NIMET’s Prediction and The Need For Biotech Crops In Nigeria

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The Nigerian Meteorological Agency (NIMET’s) recent prediction that there would be less rainfall and extreme weather condition across most parts of Nigeria in 2014, has come with its worrisome troubles.

Dr. Anthony Anuforom, Director-General of NIMET predicted that the South-East and South-West parts of the country may experience delayed onset of rainfall while certain other areas would have low comfort index because of high level of humidity and temperature.

According to the NiMets 2014 Seasonal Rainfall Prediction (SRP) report held in Abuja on March 3, “Cessation of rains from the ENSO (El Nino/Southern Oscillations) signals shows that the level of humidity and temperature will be high in March and April.

“Overall, we may have shorter than normal rainy season. We advise farmers to use early maturing crops species for the short rainy season.”

This is to make sure that within the shorter rainy season, farmers could quickly plant and the crops would reach maturity and harvesting within the short rainy season that is likely to occur.

Herein comes the need for President Jonathan to, as a matter of expediency, sign the biosafety bill, which has been lying on his table for some years now. The bill will allow for the adoption of modified crops species that would withstand short rainfall, draught, etc.

Over the years, many countries have advanced in the trials, adoption, production and even commercialisation of these modified species and thereby boosting the food production indices for their ever-growing population.

The commercialisation status of biotech crops has, especially in the past year, grown to appreciable level. Some governments in Africa are taking advantage of the benefits of these crops against the tidal wave of threats to farmers, and by implication, food security.

A report released by the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA), has shown that adoption and commercialisation of biotech crops in countries is on the increase.

Clive James, Founder and Emeritus Chair of ISAAA has said that of the 27 countries that planted biotech crops in 2013, 19 were developing and 8 were industrial countries. Stacked traits occupied 47.1 million hectares, or 27%.

“For the second consecutive year, in 2013, developing countries planted more hectares than industrial countries. Notably, developing countries grew more, 54% (94 million hectares) of global biotech crops in 2013 than industrial countries at 46% (81 million hectares). Successful public/private partnerships were established by several countries including Brazil, Bangladesh and Indonesia,” the report stated.

According to James, in 2013, a record 18 million farmers, up 0.7 million from 2012, grew biotech crops – remarkably over 90%, or over 16.5 million, were small resource-poor farmers in developing countries. “Farmers are the masters of risk-aversion and improve productivity through sustainable intensification (confining cultivation to the 1.5 billion hectares of crop land and thereby saving the forests and biodiversity). In 2013, a record 7.5 million small farmers in China and another 7.3 million in India, elected to plant more than 15 million hectares of Bt cotton, because of the significant benefits it offers. In 2013, almost 400,000 small farmers in the Philippines benefited from biotech maize.”

Although seven countries (Cameroon, Egypt, Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, Nigeria and Uganda) have conducted field trials, which is the immediate step prior to approval for commercialization, South Africa is already benefiting from biotech crops for more than a decade now. While Burkina Faso and Sudan have increased their Bt cotton hectarage by an impressive 50% and 300%, respectively, in 2013, James further disclosed.

Importantly, the WEMA project is scheduled to deliver the first biotech drought tolerant maize to Africa in 2017. “The lack of appropriate, science-based and cost/time-effective regulatory systems continues to be the major constraint to adoption. Responsible, rigorous but not onerous, regulation is needed, particularly for small and poor developing countries,” the report stated.

Globally, 2013 was the 18th year of successful commercialization of biotech crops, which first began in 1996. “Hectarage of biotech crops increased every single year between 1996 to 2013, with 12 years of double-digit growth rates, reflecting the confidence and trust of millions of risk-averse farmers around the world, in both developing and industrial countries. Remarkably, since the first plantings in 1996, an unprecedented cumulative hectarage of more than 1.5 billion hectares have been successfully cultivated, an area that is 50% more than the total land mass of China or the United States.”

