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[LAGOS] Biotechnology in Nigeria has received a major boost with the announcement by the US Agency for International Development (USAID) that it plans to invest US$2.1 million in the area over the next three years.

The funds will "assist leading Nigerian universities and institutes in the research and development of bio-engineered cowpea and cassava varieties which resist insect and disease pests," says USAID's mission director in Nigeria, Dawn Liberi.

She adds that the money will also be used to "improve implementation of biosafety regulations, and enhance public knowledge and acceptance of biotechnology".

The announcement has been welcomed by Nigeria's President, Olusegun Obasanjo, who says that "Nigeria should, as a matter of priority, initiate appropriate steps to explore the use of biotechnology for the benefits of Nigerians and thus ensure that Nigeria becomes one of the international leaders in biotechnology".

Nigeria's minister of science and technology, Turner Isoun, applauds the move. But he also warns that there is opposition in some quarters against the application of biotechnology in Nigeria, for example in its application to genetically modified (GM) crops.

"The problem of biotechnology is fundamentally based on the fear that humans have of the unknown," he says. "Opponents worry that we do not know enough of the impact of biotechnology applications."

Isoun adds: "Those who promote the application of biotechnology do so on the basis that it is safe, and that where doubts remain, necessary regulations have been put in place. What is needed is communication in order to bridge the gap existing between the two positions."

Peter Hartmann, director-general of the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA), the driving force behind the promotion of biotechnology in Nigeria, and a partner in the project, says the USAID funding will help to accelerate the growth of Nigeria's agricultural sector.

"IITA does not see biotechnology as a [total] panacea [in the fight against poverty], but as an important tool," he says. "We have to use all possible tools when over 24,000 people die every day from starvation. Sometimes the answers we seek are hidden in the crops themselves. To uncover them, we need all the tools we can master."

The USAID assistance comes shortly after Nigeria's adoption of guidelines on the safe application of biotechnology in the country, and coincided with the opening of discussions between Nigeria and South Africa on the formulation of a model biosafety law, which other African countries can emulate.

When the law comes into force, a national biosafety committee will be set up to approve the testing and growing of GM crops in the country. Nigeria would then join Egypt, Kenya and South Africa as the only African countries to have adopted formal biosafety regulations.