Nigerian farmers have continued to count their blessings after accepting biotechnologically engineered plants and seeds to bolster their yield and improve agriculture in the country.
The latest in the growing list of positives is the harvest of biotechnologically modified potatoes.
Elder Isaiah Buwah, an aged potato farmer, in Bokos local government area of Plateau State, has grown potatoes for the past 40 years. During this time, most potato farmers gave up on the crop due to the ravaging effects of late potato blight disease.
This year has not been any different. In June, when farmers thought that their harvest for the year would be great, the disease struck, ravaging their farms. As in previous years, the blight dampened the spirit of these farmers.
Buwah’s persistence in potato farming has, however, been kept alive by activities started in the first quarter of 2022 in Jos by the National Root Crop Research Institute (NRCRI), under the Feed the Future Global Biotech Potato Partnership project, which seeks to resolve the lingering challenge of late blight disease by developing and releasing varieties of blight-resistant potatoes.
His joy knows no bounds as he is counted among those to witness the harvest of the first batch of biotech potatoes, following confined field trials by researchers from NRCRI at their outstation in Kuru, near Jos.
“What I am seeing is salvation coming to potato farmers on the Plateau. I am happy it is happening in my lifetime. We have seriously suffered from the impact of late blight, to the extent that some of our colleagues suffered seriously because of the massive destruction and losses we encountered yearly. Those of us still growing potatoes have done so as a labour of love,” he said.
Buwah explained that persistent requirements for fungicides forced them to spend more than necessary to maintain the crop till harvest to contain the disease.
“The fungicide comes with instructions on usage, but we hardly follow this because when you see your crop flourishing and you don’t want late blight to rob you of it, you keep applying the fungicide till harvest and this could have health implications on the consumption of the crop,” he added.
Another farmer, Serah Kwarpo, who has been growing potatoes for 30 years, said the late blight has been her biggest nightmare, giving her sleepless nights and making farming less attractive.
The farmers were among the stakeholders invited to witness the harvest of the first biotech potatoes at a ceremony tagged ‘Brown Field Day’; a day set aside by researchers from the National Root Crop Research Institute and International Potato Centre to showcase the differences between the biotech potato and conventional varieties.
The executive director, NRCRI, Prof. Chiedozie Egesi, said the biotech potatoes project aims to provide an enduring solution to the late blight menace in Nigeria. “We are happy to show our esteemed farmers and other stakeholders the first harvest from the CFT. It is our belief that, with biotech potatoes, we have an enduring solution to late blight in Nigeria. It is time for our farmers to wipe away their tears,” he said.
Egesi, who was represented at the trial by the principal investigator for the project, Dr. Charles Amadi, assured the farmers that the institute, in collaboration with other partners, would expedite the release of the new varieties to boost harvests and income from the sale of surplus produce.
Amadi said the research programme hoped to release late blight-resistant potato varieties to farmers within two years.
Also speaking at the ceremony, Dr. Kyenpiya Deshi, a potato breeder in the department of plant science and biotechnology, University of Jos, said the Feed the Future Global Biotech Potato Partnership project intervention in Nigeria is timely.
“As a breeder, I know firsthand what farmers are going through. It has been tough, but today’s ceremony has rekindled our hope and brought us joy. The happiness is not only for farmers but also for us breeders, who have been toiling day and night to find solutions to the blight crisis,” she said.
The harvest from the first round of confined field trials planting shows that the biotech potatoes have a yield advantage of 300 per cent, when compared to conventional varieties which have severely suffered from blight infestation.
The Feed the Future Global Biotech Potato Partnership project is implemented in four countries – Kenya, Bangladesh, Indonesia and Nigeria – and coordinated by the Michigan State University. The project involves various partners, including the National Root Crop Research Institute Umudike, the African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF) and International Potato Center (CIP).
A statement by the communication officer (West and Central Africa), AATF, Alex Abutu urged the public to visit www.canr.msu.edu/biotechpp/ for more information.