By Alex Abutu
Activities have commenced in the country that would cumulate in the production of the first set of Genetically Modified cotton also known as Bt cotton in 2019.
The decision to deploy the technology in spite of the long age controversy that has dogged it was taken after a careful and extensive examination of the sorry state of cotton production in the country.
About 40 years ago, Nigeria was rated as one of the cotton destinations in the world where quality cotton of high value was available but that reputation has been replaced with an abysmal record that has even made the Nigerian cotton on the global market a laughing stock.
Cotton from Nigeria are said to be contaminated, of low yield and at best farmers can only get less than half a ton per hectare while their counterparts from other parts of the world are experiencing bumper yields.
Textile industries which used to be one of the largest employers of labour in both northern and southern Nigeria are today under lock and key due to lack of raw materials and this has made Nigeria the dumping ground for substandard textile materials.
As scientists and government agencies collaborate to solve the challenges that had plagued the crop in the country, civil society organisations and media practitioners led a campaign calling for a complete halt to moves aimed at allowing Monstanto, one of the leading companies propagating genetic engineering globally from entering Nigeria.
The company was recently granted the approval to participate in the country’s agricultural scene. The approval will see it leading the efforts to introduce genetically modified cotton into the country.
The outcry was as a result of the release permit granted to the company by the Nigeria Biosafety Management Agency, the agency charged with the responsibility of regulating issues of genetic modification in the country.
The intention and content of the permit was completely misunderstood by the campaigners for obvious reasons but it is necessary to state that the release permit granted means that the company can go to work with collaborating research institutions in the country to research for the development of cotton seeds that can resist insects and confront the challenges that made our local cotton unproductive but not to trade in GM seeds or products.
World all over, people and authorities raise concern over Genetic Modified Organisms regarding its impact on human and the environment and Nigeria cannot be an exception.
Although there have not been any scientific evidence or study to show that GMOs are harmful to either humans or the environment, the fear of possible impacts has continued to be peddled by those against the technology.
The President of NACOTAN, Anibe Achimugu, said recently that Nigerian cotton farmers are not only discouraged from farming the crop but gain nothing after months of investments and sufferings.
According to him, “We have seen the benefits of genetically modified cotton around the world and it is our desire that our farmers too enjoy improved yields by planting cotton varieties that are of high grade and resistant to insects.
The Director General, Nigerian Textile Manufacturers Association, Alhaji H.A. Kwajaffa, also noted recently at a stakeholders meeting on the Bt cotton that: “We have a lot of opportunities to explore in cotton but we import almost 50 per cent of our seeds. If Bt cotton was good for Burkina Faso farmers for over six years, then why can’t we have it here? Farmers overtime have been spraying a lot and that has affected them generally in terms of cost and health.
“I was in India recently and I saw the Bt farm side by side with organic cotton. The Bt cotton as grown in India produced about five tonnes per hectare while our farmers here in Nigeria produce about 8kg per hectare even less than one tonne.
Cotton price is determined by the international market and our farmers are going through a lot when they cannot meet up to this market all because of the quality of our seeds,” he added.
The Director of Federal Department of Agriculture and a representative of the Federal Ministry of Agriculture at the stakeholders meeting, Alhaji Yerima Ubah, also alluded to the fact that Nigerian farmers have suffered untold hardship in their efforts to produce cotton to meet international standard and local demand.
Ubah noted that, “Overtime, there has been a drop in cotton production from 10 to 5 per cent. We also had a technical assistant from India in area of technology transfer and capacity building for our cotton farmers. But the challenge generally is about seed quality and this, our scientists have tried but a new window will be necessary to explore”.
He said that the ministry had identified seed issue as the main problem that affected yield and that it was as a result of that the ministry engaged two North-East and North-West cotton growing zones including private seeds company like WACOT and AREWA cotton to improve our cotton.
Here in Nigeria, people like to criticise but those criticising are not farmers as every cotton farmer here is looking for possible solution that will make him have bumper harvest, we are eagerly waiting for our scientists whom we have faith in to come out with the Bt cotton which have change the lives of farmers in other countries,” Abdullahi said.
A renowned scientist and former director general, National Biotechnology Development Agency, Prof. Bamidele Solomon, said that considering the long suffering and preparedness of Nigerian scientists to participate in the global biotechnology revolution, there was no need wasting time in debating on Bt cotton; it is the way to go.
As he put it, “We have been expecting a time that the cotton sector will improve in Nigeria. Before the passage of the Biosafety bill, India wanted to export cotton seeds to Nigeria but we insisted we developed our own improved seeds and asked that Bt cotton CFT be sited in NABDA. The process is still ongoing but we need to speed up the process to revitalise the cotton industry.”
The National Seed Council restated its preparedness to work with the scientists to ensure that the research, release and eventual commercialisation of the crop if successful did not pose any challenge to human and the environment.
As campaigners circulate letters seeking 10,000 signatures to upturn the approval given to Monstanto to commence research in Nigeria into Bt cotton, we as Nigerians must not forget our history. Yesterday, Kaduna and Kano were booming cities where men, women and children were engaged in the textile value chain business; then, we didn’t have Boko Haram, we didn’t have the religious crisis that has not only scattered these cities but made these booming cities a ghost of their past.
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