The deputy director at the National Biotechnology Development Agency (NABDA) and country coordinator, Open Forum on Agricultural Biotechnology (OFAB), Dr. Rose Gidado, explains to NKECHI ISAAC about the Pod Borer Resistant (PBR) Cowpea and how farmers snapped up the newly released variety, called ‘SAMPEA 20T’, because of its resilience against abiotic stresses and its ability to be ‘climate-smart’. The excerpts.
Why did Nigeria venture into Bt Cowpea?
It is something that cannot be addressed by traditional breeding. I think they tried it via 15000 varieties of cowpea. I think this started in 1979 at the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA), just to see if they could get a gene that could help protect the cowpea from Maruca. There was none. They turned to science as a last resort. So, with time, after the screening of the 15000 seeds they had to look elsewhere for alternatives. This was how ‘Bt’ and the ‘SAMPLEA 20T’ came about. We can use the ‘SAMPEA 20T’ to make up for the importation of cowpea. Given that most farmers are subsistent farmers, if they grow what little they have on a parcel of land (no matter how small), they will have a significant harvest.
How is this going to transform Nigeria’s agricultural sector?
It is going to transform Nigeria’s agricultural sector, in the sense that the high-yield and protection which the gene gives the crop prevents it from being destroyed. Without high-yield, there is no profit.
Another benefit is that, from the demonstration established from the farmers’ fields last year, we observed that the cowpea matures earlier than the local varieties (even if the rain ceases early) and it is highly resilient and climate-smart. One of the locations for the field trials in Adamawa State experienced heavy rains at the beginning and, later, the rain ceased early. As a result, the local variety did not ‘pod’ but the SAMPEA 20T did. It is climate-smart and was not affected by the rain. Due to climate change, any seed resilient enough to withstand the abiotic stress is important to our agricultural system, as well as our economy. Invariably, farmers productivity will improve and they will be able to send their children to school.
You know, if you are talking about diversification of the economy, agriculture is topmost. Without the use of the tools of agricultural bio-technology, it will be difficult to attain food security.
What efforts have gone into enlightening farmers about the Bt Cowpea and how have they been sensitized with regards to planting this seed?
We have carried out series of sensitizations to educate farmers but farmers are very practical people. A farmer wants to see things for himself. The best sensitization for a farmer is for him to have the seed and be asked to plant it, then go ahead to establish demonstration plot on his farm and let him see that this is a new seed, more qualitative than his and has more advantages than the one he uses. That is the best sensitisation a farmer needs and when he sees it working, he gets the yield, the insects are kept away etc., he believes. This form of sensitization was carried out last year and this year, too. So far, 32 farmers in each state have been given the cowpea seeds for more demonstration and adoption. Also, we have workshops to tell them this is what we have and how to plant it. We have embarked on different categories of sensitization but the focus is the establishment of demonstration farms to demonstrate the efficacy of the seeds.
Anti-GMO activists are calling for the withdrawal of the seed. Do you think Nigerians, especially the market, will accept this product?
Their calls do not hold water because they do not have facts. It is not science-based and (they) are just spreading propaganda. They are enemies of progress bankrolled to disrupt the good work of Nigerian scientists. Honestly, I don’t think people are paying them much attention. After the launching, seed companies were given the seeds to sell and they have been sold out. People have been calling us to ask for seeds to plant because they have seen the results; We’re not even meeting up with the requests, I tell you. This is a practical demonstration that whatever they are saying holds no water.
The challenges – climate, the security situation, flood/drought, GHG emissions and other environmental forms of environmental degradation – are quite enormous. Most of these people (who protest about GMO) do not go to (the) farm; they just sit in the comfort of their offices and say whatever they want because they do not understand what farmers go through and are more intent in frustrating the efforts of hard-working, responsible scientists. They forget that science is factual; a collection of facts and is evidence-based.
You just said the PBR Cowpea was exhausted within a very short period after it was commercialized. What is the agency and its partners doing to ensure farmers have enough seeds in the next planting season?
We are all gearing up, working together to ensure there are enough seeds. We currently have three seeds’ companies distributing the seeds, so we are looking to add two more companies and provide more seeds to meet demand.
We have a big challenge to give Nigerians seeds, so that everyone has access to them. So, even if you have not planted seeds behind your house, you can access them and plant. This way we will also be mitigating the negative effects of climate change by ‘greening’ the environment.
What efforts have been put in place to ensure that the purity of these seeds is maintained in the face of the rush, to ensure farmers harvest exactly what was projected?
I think that measures were put in place by the seeds’ companies because everything is in their hands now to ensure security and get all the facilities needed. When we say ‘seed’, it is different from ‘grain’. Seeds must be qualitative and pure – purity is not compromised, so that when you plant, you get good produce. We have facilities, equipment and minimum requirements that the seeds’ companies must meet to be qualified to handle these seeds.
It starts from the seeds. If you have them, improved farm output is guaranteed when the correct agronomic practices are followed. Production costs go down because you don’t have to spend so much on pesticides. Once your production cost is not much at the end of the day your produce will not be that expensive, prices stabilise.
With regards to seeds are you envisaging a situation where Bt crops will be leading the conventional seeds over time and play a prominent role in the agricultural sector?
It is possible because of their performance. However, the conventional seeds will still be there. The choice will be left for farmers to make. So, you either go for the Bt or conventional. If, however, the enhanced crop leads it would be because of their performance.
Finally, Nigeria is the leader when it comes to PBR cowpea because it is the first African country to release this seed. What would be your advice to other African countries – like Ghana and Burkina Faso – looking to commercialise this cowpea and what lessons have you learnt and how can they be improved upon?
The biggest lesson is courage. Keep pushing for the best and don’t give up. All the evidence is there for them to use Nigeria as a model.
Assure people of the safety of the product by addressing such issues and carry out highly-spirited campaigns and sensitisations by making people understand how safe the technology is. Apart from the performance, people should be assured of the safety of this product (which is a major factor in new technologies). They should have a power map and try to engage requisite groups like policymakers, medical practitioners, religious groups etc., who have a strong say in society.
They should be open and cite examples because biotechnology is not new. There are many countries that have attained food security with the help of Bt crops. This is the baseline of our approach which they can learn from.