Nigeria’s GMO cowpea wins medical, religious and civic support

By Nkechi Isaac

December 21, 2018

As Nigeria moves closer to commercializing its pest-resistant cowpea, the genetically modified crop has won the endorsement of two key medical and religious organizations, as well as national advocacy groups.

Dr. Matthew Ashikeni, secretary-general of the Epidemiological Society of Nigeria, said that commercializing Bt cowpea will help the country tackle malnutrition, especially in children.

“Today one of the greatest problems we have is malnutrition,” Ashikeni said. “Go to the northeast and there’s an epidemic — in fact, there’s an emergency — and if we can combat malnutrition by products that have been developed and tested in the country by our own scientists, regulated by our own agency, then we should be proud.”

Ashikeni, who is also the president of Catholic Doctors in Abuja, a faith-based organization, expressed that group’s support for the technology, saying the Nigerian-driven research should be wholly supported once its efficacy and safety are guaranteed.

Meanwhile, the Real-Life Global Humanitarian Foundation, a national advocacy group, staged a peaceful demonstration in Abuja this past week, calling for Nigeria’s full adoption of biotechnology as a means to guarantee food sufficiency, help the economy and improve farmers’ yield.

Engr Akinsoji Akinsola, the foundation’s national coordinator, urged the government to fast-track processes that will facilitate the commercialization of GMOs and slammed detractors of the technology as unpatriotic, hypocrites and lacking scientific proof to justify their claims.

Dr. Ashikeni’s remarks were made during the National Biosafety Management Agency (NBMA)’s public presentation on GMO cowpea, which has undergone nine years of intensive trials and could be in farmers’ hands within a year. The crop, which includes a gene from the soil bacterium, Bacillus thuringiences (Bt), provides inherent resistance to the destructive pod-borer pest.

Bt cowpea is Nigeria’s first genetically modified food crop, prompting the NBMA to build on past efforts to ensure that stakeholders are aware of the basic science behind the crop and biosafety measures imposed by the agency, said Dr. Rufus Ebegba, the NBMA director-general.

Prof. Mohammad Ishiyaku, the cowpea project’s principal scientific investigator, said the pest can cause farmers to lose up to 80 percent of their yield. Field trials of Bt cowpea showed it could drastically reduce the use of pesticides and increase yields by up to 20 percent, which translates to N48 billion annually at the rate of N120,000 per tonne.

Speaking to journalists, Prof. Alex Akpa, the director-general of the National Biotechnology Development Agency (NABDA), said the presentation was very important because “cowpea is a major food product in this country. It is the protein source of the common man. It is a very useful product and before this invention beans farming has been a major problem for farmers. But now with this new technology we will now have beans that will be resistant to Maruca, a pest that destroys up to 80 percent of this crop. This will lead to hundreds of billions of naira savings not only to farmers but for the country. In addition, it will lead to the reduction in the use of pesticides which do not only destroy the environment but are also harmful to those who apply them,” he said.

Nigeria needs the technology to feed its rapidly growing population as it cannot do so relying only on “hoe and knife” type of agriculture, Akpa noted.

During an interactive session in the public presentation, people posed questions about the possibility of the Maruca pest developing resistance to the Bt cowpea, why any pesticide applications woud be needed at all on the crop and the safety of consuming Maruca larvae that had died after exposure to Bt.

Ishiyaku said there was tendency for the pests to develop resistance over time, so scientists are already evaluating an additional gene, Cry2Ab, which would be added to the current Cry1Ab to make the resistance in the latter more durable. Two genes will sustain resistance “probably close to 50 years or so,” compared to 20 years for a single gene, he said.

Eating Bt cowpea poses no health risk to consumers because its ability to kill the Maruca larva does not extend to other organisms, Ishiyaku explained. That’s why farmers will still need to apply some pesticides to their cowpea crop to protect against other insect pests that also attack cowpea.

Dr. Ashikeni, executive director of Citizens Advocacy for Social and Economic Rights (CASER), commended the regulatory agency for considering food and human safety while overseeing this new technology. Modern biotechnology means food security because it will increase food production, and this guarantees an improved living standard for the ordinary Nigerian citizen, he pointed out.

“From the outset, we in the economic rights advocacy community have been worried that we have not maximized the benefits of technology in the area of food production enough,” he added. “For me, I am more than confident that other Nigerians, many economic and social rights advocates, would accept and promote modern agricultural biotechnology which is to the benefit of Nigerians.”

Similarly, Hon. Nana Brempong, a member of the Ghanaian Council of State who is also a commercial farmer, advised the Nigerian leadership to consider GMOs because of their numerous benefits, saying it would be in the interest of the nation to embrace modern biotechnology to boost its nutrition and economy.

“I am advising the Nigerian president to consider GMOs because I’ve seen it and know the benefits,” she said. “We Africans are too scared of innovations. We’ve been eating GMOs since God knows when, but we don’t want to plant it over here, which is confusing.”