Nigeria Champions Biotech Revolution, As GMOs Spearhead Food Security, National Growth

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TELA Maize CFT field
Farmers in the TELA Maize confined field trial site in IAR, Zaria.

Nigeria made history on December 12, 2019, by becoming the first African country to approve its first genetically modified (GM) food crop, the Pod-Borer Resistant (PBR) Cowpea, for commercial release.

This groundbreaking decision elevated the nation’s standing, placing it among the pioneers utilising biotechnology to address food security challenges. The success story of Nigeria’s agricultural biotechnology journey spurred interest from other African countries eager to learn from the giant of Africa.

The introduction of the improved beans has had a positive impact on the nation’s food system. Farmers who embraced the new seed have reported remarkable increases in their harvests, contributing significantly to the country’s food security. The CEO of Replenish Farms, Patience Koku shared her experience during a field tour, stating, “We have harvested the first and second trench of beans from the field, which is already double of what we harvest on the farm. But we are pleasantly surprised the pods are still coming up, so we will still get more harvest from this field”.

Koku represents one of many farmers benefiting from the improved seeds, reinforcing the positive effects on the nation’s food security.

Building on this momentum, the Federal Government of Nigeria took another bold step on January 11, 2024, by approving the commercial release of another genetically modified food crop, the TELA Maize. This decision aimed to enhance productivity and further strengthen the nation’s food security. The move received praise from the international community and Nigerian farmers, who eagerly called for the immediate availability of the crops for the upcoming 2024 planting season.

However, not everyone welcomed this development. The Global Prolife Alliance (GPA), a group opposed to innovative science and biotechnology, wrote a letter to the National Assembly, urging a ban on the technology. In a letter titled “National Security Threat: Biotech Terrorism Using GMO Seeds,” the GPA alleged that biotechnology companies were sponsoring terrorism. In response, experts in the biotechnology field dismissed these claims as misleading, malicious, and scientifically unverifiable.

In a letter to the National Assembly, the director-general of the National Biotechnology Development Agency (NABDA), Prof. Abdullahi Mustapha clarified that the Transgenic Cowpea and TELA Maize were developed by Nigerian scientists to benefit the country’s smallholder farmers. Mustapha highlighted the benefits of the transgenic cowpea, emphasising its resistance to destructive pod borers, a menace that typically destroys 80 per cent of cowpea crops. He also explained that TELA Maize is drought-tolerant and resistant to fall armyworms, offering farmers the opportunity to optimise yields and profits.

Mustapha strongly refuted the GPA’s claims linking GMOs with terrorism, emphasising the safety of GM crops supported by global regulatory agencies. He urged lawmakers not to restrict access to innovations that could alleviate poverty and malnourishment. Highlighting the humanitarian implications, he emphasised the importance of supporting farmers through science-guided policies.

Nigeria’s foray into genetically modified crops has marked a significant milestone in addressing food security challenges. The success stories of the PBR Cowpea and TELA Maize underscore the potential benefits of biotechnology, despite opposition from certain quarters. As Nigeria leads the way, it remains crucial for policymakers to base decisions on scientific consensus and prioritise innovations that can positively impact the lives of smallholder farmers.

In a significant stride towards agricultural innovation, Nigeria has witnessed the approval of the transgenic cowpea and TELA Maize, marking a pivotal moment for the nation’s food security and economic prosperity. The president of the Biotechnology Society of Nigeria (BSN), Prof. Sylvia Uzochukwu passionately advocates for the adoption of these genetically modified (GM) crops, emphasiding the substantial advantages they bring to the well-being of citizens and the overall prosperity of the nation.

Uzochukwu succinctly outlined the key benefits of the innovative technology:

  1. Increased Crop Yield: Transgenic crops are designed to express traits that confer resistance to pests, diseases, and environmental stress. The incorporation of these traits in Cowpea and TELA Maize has the potential to significantly increase yield, ensuring a more abundant and stable food supply for Nigeria’s growing population.
  2. Enhanced Pest Resistance: Adoption of genetically modified crops reduces reliance on chemical pesticides, fostering a more sustainable and environmentally friendly approach to agriculture. This not only protects the health of farmers but also minimises the ecological impact of agricultural practices.
  3. Improved Nutritional Content: Genetic modification can enhance the nutritional profile of crops, addressing malnutrition concerns in the population. TELA Maize, for instance, has been developed to contain higher levels of essential nutrients, contributing to better public health outcomes.
  4. Economic Advantages: Transgenic crops can lead to increased farm incomes due to higher yields and reduced production costs. This contributes to poverty alleviation and economic growth, benefiting both smallholder farmers and the broader agricultural sector.

Contrary to claims suggesting that transgenic crops pose a national security threat, Uzochukwu emphasised the rigorous scientific evaluations and regulatory processes governing the commercial release of genetically modified organisms:

“It is essential to note that rigorous scientific evaluations and regulatory processes govern the commercial release of genetically modified organisms. The safety of these crops is thoroughly assessed, ensuring they meet the highest standards before reaching the market.”

Urging the Senate to consider the overwhelming scientific consensus on the safety and benefits of transgenic crops, Uzochukwu emphasised the importance of supporting policies that promote agricultural innovation:

“By doing so, we can secure a more sustainable, resilient and prosperous future for Nigeria.”

Collaborating with Uzochukwu, the president of the Genetics Society of Nigeria (GSN), Prof. Samuel Olakojo addressed the controversy stirred by the Global Prolife Alliance (GPA), the proponents of what he termed “the anti-GMO letter”.

In a response to the National Assembly, Olakojo debunked the GPA’s claims, highlighting their lack of understanding regarding the breeding, testing and safety guides of GMO seeds:

“The writer may also not be aware of economic losses of relying on the use of only seeds from food level conventional breeding strategies. The problems that can affect the environment, ongoing ecosystem dynamics, and continuous hunger and starvation; the attendant heavy use of toxic insecticides and pesticides for only 30 per cent yield from the traditional seeds; inherent damages caused by the application of systemic and poisonous agro-chemicals used by farmers to control pests and diseases.”

Restating the society’s trust in the Biosafety cautions implemented during the development, evaluation, and release of GMO varieties, Olakojo urged the National Assembly to dismiss the activists’ claims:

“Your excellency, permit me to conclude here by saying that all over the world, there are anti-GMO activists who criticize the technology but all of them feed on it.”

In an article titled “Exposing the Lies and Deceptions of the Anti-GM Crops Activists in Nigeria and Abroad,” co-authored by Dr. Issoufou, Dr. Rose Gidado and Dr. Onyekachi Francis, the authors dissected several attacks directed against the PBR-Cowpea project and the research organisations supporting it:

“The PBR-Cowpea project has shown that given the opportunities and the means, our national agricultural research scientists are capable of using the most advanced knowledge and technology to solve difficult constraints faced by smallholder farmers and boost agricultural productivity and production.”

The trio debunked these attacks as fabricated stories and gross ignorance of scientific literature, asserting that the “anti-GM” rhetoric undermines the national interests of African countries and the interests of farmers:

“All these anti-GM lies and empty talk are only directed against the National interests of the African countries and the interests of the farmers.”

The voices of experts and scientific authorities resound in support of the adoption of genetically modified crops in Nigeria. The benefits extend beyond increased yield to encompass environmental sustainability, improved nutritional content and economic growth. As the nation navigates these advancements, policymakers must base decisions on the robust scientific consensus, ensuring a pathway to a more secure, resilient and prosperous future for Nigeria. 

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