Nigeria must press ahead with GM crops

Pest resistance is one benefit of adopting GM technology to grow crops such as cassava Copyright: Flickr/CIAT by Neil Palmer

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Nigeria must pass a biosafety law so the country’s farmers can reap the benefits of GM technology, says Ademola A. Adenle.

Genetic modification (GM) has been used in the production of pharmaceutical drugs, experimental medicine and agriculture for more than 15 years.

GM crops bring increased yields, higher incomes, greater resistance to diseases and pests, improved varieties and environmental benefits — and they can improve the quality of life for resource-poor farmers in developing countries.

In 1996, when GM crops were first commercialised officially, six countries planted a total of 1.7 million hectares of these crops. By 2010 this had grown to 148 million hectares in 29 countries, of which 19 are from the developing world.

This 87-fold growth makes GM the fastest crop technology to be adopted in the history of modern agriculture.

Yet only a few African countries, including Burkina Faso, Egypt and South Africa, have functional biosafety laws — a major requirement before farmers can grow GM crops commercially.

Kenya is on the verge of growing GM crops commercially after enacting a biosafety law in 2009 and recently refining its biosafety regulations. But why is Nigeria, the most populous country, absent from the group of nations adopting the technology?

Nigeria’s GM capacity

GM technology has been criticised, particularly by nongovernmental organisations (NGOs), for its potential risks. But there is little scientific evidence to support such criticism. No human health effects or environmental problems resulting from GM products have yet been documented.

As one of the leading African countries in the development of basic biotechnological techniques, particularly plant breeding, Nigeria is well placed to use GM crops.

The Nigeria-based International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) has the necessary expertise and facilities. And institutions such as the National Root Crops Research Institute (NRCRI) in Umudike and the Institute of Agricultural Research (IAR) at Ahmadu Bello University in Zaria are working alongside IITA on confined field trials of GM cassava and cowpea.

This shows that Nigeria has made initial steps towards adopting GM technology. But it lacks a well-coordinated effort — and still needs a biosafety law before GM products can be released.

Slow progress

Nigeria is a signatory to the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety to the Convention on Biological Diversity, which makes it compulsory for nations to pass biosafety laws before they can grow GM crops commercially.

The objective is to ensure that countries have both a regulatory framework and the capacity (in terms of people, expertise and technology) to undertake a full risk assessment with respect to using GM organisms.

Bamidele Solomon, director of the National Biotechnology Development Agency (NABDA), which is responsible for coordinating and promoting Nigeria’s biotechnology programme, says that NABDA and other relevant stakeholders have done all they can to pass a biosafety law — the rest is in the hands of the lawmakers.

The chairman of the House Committee on Agriculture under the previous administration, Gbenga Makanjuola, says the biosafety law has been passed by the House of Representatives (the lower legislative house) but must still be debated in the Senate (the upper legislative house) before being approved by the president.

The cause of the delay is unclear but is likely to be due to political lobbying, a change of administration, and the issue not being a high priority — but I expect the recently elected government to give the biosafety law serious consideration.

Modernising agriculture

Most of Nigeria’s population is engaged in farming, so its lawmakers should give top priority to any issues that relate to the country’s agricultural development.

GM technology has the potential to increase agricultural productivity and to improve the quality of life of Nigeria’s farmers. It can boost yields of crops such as cassava, potato, yam and maize, provide resistance to pests and diseases, improve crops’ nutritional content and increase their shelf life.

For example, the average yield of maize in Nigeria is less than 1.7 tonnes per hectare, compared with an average of 10–15 tonnes per hectare in developed countries. As a result, incomes are low, which increases the poverty level among farmers.

Nigeria’s once-booming agricultural sector has suffered from years of mismanagement, a lack of research and development, and inadequate facilities.

It must be modernised to reduce hunger and poverty, to allow Nigeria to compete with international markets, and to create job opportunities to sustain the economy. Adopting modern agricultural biotechnology, particularly GM technology, is key to solving some of Nigeria’s agricultural problems.

The country needs to invest in research and development, and must put in place an appropriate policy and legal framework to protect traditional farming practices, because local crop varieties are an integral part of Nigeria’s agricultural system.

Nigeria must adopt a cautious regulatory approach, and adapt when more knowledge becomes available. And it must educate the public, farmers and government institutions, including the media and private companies, to increase understanding of GM technology.

Ademola A. Adenle is a postdoctoral fellow at the United Nations University-Institute of Advanced Studies (UNU-IAS) and a visiting research scholar at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies (GRIPS) in Japan.