2017 marked an eventful year for the nation’s nascent biotechnology development. Nigeria officially signed the biosafety bill into law in 2015, making it eligible to join the league of nations that are already using biotechnology and genetic modification (GM) also called genetic engineering to boost food production and alleviate hunger.
Just like any new endeavor Nigeria is trying to find a stable ground for this new technology and the Federal Government with the passage of the biosafety bill into law in line with world standard approved the establishment of a national regulatory body, the National Biosafety Management Agency (NBMA) to oversee the safe application of biotechnology in the country.
2017 in Retrospect
Some striking features marked biotechnology development timeline in the nation, apart from intense sensitazation through awareness creation and raising understanding, and appreciation of modern agricultural biotechnology by stakeholders, one of the most striking was the endorsement of the Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) Cotton by the Minister of Agriculture, Chief Audu Ogbeh, when he visited the Bt. Cotton trial site at the National Biotechnology Development Agency (NABDA) complex in Abuja. Prior to that, the agency had been having a tough time getting policy makers to support the commercialization of GM crops.
The government through the NBMA also gave the International Institute for Tropical Agriculture (IITA) approval to conduct confined field trials (CFT) of genetically engineered cassava to prolong the root storage — the most nagging challenge of cassava breeders. The trials, which would be carried out by IITA in collaboration with several universities in Switzerland and Germany, would test cassava bred to resist deterioration using a gene-silencing technology.
Another striking event of the year was the impounding and repatriation of 90 tonnes of GM maize for feed meal processing, valued at about $10 million by the NBMA in collaboration with the Nigerian Custom Service (NCS) back to Australia for illegal importation. However, giving update on the incident during a media interaction last month, the director-general of NBMA, Dr Rufus Ebegba, said the importer of the GM maize had since applied and secured approval for permit from the agency for the importation of the maize.
According to him, “the GM maize was ordered back because there was no permit, the ship was repatriated with collaboration with Nigerian Custom Service. The applicant has applied and so far we have processed and confirmed the products to be safe.”
2018 Commercialization Timeline for Bt Cotton, Bt Cowpea Still Sacrosanct
The Federal Government had earlier set a timeline for the commercialization of Bt Cotton which is on general release and Bt Cowpea which its field trial commenced in 2009.
Speaking to our correspondent, the regional head of the African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF), Dr Issoufou Kollo Abdourhamane, and the deputy director of NABDA, Dr Rose Gidado, unanimously said Nigeria was not envisaging any delay in the commercialization of the products. According to them, the crops are going through the final stages of trials and stakeholders directly involved have already collected data and are currently developing a dossier to show the crops are safe before it is released to the public.
They said once the dossier is presented and approved by the national varietal release committee made up of breeders and relevant stakeholders as well as the regulatory agency, NBMA, then the crops would be ready for deregulation.
Update On Other GM Crops
Meanwhile, other crops currently at various stages of confined field trials (CFTs) in the nation are at various stages. The crops include the nitrogen use efficient, water use efficient and salt tolerant (NEWEST) rice; the African Bio-fortified Sorghum (ABS); Bt maize; Herbicide tolerant soybeans and virus resistant cassava enhanced with iron and zinc.
Stakeholders directly involved in the research of the projects are optimistic that the ABS and NEWEST rice have prospects of following next after the commercialization of Bt Cowpea and Bt Cotton in about three years. According to them the timeframe will allow researchers to complete all the necessary backcrosses to transfer the desired traits to Nigerian local varieties
The biotechnology sector is also expecting the entrance of two new genetically modified crops into its fold. They are both cassava related projects. The genetically modified cassava (AMY3 RNAi Transgenic lines) and the virus resistant cassava for Africa (VIRCA) project.
The main objective of the GM cassava trial, which is currently purely for research, is to prolong root storage of cassava which is the most nagging challenge of cassava breeders.
The gene construct used was developed at ETH Zurich in the laboratory of Prof. Samuel C. Zeeman.
Though the Federal Government has already given approval for the CFT of the genetically modified cassava jointly sponsored by IITA and ETH- Zurich, it officially joins the biotech fold this year.
Meanwhile the VIRCA Plus project brings cassava that carries resistance to two viral plant diseases at once to the stable: theCassava Brown Streak Disease (CBSD), which destroys the edible roots even when rest of the plant looks healthy, and Cassava Mosaic Disease (CMD), which can stunt or kill plants outright. These two diseases are often found together in the same field and can devastate entire crops. Both diseases are spread by white-flies (which cannot be controlled with pesticides) and by infected cuttings that are unknowingly shared among farmers.
Biotechnology development in Nigeria is not without its challenges. One of such challenges is a court case instituted against the NBMA by a group of non-governmental organisations before the Abuja Federal High Court over permits issued by the agency for GM cotton and maize in the country.
The group of 17 NGOs led by the Health of Mother Earth Foundation (HOMEF) has the NBMA, the Minister of Environment, MOSANTO, NABDA, Minister of Agriculture, the Attorney General of the Federation and the National Agency for Foods Drugs and Administration (NAFDAC) as defendants in the suit.
Our correspondent learnt that the suit is billed to officially kick off on January 24, 2018, when it would be officially mentioned in federal high court, Abuja.