Nigeria is on the path to becoming the first country to cultivate biotech cowpea after the country’s biosafety agency granted approval for open cultivation by farmers. The National Biosafety Management Agency (NBMA) permitted the Institute for Agricultural Research (IAR) at Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, to commercially release Pod Borer-Resistant Cowpea (PBR Cowpea)-event AAT709A. The crop is genetically improved to resist lepidopteran insect pest Maruca vitrata, an insect that can cause up to 80 percent yield loss. This development makes cowpea the first genetically modified (GM) food crop to be approved for open cultivation in the West African nation, and adds a new crop to the global biotech basket.
The approval is a culmination of more than nine years of intensive trials into the GM cowpea and a relief to millions of Nigerian farmers who depend on the crop for food and income.
In an exclusive interview with The DrumBeat, the project’s Principal Investigator Prof. Mohammad Ishayaku gives a detailed account of his experiences during the product development pipeline and offers valuable lessons and advice to African policy makers and fellow researchers leading similar projects on the continent.
Where were you when you first heard news about the approval and what ran through your mind?
It was in the evening when news broke that the approval had been granted. The news took me by surprise! PBR cowpea research and development was a herculean task with those opposed to the technology challenging the process. We had made our case publicly on the health and economic benefits of Bt cowpea. However, we knew access to scientific information and facts by the public was limited and were worried that this may sway opinion and perception against the benefits of agricultural biotechnology. Therefore, when I heard about the approval I was elated that the Federal Government and the public had understood and appreciated the need for development of GM cowpea.
What does the approval mean for Nigeria and Africa at large?
It really means a lot for Nigeria. It means Nigerians can independently think and choose based on scientific evidence aligned against economic benefits that might come with any technology. The approval provides the Nigerian society a prime opportunity to apply any form of technology, not only biotechnology. It also demonstrates the ability of our regualtory authorities to make decisions, independently and impartially, based on evidence and not myths or misinformation.
This development also shows that African regulatory agencies are equal to the task, and Africa, just like other continents, has the ability to decide for herself what is good for her population.
What was your greatest obstacle and how did you overcome it?
The biggest obstacle was compliance with regulatory requirements. There were stringent biosafety regulations that we had to adhere to before and in the course of the research. Compliance presented a challenge mainly because we had to invest heavily in resources. It became a very expensive affair, but we managed to comply with all the requirements. I must also mention the sporadic opposition by people opposing the technology, including some members of the scientific community. This threatened the success of the project. However, the opposition was majorly sparked by lack of understanding. Encouragingly, with continuous awareness creation, most understood and appreciated the importance of the technology. I must commend IAR for the support they gave to the project; that gave us enough confidence and energy to soldier on.
What kept you motivated throughout the journey?
In West Africa, cowpea is the most important food legume. Millions of people feed on it. It is highly nutritious with a substantial protein component. Protein is very expensive generally in Africa, especially in the rural areas. Cowpea offers a cheap and critical nutritional requirement to millions of people and it can grow in the harshest of places. However, there are no means of controlling the maruca pest devastating its production other than through use of harmful pesticides. The crop was therefore an important candidate because of its socio-economic position in terms of the well-being of our people. The tremendous benefits that this improved variety will give our farmers was our number one motivation. The urge to solve this insurmountable problem kept me going. I knew that when we finish and deliver to farmers, they will celebrate once they see the returns from the technology.
What is Nigeria doing differently that is prompting this progress?
As Nigerians we pride ourselves as being bold enough to do what we think is right. We are very fortunate that we have a functional a regulatory body that has the freedom to carry out its mandate. Both the Nigerian government and regulatory authority are firm and base their decisions on credible science. That is why we are taking the lead.
What would you say to naysayers who doubt Africa’s capacity to adopt biotech crops?
I think it is an abuse on Africans generally to say that. We all agree that Africa has the capacity to adopt aircraft and medical technologies. It therefore beats logic for some to argue that the continent does not have the capacity to adopt agricultural biotechnology. Saying Africa lacks the capacity to commercialize biotech crops is the last thing people should say. We have experts and adequate infrastructure necessary for uptake of the technology. I think the success of Bt cowpea has proved that. Here, we have a situation where local experts improved an orphan staple crop, to address a local challenge, for the benefit of its people!
What are some of the accusations that you faced if any, and how did you handle them?
One of the accusations levelled against the project was that Bt cowpea causes cancer. Others claimed the GM crop was already on the market. The anti-GMO activists were all over saying we did not follow due regulatory processes. All these were unfounded. The opponents failed to present any evidence, not even one, to support their claims.
To counter these lies, we took our time to educate the public and raise awareness. It took some time, but it soon became clear to everyone that the opponents’ claims were mere fabrications.
How would you advise Principal Investigators (PIs) and project teams working on biotech crops across Africa?
I would advise them to use socio-economic justifications for the interventions to their projects; how much benefit will the population and the country get from the results of their project? The project should not be seen as a scientific exercise only; it should most importantly be aimed at solving an existing problem. PIs and their teams should also take time to educate the public and fellow scientists on how their projects will be beneficial. What is most critical is to carry everyone along in the project. I would advise them to establish platforms that will allow them to hear people’s concerns. All these are key in helping shape the public’s mind-set on the technology.
What three thing would you tell African regulators?
Firstly, I would like African regulators to know that regulation does not mean prevention. Regulations should facilitate doing things in a right way. Secondly, regulators should stop the attitude of re-inventing the wheel; we have global and universal principles. What is applied in Rwanda can be applied in Kenya as long as it is healthy and environmentally friendly. Lastly, they should bear in mind that the financial burden through regulations reduces the profitability of the technology.
If you had three minutes with African leaders, what would you want them to know about modern biotech tools?
I would want them to know that agri-biotech has a very high potential for economic development in Africa and various credible international bodies such as the United Nations recognizes this potential. I would suggest that our leaders invest optimally in deployment of this technology for the benefits of their citizens.
What is next after this approval?
The next step is to submit an application for registration and release of the variety to the National Variety Release Committee (NVRC). All arrangements to get that approval are almost complete. As soon as the approval is granted, seed production and sales of certified seeds to farmers will commence. By July 2020, farmers will plant this variety on their farms.
You can reach Prof. Ishiyaku on firstname.lastname@example.org