Biotech crop hectares increased by more than 100-fold from 1.7 million hectares in 1996, to over 175 million hectares in 2013. “This makes biotech crops the fastest adopted crop technology in recent times – the reason – they deliver benefits. In 2013, hectarage of biotech crops grew by 5 million hectares, at an annual growth rate of 3%. It is important to note that more modest annual gains, and continued plateauing, are predicted for the next few years due to the already optimal (between 90% and 100%) adoption rates for the principal biotech crops, leaving little or no room for expansion,” ISAAA noted.

Five countries are top on the list of biotech crops planters – deployment of the first drought tolerant maize and stacked HT/IR soybean. The US continued to be the lead country with 70.1 million hectares and an average ~90% adoption across all crops. “Importantly, the first biotech drought tolerant maize was planted by 2,000 US farmers on 50,000 hectares. Brazil was ranked second, and for the fifth consecutive year, was the engine of growth globally, increasing its hectarage of biotech crops more than any other country – an impressive record increase of 3.7 million hectares, up 10% from 2012, reaching 40.3 million hectares,” ISAAA further reported.

Brazil also planted the first stacked HT/IR soybean in a record-breaking 2.2 million hectare launch, and its home-grown virus-resistant biotech bean is ready for commercialization. Argentina retained its third place with 24.4 million hectares. India, which displaced Canada for the fourth place had a record 11 million hectares of Bt cotton with an adoption rate of 95%. Canada was fifth at 10.8 million hectares with decreased plantings of canola but maintained a high adoption rate of 96%. In 2013, each of the top 5 countries planted more than 10 million hectares providing a broad, solid foundation for future growth.

Nigeria’s biosafety bill should not be made to deter Nigeria’s farmers from the benefits of biotech crops. Mr President should not delay for another rainy reason before he sign the bill in view of the benefits attached to the adoption of biotech crops.

For example, from 1996 to 2012, biotech crops have contributed to Food Security, Sustainability and the Environment/Climate Change by “increasing crop production valued at US$116.9 billion; providing a better environment, by saving 497 million kg a.i. of pesticides; in 2012 alone reducing CO2 emissions by 26.7 billion kg, equivalent to taking 11.8 million cars off the road for one year; conserving biodiversity by saving 123 million hectares of land from 1996-2012; and helped alleviate poverty for >16.5 million small farmers and their families totalling >65 million people, who are some of the poorest people in the world. Biotech crops are essential but are not a panacea and adherence to good farming practices such as rotations and resistance management, are a must for biotech crops as they are for conventional crops.”

Therefore, if Nigeria’s biosafety bill signed into law and if Nigeria adopts biotech crops species for Nigerian farmers, sooner than later, farmers here will start commercialising these crops, thereby boosting the country’s food production indices. Besides, NIMET’s warning wouldn’t have any serious impact, especially as it affects farming.

Biotech crops will help deal with the problems of short rainfalls and drought.

Inviting cancer to our land, passing a death sentence on Nigerians:” A Response (1)

Agriculture

“People are always entitled to their OPINIONS but not their FACTS”

Over the times, there have been repeated tales by many people (especially from the non-scientific class) that Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) are dangerous for human consumption; that they have resulted in sicknesses and subsequent death of a number of people across countries.

One such campaign of misinformation has been launched, this time by an Architect, Gbadebo Rhodes-Vivour on Monday, May 19 2014 at http://www.ngrguardiannews.com/index.php/news/national-news/162150-gmo-hybrid-seeds-inviting-cancer-to-our-land-passing-a-death-sentence-on-nigerians. Rhodes-Vivour as an architect, should know more about building designs than scientific issues that are related to laboratory researches. This author is hardly an authority in any scientific field, including biology, chemistry or agriculture. He is not known to have carried out any research or collaborated with any scientist to arrived on a result that GMOs are harmful to humans.

In his “GMO/hybrid seeds: Inviting cancer to our land, passing a death sentence on Nigerians,” Rhodes-Vivour assumed that it is inappropriate for the Agriculture Minister to have stated that “Appropriate regulatory agencies would be put in place to check the benefits and risks associated with such foods.” It is needless to burden readers with the stories of regulatory frameworks that are being put in place for the advancement of agriculture in Nigeria. But it is important to remind us that Nigeria’s biosafety bill, which has been in development for nearly 15 years now, was finally enacted into law by the Senate on June 1, 2011. This bill provides for the establishment of regulatory agencies while researches that are backed by field trials are taking place in many universities across the country.

