Yewande Kazeem is a 2018 fellow of the Cornell Alliance for Science. In this interview with NKECHI ISAAC, she highlights the benefits of modern agricultural biotechnology application in Nigeria.
With a population of over 180 million, Nigeria is facing food shortage, especially in the north east. How can the country deploy biotechnology to provide for its teeming population?
Biotechnology is one of the tools that can be used to mitigate food security crisis. Biotechnology can be used in terms of farmers’ profitability, meaning more turn-out per hectare. It can mitigate pest and diseases and can also tackle malnutrition issues. So, biotechnology is one of the tools that can enhance farmers’ productivity and profitability as well as ensure we produce enough to feed the population.
In terms of nutrition, for instance, one in five children in Nigeria suffers malnutrition, they are Vitamin A- deficient and cassava is one of the staple crops in Nigeria. So, imagine such crop being modified to enhance its nutrients in terms of vitamins. So, vitamin A can help mitigate the deficiency and enhance nutrition.
The government spends as much as N20 billion importing cowpea every year as farmers continue to lose up to 80 per cent of their yield to pest infestation. How can this challenge be addressed using biotechnology?
With biotechnology we’re able to mitigate pest and diseases. One of the issues we have with cowpea is the Maruca pest disease where farmers’ fields are infested and they’re not able to produce as much and that goes to say that if you’re not producing enough then you’re not making profit and if you’re not making profit their lives and invariably the economy is not better for it. But with Bt cowpea the crops in the field are more resistant to diseases, they can make and sell more, and make more profits to enhance their lives. Generally, Bt cowpea can help farmers get more output from the fields and also help the government reduce capital flight lost on importation of cowpea.
Does approval for the commercialization of 2 Bt cotton varieties present any prospect for the ailing cotton industry in Nigeria?
The present state of our cotton industry is actually depressing because Nigeria used to be one of the biggest exporters in the world. A lot of people were dependent on agricultural produce and cotton was one of the major exports. Going around Nigeria, I met a farmer called Aisha, an elderly cotton farmer who’s been in the business for a long time, about 30 years ago. She was one of the leading cotton farmers in her community in Kano and was able to send her children to school but currently Aisha no longer grows cotton because of the massive pest infestation which cleared out her farm. She lost everything and no longer grows cotton and no one in her community does.
From a prosperous cotton farmer, Aisha now works in someone’s field helping them grow cassava. But biotechnology presents an opportunity for people like her, she can go back to being a leading cotton farmer in her community and can even export it or have an off-taker that can get it from her and export. This new technology can help Aisha to send her grandchildren to school and help her community. With Bt cotton, it’s not just about ridding the field of pest but about taking back our place in the world as the leading cotton grower and exporter in Africa.
There are concerns in some quarters that consumption of GM foods is fraught with health risks. Do you think these are justified?
I understand the concerns but I can tell you that GM crops come with no health risk. It is actually one of the most researched crops in the world. People have been eating these crops for ages. For instance, people in the US have been eating these crops for over 30 years with no recorded case of risk. Even traditional, conventional crops are not what they used to be during the olden days, they’ve also been modified one way or the other. GM crops are nothing new, they are even better because their nutritional values have been enhanced. There is nothing to be worried about with consuming GM crops. It is healthier and we’re not spraying as much chemicals as conventional crops which require more chemicals to help with the pest infestation. GM food is the way to go, it is the healthier option.
In what ways can biotechnology application boost Nigeria’s economy?
One of the big things right now is agriculture. The world’s population is growing astronomically and there is need to feed the populace. Biotechnology application can boost not just the agricultural sector but is also applicable in the health sector, in terms of vaccines and other medications. But for agriculture, it can tackle the issue of pests and help farmers get more on less land without over-exerting themselves so much in the process. So many of our staple crops are being imported right now but with biotechnology that would be history in a short while. We’ll be food sufficient as a nation, eating healthier, more nutritious food, and farmers would have enough produce and profit too. This will invariably boost the agriculture sector and it can significantly contribute to the national GDP.
In Nigeria, the oil sector is down, so we’re now trying to boost the agriculture sector, which is the way to go because that was what we did before we found crude oil. Biotechnology can enhance the agricultural sector, it is not the only way but it is a viable tool. Biotech is not the only way but one of the tools that can be deployed to boost the sector. We can also work on our post-harvest loss issues, infrastructure, storage and encourage more investors in the sector but biotechnology can help. It can help the nutritional value of the crop and most importantly mitigate pest’s infestation and diseases. This is the way to go, biotechnology is one of the tools to help diversify our economy.
Do you think Nigeria is ready to embrace biotechnology in term of regulation?
Nigeria is ready to regulate safe biotechnology application. It is not as if there’s any threat associated with the technology but to make sure the products or crops comply with the laws stipulated by the Federal Government, that’s why we have regulatory authorities like the National Biosafety Management Agency (NBMA) which works in collaboration with other sister agencies to make sure biotechnology application is well regulated in the country.