The other day, the National Biotechnology Development Agency announced the official registration of two Bt Cotton varieties known by their codes, MRC7377BG11 and MRC7361BG11, by the National Committee on Naming, Registration and Release of Crop Materials. Prof Alex Akpa, NABDA DG, said the approval and registration marked the official entry into the nation’s agricultural system of the first homegrown genetically modified crop.
To me, this is a double-edged sword. Nigeria, being the most populated country in Africa and a former textile giant, could become wealthy from exporting cotton from higher yielding Bt Cotton fields, just like India. But if the process is not managed well through stringent regulation and farmer alertness, these GM species have the potential to worsen the dilemma of players in the sector, as is the case in Burkina Faso which eventually banned them.
Like I have always maintained, GMO is a new technique we must be extremely strategic in adopting as a country. Not only should we be environmentally conscious in its consideration, all parties involved must be very patriotic. At a closer observation, one can easily notice that both sides of the GMO divide are dancing to the drumbeats of invisible players. But to me, as long as we are listening only to the voice of Mother Nigeria, we are good to go.
The NABDA boss, while speaking at the press conference announcing the GM crops registration, emphasised that the Bt Cotton varieties that had been registered were highly viable when compared to the local conventional alternative, the yields being 4.1 to 4.4 tonne per hectare while the local variety yields are 600 to 900kg per hectare.
“With encouragement and support from the government, Nigeria has registered its homegrown GM Cotton saving our farmers the trouble of contending with the local conventional variety which is no longer accepted at the international market. This new variety that has just been officially registered has the potential of being adopted in all the cotton growing zones of Nigeria with maturity of 150 -160 days, it is resistant to Bollworm complex, high seed cotton yield, early maturity tolerant to suckling insect pest with fibre length of 30.0 to 30.5mm and a fibre strength of 26.5 to 27.0 g/tex (tenacity) and micronaire (strength) 3.9 to 4.1.”
Bt Cotton was first approved for field trials in the United States of America in 1993, and the first approved commercial use in the US was in 1995. It was approved by the Chinese government in 1997. In 2002, a joint venture between Monsanto and Mahyco introduced Bt Cotton to India. In 2011, India grew the largest GM cotton crop at 10.6 million hectares. The US GM cotton crop was 4.0 million hectares, the second largest area in the world, followed by China with 3.9 million hectares and Pakistan with 2.6 million hectares. By 2014, 96 per cent of cotton grown in the US was genetically modified and 95 per cent of cotton grown in India was GM.
Both varieties of the Nigerian homegrown Bt Cotton were developed by Mahyco Nigeria Pvt. Limited in collaboration with the Institute for Agricultural Research, Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria. Mahyco is the same firm that developed it for India.
Nevertheless, in as much as we could be guided by the Indian success story, our country must carefully study and scrutinise the factors that brought Bt Cotton prosperity to the Asian nation, though it must be noted that many local Indian small holder farmers are still complaining about the unfriendliness of the GM variety to their agricultural practice. To be specific, Bt Cotton has been enveloped in controversies due to its alleged failure to reduce the need for pesticides and increase yield.
India, with its small land holdings came head to head with the economics of Bt Cotton. There are many kinds of cotton pests in India apart from the bollworm so the use of pesticides had to continue because spraying would be needed to kill these other pests. Pesticides use also continued because as in all tropical countries – like Nigeria, pest attack is far more intense and the number of insects per acre will be far higher than in colder countries – from where the GM original patents originate. This is why some scientists and agro-researchers insist that it is unlikely the Bt Cotton strategy alone would be effective in controlling the intense pest attacks common in the tropics.
Therefore, NABDA and other relevant Federal Government agencies must proceed with caution. They have a duty to work with organised Nigerian cotton farmers and ginnery owners.
Vitally, the government should increase activities in the whole cotton subsector value chain as a matter of policy, and should not treat Bt Cotton as a stand-alone success. In most of the countries of Africa like Benin Republic, Burkina Faso, Cameroon and Mali, cotton is actually a government-driven sector. This means that the government goes out, gives out the seeds and inputs; and then buys back produce from the farmers. Their own cotton sector is like our oil sector. Cotton is their main foreign exchange earner and this has given them a totally different philosophy and atmosphere of operation.
Another factor that must be mainstreamed into the cotton industry value chain is demand line. If government, for instance, decides to say that uniforms of the military, para-military and students must be sourced locally, then, some of the dead cotton companies will come back on stream, therefore reinventing the cotton farming downstream. Government is a major consumer of fabrics, which are now mostly imported, therefore if government decides that it is not going to buy any more from outside the country, our textile industry could be revived. Thus, big cotton farmers will emerge and utilise the Bt Cotton, because they are more suited for the GM model as opposed to small holder farmers.
Essentially, the cotton agricultural subsector also needs to be reorganised to capture variable statistics for national planning and scientific sector segmentation. What is happening today is that a lot of small holder cotton farmers have decided to farm soya beans, sesame seeds and so on, rather than cotton. Who is capturing these data, and what are we doing with it?
A couple of years ago when the Nigerian Academy of Science, the highest scientific body in the country, came out to speak in support of GMO adoption in the country, I opined that it had the potential to institute information sharing and transparency in the emerging practice. Now is the time we could leverage the NAS. Bt Cotton adoption is not a one-off event; it is a process.
We could study what happened in Burkina Faso. In 2000, farmers in the country, Africa’s top cotton grower, were desperate. Their cotton used to fetch top prices because its high-quality fibre lent a luxurious sheen to clothing and bed sheets. But pests (bollworms) were threatening the crop. Even when you dropped the bollworm larvae into a bucket of poison, farmers said, they kept swimming.
The US agro-chemical company, Monsanto, proposed an answer: a genetically modified strain of cotton called Bollgard II, which it had already introduced in America and was being marketed worldwide. The Burkina farmers agreed to a trial and the country introduced seeds with a genetically modified gene in 2008.
The resulting cotton was pest-free, and the harvest more abundant. By 2015, three-quarters of all Burkina Faso’s production was GM, and it became a showcase for the technology among smallholders in Africa. From 2007 to 2015, delegations from at least 17 different African nations visited Burkina to see it.
But there was a problem. While the bug-resistant genes produced more volume, the high quality, for which the country was known and patronized globally, fell. This was why the cotton farmers of Burkina Faso abandoned the GM varieties and the government eventually banned them.
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