have four confined field trials presently going on in Nigeria. They are BT Cowpea in Ahmadu Bello University, Institute of Agricultural Research, Zaria; African Bio-fortified Sorghum going on at the Ahmadu Bello University, Institute of Agricultural Research; BT Cotton equally being handled by IAR, Zaria; Newest Rice being handled by the National Cereals Research Institute, Badeggi.
How are the crops doing, how will you access their performance?
They are doing very well, we’re impressed with their performance. The BT Cowpea and ABS are ahead of the other two in the sense that they started earlier in 2011 and they have progressed tremendously. They are already into multi-locational trials as well as on-farm trials, especially the BT Cowpea.
When are you looking at harvesting these crops?
We harvest them periodically because there is no staple crop that grows for this length of time from 2011. So, obviously we’ve been harvesting and collecting the data on them, so it is not the issue of when we harvest because none of them grows more than a period of four to five months. So, we’ve been harvesting and studying them further.
When are we looking at commercialising these crops, the target was previously 2018 but it has been shifted to 2019. Can the nation make this new timeline?
The BT Cowpea will most likely be the first to go out for commercialisation and it will not go beyond 2019 in the sense that we want to be doubly sure on all we’re doing with the crop. The scientists are happy with the results they are getting, the farmers working with the scientists are equally happy with the results they’re getting in terms of out-performing the conventional ones they’ve been used to. So, hopefully by 2019 latest, it should be out in the market.
Are there any regulatory hurdles that remain before these crops can be successfully commercialised in Nigeria?
Looking from the perspective of the government in terms of policy, there are no hurdles because the establishment of this agency by the government shows the government is in support of biotechnology. Now in terms of regulation all the risk assessment, all stewardship in terms of its performance have all been carried out by our scientists that are handling the crops.
This is about the last stage of what they need to do before it is commercialised in the sense that the seeds need to be multiplied before we can say they are ready for release but of course other regulatory hurdle that may interest you is that of registration of the crop with our varietal release committee, a unit based at Ibadan which will require them to convene a meeting of the varietal release committee to look at all the descriptors that are required to be looked at before they are registered and adjudged ready for release. That is about the only hurdle that is left.
After commercialization, how accessible will this crop be to the local farmers at the grassroots who are supposed to be the main benefactors of this technology?
They won’t be different from all other seeds in the sense that once they are considered okay for commercial release then it will be at the national centre for genetic resources and biotechnology in Ibadan and at that stage the only thing that will be left will be for multiplication. You know the PIs will handle the multiplication along with the extension workers after which they will be ready for uptake for farmers that are interested and other interested people.
Seed companies are sceptical about genetically modified seeds, they’re scared that multinational seed companies like Monsanto and the likes will take over their market once GM crops are produced?
The process we’re currently adopting shows that our scientists and farmers are involved. Now if it gets to the stage of uptake and our indigenous Nigerian seed companies refuse to come forward to take them for multiplication and release them they shouldn’t blame other seed companies that come forward to multiply them. In this case our own seed companies will definitely participate in the multiplication and release. I am sure of that. They should be able to come forward and participate because the qualities of the seeds are attractive so they should be able to come forward and take them up.
No foreign seed company will jump over the laid down protocols to come and introduce any foreign seed to Nigeria, it is not possible because the regulatory framework is in place to ensure that does not happen.
Some school of thoughts believe we should channel efforts at reducing food wastage instead of applying biotechnology to boost agriculture and ensure food security. What is your take on this?
Agricultural biotechnology is not limited to GMO alone. In fact the same technology can be applied to crops in order to check the food wastage, prolong the shelf life of agricultural produce, it can be applied to crops to ensure that improved yield of crops. So, there are various ways this technology can be used advantageously on crops. It can also be used to improve the nutritional quality of the crops. So, it is not limited to GM and as a matter of fact GM is only a technique that can give us so many other advantages. This is why we feel the public should trust our scientists enough to leave the matter to them because it is a complex scientific process that people who do not really understand science can’t understand. The same technology can be used to improve the shelf life of tomato for instance such that it can stay on the shelf for much longer period without spoiling.
We cannot make any serious progress in agriculture without applying biotechnology; we’re talking about using agriculture to diversify Nigeria’s economy, if that is so how else other than mechanisation. In addition to mechanisation you must have quality seeds, deploy technology in order to use agriculture to diversify the economy. It is not with our crude system of agriculture that we can use it to diversify the economy. What this simply means is that we’re losing a lot if we do not use advanced technology, which is agricultural biotechnology to diversify the economy.
Through advanced agricultural biotechnology we can revolutionise agriculture and ensure food security using agricultural biotechnology. To downplay on it means the nation is losing heavily and invariably unserious about diversifying the economy through agriculture. There’s no other way, it is through agricultural biotechnology that we can inject and revolutionise agriculture to diversify Nigeria’s economy.