Outreach needed to educate Nigerian farmers about GMO cotton

By Nkechi Isaac

July 3, 2019

Ignorance is pushing some community leaders to discourage Nigerian farmers from experimenting with the nation’s new pest-resistant GMO cotton seeds, said a textile committee member who offered ideas for countering that resistance.

Ibrahim Igomu, a member of the textile revival implementation committee of the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN), recommended that agricultural extension workers directly engage community and farm leaders to share the benefits of the technology and the role genetically modified (GM) seeds can play in boosting the cotton textile and garment (CTG) sector.

Nigeria’s federal government approved the commercialization of two homegrown Bt cotton varieties to tackle the devastating bollworm insect pest, which causes major yield losses in cotton. The GM cotton was developed by Mahyco Nigeria Private Ltd. in collaboration with the Institute for Agricultural Research (IAR) at Ahmadu Bello University in Zaria.

Dr. Rose Maxwell Gidado, country coordinator for the Nigeria chapter of the Open Forum on Agricultural Biotechnology (OFAB), said the nation is now completing final trials, with over 1,000 farmers cultivating the GM crop in different cotton growing zones in the country. Seeds are currently being multiplied for full scale commercialization in the 2020 planting season, she added.

“Right now, the farmers are being given free seeds,” she explained. “The farmers plant the seed side-by-side their own conventional seeds and watch the yield. It is like a litmus test; you can’t just go into full commercial activity without doing this litmus test to teach the farmers how to produce cotton hybrid seeds. So, this year is mainly for seed production. We are not expected to import seeds next year, as that is when the commercialization would begin in earnest in 2020.”

Gidado went on to note, “You know farming is about availability of quality seeds. Everything revolves around seeds. If you get it right at the seed level every other thing falls into place. If you have quality seeds it reduces production cost by lowering the use of farm inputs. So, availability of improved quality seeds is a very vital component of crop cultivation. The farmer has to have access to the right quantity at the right time. These are the problems of farmers especially when it comes to cotton cultivation. They have not actually been having access to available seeds, the right quantity at the right time, because seed production has been so poor.”

Igomu said the availability of quality seeds will have cross-cutting effects by helping farmers grow cotton with better fiber strength that they can sell to the textile industry to boost local garment production.

“The extension officers are not doing enough enlightenment in telling the farmers there is nothing wrong with genetically enhanced seeds, that the only difference is that they are more disease-resistant and have higher yields,” Igomu opined. “They don’t need too much fertilizer application or rainfall, but ignorance is pushing some community leaders to discourage farmers from experimenting with these new seeds.”

Some farmers are so conservative that they want to continue using the same seeds their forefathers used, Igomu said. He likened the advent of GM seeds to the introduction of the polio vaccine.

“The polio vaccine was initially resisted in the north,” he recalled. “They said it was a conspiracy to kill children. It took a lot of enlightenment before the people accepted it. So, these are some of the challenges we are facing in experimenting with these seeds. There is need for more enlightenment campaign, interaction with the farmers, town hall meetings.”

Igomu, who is a former national chairman of the Nigerian Textile Manufacturers Association (NTMA), said extension agents, farm leaders and GM advocates should engage in town hall discussions using their local languages to discuss the new technology, which is more efficient than conventional growing methods.

“Bt cotton is a new thing, so they are resisting it,” he said. “If they are Hausa, Igbo, Yoruba, you need to speak to them in the language they will understand, involve the community leaders, the farm leaders, have demonstration farms where you can take them and show them the yield which is better.”

Samuel Oloruntoba, general manager of Cotton Ginning Company Ltd., said Nigeria has already begun the process of going into full commercialization of Bt cotton, but it will take a few years before it is fully adopted.

“The Bt cotton has been approved to be available to farmers, but the seed companies are also taking their time,” Oloruntoba said, noting that the crop is currently on trial with 1,000 cotton farmers to see how well they understand the seed, its growing requirements and its yield benefits. The idea is that “once farmers try it and see the seeds are good enough and no side effects,” the seed will be available in sufficient quantity so “they will have easy access and people will buy into it.”