Africa can’t afford to miss the gene revolution, ag experts say

By Nkechi Isaac

December 18, 2018

Africa can’t afford to be left behind as the gene revolution transforms modern farming, African agricultural experts say.

This is especially true for Nigeria, which must feed its rapidly growing population, said Yarama Ndirpaya, director of partnership and linkages at the Agricultural Research Council of Nigeria (ARCN).

Nigeria and other African nations appear to be foot dragging or undecided about whether to embrace the innovation of biotechnology — an approach that effectively limited their participation in the industrial and green revolutions that swept the world and the technology revolution that is now under way.

But Nigeria and the rest of the continent will be the worse for it if they again fail to identify with and explore the new era launched by the gene revolution, Ndirpaya warned.

He pointed out that countries with large populations, such as the United States, China, India and Brazil, are already deploying technologies that assist in developing their agriculture to achieve food security.

“Unfortunately for us, we’ve always joined the train late,” Ndirpaya said. “When the green revolution came, we were left out. Today the gene revolution is here and we’re dragging feet and before we realize it, the train of the gene revolution may also leave us. So, we feel strongly that Nigeria shouldn’t be left out of the gene revolution. We must imbibe any technology that we’re sure is safe and credible and can improve our productivity.

“If we have issues of feeding ourselves today then tomorrow must be very important to us,” Ndirpaya added. “Our effort is to see what technologies are available around the whole globe that can help us improve and make sure that this productivity increase is sustained not by increasing the number of hectares, because land is also running out, but by increasing the productivity per unit area. We found biotechnology to be one of the very important and critical technologies for a teeming population like ours.”

Dr. Issoufou Kollo Abdourhamane, West Africa regional representative for the African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF), said the foundation is currently working to improve Nigeria’s cowpea productivity by introducing the Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) gene into local varieties to build inherent resistance against the pod-borer pest, as well as conducting research on other staple crops.

History has shown that Africans are always skeptical of new innovation, Abdourhamane said, noting that AATF believes Africa should be allowed to benefit from technologies already benefitting the rest of the world.

“We have realized that any time a new technology to improve agricultural production is coming out there are some very intelligent people who’ll say ‘no, this is not for Africa,’ or they find excuses to deny Africans of it. This is how the agricultural revolution bypassed Africa many years ago. Asia, which was in the same situation, was able to use the same technology to feed its population whereas Africa’s production per capital was going down,” Abdourhamane said.

“At AATF, we believe that there is no technology good for the rest of the world that is not good for Africa,” he added. “We’re human beings like the rest of the world. So, any technology good for USA, South Africa, China, India can also be good for Africa. Technology is technology, science is science. It is universal. When science is good, it is good, it has no color or tribal origin. This is our philosophy.

“But we find in our midst some people who claim to be scientists who have never studied biology, medicine or agriculture who think they know agriculture more than the professors of agriculture in this country and who are scaring people with the claim that GMOs are bad, saying it causes cancer and any kind of fabricated arguments on TV and the news,” Abdourhamane continued.

“We believe in showing the people the facts from credible scientists who have been working in the area for more than 40 years because the consequences and outcome of accepting science and technology to develop our agriculture may be dramatic for our societies,” he added.

Dr. Rose Gidado, Nigeria country coordinator of the Open Forum on Agricultural Biotechnology, said biotechnology has been proven safe from over 40 years of practice in other countries. There are national and international protocols to ensure the safety of the technology, she noted.

“We have a National Biosafety Management Agency (NBMA) in Nigeria under the Federal Ministry of Environment that is charged with the responsibility of ensuring this technology is safely practiced by scientists in Nigeria and products of the technology are safe for human consumption, animal feed and environment,” Gidado said.

“There are a lot of safety protocols that have to be followed internationally and nationally to ensure that whatever goes out there to either the farmers or consumers is actually very safe. There’s not been any deleterious effect arising from its application anywhere in the world,” she said.

If Nigeria adopts agricultural biotechnology, Gidado said, “foreign exchange would be conserved, the GDP would grow and agriculture would be taken to the next level to achieve food security so Nigeria would be able to feed the teeming population we have. We need this technology. We’re not saying it’s a panacea, but at least it can help solve some of these problems we’re having, together with mechanization and other [innovations].”

The agricultural experts made their comments during a courtesy/advocacy visit to the management of Leadership Group Ltd., a media organization, at its headquarters in Abuja. Gidado stated that the courtesy visit was to seek the partnership of the company in providing Nigerians with actual facts, rather than the myths, and to enlighten them so the poor who actually need the technology most would not miss out on the gene revolution.

Dele Fanimo, chief operating officer of LEADERSHIP Newspaper, promised to partner with the team in disseminating factual news through its platform. He also decried the deliberate distortions of scientific facts tilted negatively towards the continent, even as he urged the team to take the sensitization to the grassroots for maximum results.

“You need to take the initiative,” he advised. “Take your battle to the grassroots because the majority of those who’ll benefit from the technology are the rural people and there are vehicles to take this message to the grassroots. We have community radio stations all over the country to disseminate the news. We also have LEADERSHIP A Yau (a Hausa version of the newspaper) which runs every day of the week because not many people at the grassroots can read English, but they can read their local languages. They should be sensitized on the benefits of GM technology. You also need to engage community-based organizations, traditional institutions and other stakeholders in this advocacy for you to achieve maximum results.”