The Federal Government recently approved the commercial release of the first genetically modified food crop, the Pod Borer Resistant (PBR) Cowpea, popularly called SAMPEA 20T. In this interview with NKECHI ISAAC, Dr. Issoufou Kollo, the African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF) regional director, reveals the demand for the seeds is getting higher as farmers are very impressed with the performance of the crop. The high demand has put the foundation and its partners under a lot of pressure to produce more seeds, he says. Kollo points at other crops improved with innovative technologies and says government is very open to technologies that can help farmers get more yield and enhance food production.
Some people still believe conventional agriculture should be sustained. Why do you think we need to apply technology to boost agricultural productivity?
Even conventional agriculture is based on technology. Agriculture has always been technology dependent; it is always technology and knowledge-based activity. From the beginning, either conventional or whatever it is always technology. So, being able to select good seeds and save them needs good technology and knowledge.
Also, knowing the kind of soil that is appropriate for each crop was a big advance in human knowledge and technology. Everything we do is on technology, be it conventional or agriculture. The more the need, society, population increase the more we need knowledge and more technology to produce more.
The only thing is the agricultural science being based on development of biology. So, we reach the latest development in biology, the knowledge of gene regulation, structure organization and structure, so this is why agricultural biotechnology is just the application of this new knowledge to improve production be it animal or plant. So, there is nothing new, we need more knowledge because if humans stop looking for advancement in knowledge then the society is in trouble.
Furthermore, conventional agriculture has its limits, it has reached its limit, if we don’t adopt modern science and technology and new knowledge that means we are going to sacrifice because we cannot produce enough to feed ourselves and we have to be the net importer of food from other nations because the rest of the world are not going to stop. People advising us to go back to the old ways are telling the country to be prepared to spend all their revenues in importing food. That’s the implication. We have a choice either we improve agricultural production and productivity or we become totally dependent and use our revenues to import food massively.
You just said conventional agriculture has its limit, what is it?
The limit is that of productivity. If you take the land ratios, the potential is just one tonne per hectare and farmers don’t even reach this one per hectare most times, so this is a big limit. For instance, relying only on manure for fertilizing the soil is very ridiculous because the composition of cow dung is less than one per cent nitrogen, so to rely only on it to produce food means abysmally poor nutrition for plants. Plants are like living human beings that need correct nutrition to produce. Also, every time farmers harvest their produce the soil is depleted so you need to bring back more nutrients to the soil to keep the production capacity. This is what people don’t realize. This example cuts across most facets of conventional farming. That’s why technology is needed to improve farming for optimal production.
One of the crops improved through innovative technology, the Pod Borer Resistant (PBR) Cowpea, was recently approved for commercial farming by the Federal Government, what’s the update on this crop?
It is currently in farmers’ hands. Some farmers bought the little number of seeds we were able to produce by the Institute for Agricultural Research (IAR) seed unit of the Ahmadu Bello University (ABU), Zaria, Kaduna State. The seeds have already been given to private seed companies who have been able to sell the seeds so it is already in farmers’ hands and the demand is getting higher and higher, which is putting the IAR and AATF under strain to produce more seeds to meet the demands. When farmers saw the performance of the cowpea, they said this is what we need which is a very good development.
Don’t you think the high demand for the PBR cowpea might open the crop to counterfeiting? Is anything being done to ensure the quality of the seeds are not compromised?
Thank you for asking this question. You see we take all the measures necessary but the seeds which go to the farmers are very high quality and pure. So, we work with many partners and follow up exactly the instructions of the National Agricultural Seed Council (NASC) and we also have our own stewardship team which work with the seed companies. We also regularly inspect where the seeds are stored and the quality. We also have seed testing methods to be sure the seeds which go to the farmers are 100 per cent pure. Our national stewardship team regularly inspects the seed companies to ensure total purity of seeds going to the farmers. According to Nigerian law there are some private seed companies which are in charge of providing farmers with high quality commercial seeds. So, we are respecting this law but IAR is in charge of giving the foundation seed which allows the private seed companies to multiply and sell the commercial seed to farmers. So, these are the steps taken, so the private, public and everybody is involved to get high quality seeds to the farmers.
What is being done to prepare Nigerians for the entrance of this seed into the market and the nation’s food value chain?
We have been discussing all over for many years. I know there are some people who tried to scare the public that it is not safe but our different discussion and enlightenment campaigns have convinced many people that the food is very safe. We had a whole promotion campaign going on to promote the PBR cowpea. Our promotion and enlightenment campaign are still going on with the Open Forum on Agricultural Biotechnology (OFAB) and many other partners. It will be in the market at the end of the season and it has been certified safe. Nigerians have been eating genetically modified (GM) products since they import food, oil and a lot of other things from the USA, they import milk from Europe, so anybody buying it is buying milk from cow which has been fed with GM foods. It is not something new. Many Nigerians travel around the world and most of the countries they visit like Canada, the US, Brazil, Australia are actively consuming GM foods. GM foods are very safe. The safety calculations show there is no risk associated with consuming GM foods.
Stakeholders from sister African countries recently met to prepare a dossier for the environmental release of the Nitrogen Efficient Water Efficient Salt Tolerant (NEWEST) rice, what’s the update on that?
The dossier preparation for onward submission to the National Biosafety Management Authority (NBMA) is ongoing. The processes will be followed once approval is given by the regulatory authority.
So, what is the NEWEST rice bringing to the table. How can it affect rice production in Nigeria?
The NEWEST rice is designed to help small growers who have difficulties to get a lot of nitrogen fertilizers. So, it can boost production with the little fertilizers’ farmers can get. It is to reduce the usage of nitrogen without compromising the production, it is also salt tolerant. For instance, with one kilogramme of nitrogen you will get more rice normally with the NEWEST rice than the conventional rice. So, this is how it was designed and Nigeria is one of the leading importers of rice in Africa. We’re talking about spending over $1 billion on rice importation. This is not a small amount of money. If you can cut it down by between 25 to 10 per cent it represents a substantial saving of foreign currencies. Its aim is to help small holder farmers and also cut down on the dependence of the country on foreign imports of rice.
Can we get an update on other projects by the AATF?
The other major project of AATF is the TELA maize which is conducted in partnership with IAR. The product works very well, they had an open day a few months ago because you see the resistance of TELA even against the fall army worm (FAW), it was very clear it’s resistant to the pest. TELA maize is a very good addition to Nigeria’s agricultural productivity.
What has been the reaction of government in terms of enabling policy for innovative technologies in improving agricultural productivity?
The government is very open to innovations, people are actually misusing the term innovation, because it means technology that has already been adopted in large scale, it doesn’t matter if a technology is old or new, once it is adopted on a large scale then it can be called innovation.
But what I have seen when I listen to the Nigerian authority like the ministers of science, technology and innovation; agriculture or some of the Nigerian authorities, I see very progressive people who are really looking for any type of technology that can boost and improve agricultural production in the country. Maybe, you could say in the early 2000 when people didn’t understand much about what agricultural biotechnology is all about and you have the environment highly polluted by the anti-GMO activists but I think with time people came to see very clearly that all the activism was all engineered propaganda to spread fear among people. So, when things settled down people began to see clearly and I think the Nigerian authorities are very progressive minded.