By Gift Briton

Nigeria is one of the leading African countries in genetically modified (GM) crops, starting with the commercial release of pest-resistant Bt cotton in 2018.

By 2023, the country had approved the cultivation and importation of at least four more GM products, including the pod-borer resistant Bt cowpea, improved soybean varieties, TELA maize and HB4 wheat, geared towards boosting food security and economic development.

Nigeria has made this significant milestone despite the issue of GM crops adoption being met with controversy globally, an issue which most African countries have taken with a more precautionary approach, ranging from policy restrictions to outright bans.

“The apprehension of uncertainty with GM crops is mostly unfounded and based on unnecessary fear. The issue of science and technology should not be based on popular opinion but rather on what is verifiable. Science, technology and innovations are the drivers of the modern economy,” said Dr. Rufas Ebegba, the immediate former Director General, National Biosafety Management Agency (NBMA) in Nigeria.

He was speaking during an interview with ScienceAfrica at the sidelines of the African Conference on Agricultural Technologies (ACAT) conference where he shared insights on what other African countries need to learn from Nigeria to accelerate the adoption of biotechnology, including the commercialization of GM crops.

Dr. Ebegba added: “Politicians and policymakers must understand that we cannot prosper our countries without science and technology and they must stand by that fact.”

He pointed out that passing science-based biosafety laws in Nigeria was the key ingredient in spurring the adoption and commercialization of GM crops in the country but that alone is not sufficient.

“Nigeria has political goodwill and embraces technology. The Government put in place funding to ensure that the issue of biosafety regulation is at the forefront of the adoption of biotechnology. And in Nigeria we have the knowledge and courage to be able to ensure that this technology is adopted,” Dr. Ebegba observed.

According to him, it is the courage, knowledge, determination, funding and collaboration that other African countries must yearn for if GM crops are to be adopted in these countries, adding that science is not about numbers and democracy but verifiable evidence.

Dr. Ebegba observed that Africa does not need to harmonize its biosafety laws; instead, the continent needs collaboration and co-creation where countries that lack biosafety laws collaborate with those that already have laws for knowledge and experience sharing to develop their country-specific laws.

“We should develop strategies to assist African countries that do not have biosafety laws to come up with biosafety laws that are implementable and friendly to the technology. I think it is an opportunity for other African countries to also emulate what Nigeria has done,” he said.

From left- right: Prof. Abdullahi Mustapha, Dr. Rufas Ebegba and Patience Koku contributing during a plenary session at ACAT.

Speaking at a plenary session during the conference, Patience Koku, Chief Executive Officer, Replenish Farms and one of the first farmers in Nigeria to adopt biotechnology, advised on working in cohesion, raising awareness among farmers, particularly through farmer-based organizations as well as running consistent and accurate communication in outlets trusted by people.

“Farmers and civil societies should be involved in access to these technologies. This is important because usually access to technology is not brought down to a farmer level. Farmers are ready to embrace technology,” Koku noted, advising that, “biotech crops have tremendous benefit for Africa. And because this technology is accessible and available we must be able to leverage it in order to be food secure and develop our continent. Farming is challenging in Africa where we have a shortage of tools so this very important tool in the box must go to the farmers so that we can be able to feed our continent.”

Impressed by the work Nigeria has done, particularly in adopting GM cowpea, Prof. Abdullahi Mustapha, Chief Executive Officer, National Biotechnology Development Authority of Nigeria, called on African governments to build the necessary infrastructure for biotechnology and trust their scientists.

“Before the release of GM cowpea in Nigeria, the country was reporting some deficit of cowpea supply but after the adoption, especially for the last two years, Nigeria has neither imported any cowpea nor recorded any deficit of it in the country which means that we are now sufficient in cowpea supply and by extension nutrition sufficiency and job creation for the youth,” he noted.