The first Nigerian genetically modified crop was approved for commercial use a fortnight ago. The National Committee on Naming, Registration and Release of Crop Materials officially announced the release of pest-resistant cotton commonly known as bt cotton as the nation’s first Genetically Modified Organism (GMO) crop.
GMO is any organism whose genetic material has been altered using genetic engineering techniques.
Chairman of the Committee, Chief Oladosun Awoyemi, who announced the approval in Ibadan, said GM cotton would revolutionize the nation’s agriculture and textile sectors and could lead to future adoption of GM technology in the country.
Nigeria’s two homegrown cotton varieties — MRC 7377 BG 11 and MRC 7361 BG 11 — were developed by Mahyco Nigeria Private Ltd. in collaboration with the Institute for Agricultural Research (IAR) at Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria. The cotton has been genetically modified to include a gene from Bacillus thuringiensis — a soil bacterium used extensively for pest control in organic agriculture — to provide pest resistance within the plant itself.
There have been divergent views on whether the country should adopt GMO crops or outrightly reject the concept being championed by a US-based agro-chemical, Monsanto.
Proponents of GMO crops believe that they reduce the pest damage by increasing the resistance of the plant, which leads to increase in yield and productivity and simultaneously reduce the usage of pesticides which leads to reduction in cost.
However, those against it believe that GMO crops have long, negative effects on humans and that they are costly for rural farmers.
It was even believed that the minister of Agriculture, Chief Audu Ogbeh, has been opposing the adoption of GMO crops in the country through his actions.
Stakeholders who spoke with our Agric Editor, who has been monitoring the situation, believe the adoption of GM cotton for commercial purpose may not pose much danger to the country’s environment, partly because cotton is not directly consumed by man.
Mr. Anibe Achimugu, president of the National Cotton Association of Nigeria (NACOTAN), insisted that Bt Cotton has no negative impact on Nigeria’s environment.
“The Institute of Agricultural Research in Zaria conducted the trial and gave the report. It has been going on for two to three years and so far the impact has not been negative on the environment.
“Globally all the cotton growing countries are using BT Cotton. America, India, China and Australia that have one of the best are all using BT Cotton,’’ he said.
Mr. Achimugu, who is also a cotton farmer, told Daily Trust that Bt Cotton, is a genetically modified cotton that has self-defense mechanisms to battle insects and pests that attack cotton balls.
“Bt Cotton is expected to give us higher yield and better quality of fiber, and reduce our cost of production and use of agro chemicals. Typically, we spray six or seven times in a farming year but according to what we are hearing, we will be now spraying only twice or less. There is cost reduction there as well,’’ he noted.
Also, Prof. Alex Akpa, the Acting Director-General of the National Biotechnology Development Agency (NABDA), told journalists that the new varieties are suitable for cultivation in all of Nigeria’s cotton growing zones and that in addition to the pest-resistant traits, they offer early maturity, fiber length of 30.0 to 30.5 millimeters and fiber strength of 26.5 to 27.0g/tex (tenacity) and micronaire (strength) of 3.9 to 4.1.
But Mr. Toyin Ajayi, an agriculturist, warned that the Bt seeds might be, in the long run, too expensive for small-rural farmers to access.
He also said bollworm, which is the major pest attacking cotton, may in the long run, develop resistance to the Bt Cotton and we may be back to where we started.
Mr. Ajayi, however, said the fear of its health implication might not be visible because human beings do not consume cotton directly.
How can the farmers access the Bt Cotton
Mr. Anibe Achimugu, NACOTAN leader, said no farmer is growing the Bt Cotton for now but assured that it will be available for many farmers in the next farming season.
“Most farmers have already planted their fields. We cannot jump the gun and give farmers without proper process,’’ he said.
According to him, “We are working with one or two private companies to go ahead and try it out. Some farmers will get it eventually after due process in the same way they normally get the conventional seeds.”
Prof. Alex Akpa, the Acting Director-General of National Biotechnology Development Agency (NABDA), assured that a private company, Mahyco Nigeria, in collaboration with IAR, would make the seeds available to the farmers
“The company will work with over 1,000 farmers to locally produce this high-yield cotton for the whole country,” he said. “It has the capacity to do that and they have assured us they can do that. And with our support, and the support of all the researchers and scientists involved in this project, we have no doubt in our minds that in the next few weeks, or months at most, it will be widely available to all our farmers. But initially the company is starting with 1,000 registered farmers across the six geo-political zones of the nation, who will mass produce this cotton and make sure farmers have adequate access to the product,” he said.
Why the new Bt Cotton will get less criticism
There has been wide appeal for the nation’s moribund cotton industry, which in the 1970’s was said to be the country’s second highest employer of labour. Statistics have shown that then, the industry had over 120 modern factories. But today only 33 factories are said to be standing with many employment opportunities lost.
Low yields and high production costs are today hindering the optimal performance of the cotton industry. Sucking pests like aphids, jassids and thrips weaken plants by sucking the sap from the tender new growth. Bollworms, which belong to the insect order Lepidoptera, attack cotton plants at different stages. Experts believe the pests can reduce yields by up to 60 percent.
Prof. Akpa insisted that in addition to the pest-resistant traits, Bt Cotton offer early maturity, fiber length and fiber strength (tenacity) and micronaire (strength).
The growing call for the country to diversify its economy may make many stakeholders to accept any effort aimed at boosting the cotton industry, which is capable of creating more employment opportunities.