In the interim, the federal government has established the Biosafety Office at the Federal Ministry of Environment. The Office has commenced the drafting of some of the regulations for effective implementation. This is in anticipation of the signing of the Biosafety bill into law by Mr President. The Law calls for the establishment of the National Biodiversity Management Agency under which a Biosafety Department, expected to be the focal point and authority on biosafety in the country, would be.

That Nigeria is Africa’s most populous nation (167 million) and a food deficit country, is not debatable; that the country’s subsistence agriculture can no longer supply the needs of its growing population, is undoubtedly true. This is the very reason for the country’s adoption of agricultural biotechnology and the biosafety law seeks to provide the framework for Nigerian scientists who have done much research to move forward from field trials into commercial testing phases for eventual deployment to farmers.

Rhodes-Vivour claims that “biotech improved tomatoes are engineered so they do not rot quickly… what is not considered is that perishability of that tomato is linked to the human body’s ability to digest it.” This is a deliberate attempt to confuse his readers into “veiledly” believing his misinformation. “Rot,” as used in the piece applies to a “fresh” and “uncooked” tomato. The human body would always be able to “digest” the engineered tomato that is cooked.

Armed with all traditional connotation, the piece was written entirely without scientific evidences to buttress his argument that GM foods cause cancer. There is no known scientific research, which result shows that these foods are harmful. In categorical terms, Rhodes-Vivour does not have any peer-reviewed scientific proof published in any journal, which link “illnesses, such as organ failure, sterility and cancer”to GMOs.

Even as scientists, there are few ones that have ties to the organic or natural products or a history of anti-GM activism, who have called the safety of GM crops into question. In spite of these questions by the pessimistic scientists, there are undoubted weight of evidence of scientific scrutiny. These have overwhelmingly found GMOs to provide benefits to both farmers and the environment.

However, Rhodes-Vivour, an architect that has no knowledge of plant science, in another write-up told of why he joined the crusade against agricultural biotechnology. We all know how anti-GMO are making it big for working as crusaders. It is worthy of note any way, that some renowned environmentalists like the celebrated Mark Lynas, now a visiting fellow at the Cornell University, have seen the scientific reasons for the adoption of these technologies. He is now a strong advocate of genetically modified crops.

For instance, trying to put human face on beneficiaries of biotech, Lynas has noted that although scientists have developed a biotech – virus-resistant solution for the crop, farmers may not be able to access it. “It’s really very tragic because it’s holding back technology that has the potential to do a lot of good.
I like to put a human face on the beneficiaries. Technology has transformed all of our lives, it is probably biggest driver of change. Why should it be any different in Africa? When you want change, because people are living in poor, subsistence situations, why should those be the ones who have the least access to technology?”

In the ongoing debate surrounding genetically modified foods, Lynas who is a young environmentalist (not an architect) talks about farmers’ accessibility to the crops and not its harmfulness. His earlier position before understanding the scientific truth about GM foods was that GM foods were harmful.

As a Media Fellow of Agricultural Biosciences, I have met and interviewed Lynas;
I have visited research centres across the country and research centres and laboratories of some seed companies in the US and the UK. I have participated in some DNA extraction in plants with scientists in some of these places. In the course of the tests, I have not seen anything “playing God.” What I saw was “scientific magic,” the way any one who has never seen an aeroplane, sees it for the first time, take off. I have had the privilege to talk with renowned scientists in some universities in Nigeria; in the US and the UK who are involved in plant breeding. I believe that everything is “scientifically natural.”

“Are they playing God?” This is another resonating question that the advocates of traditional agriculture have continued to ask. All knowledge is from God. He imparts it on whom He wishes. God, as the best Architect who designed a “pillar-less” sky; as the best Creator, who created the Swallow, from which the plane was designed; the Beetle from which the Beetle car was designed; the Snake from which the train was designed and scores of other God-given art, man has always learned from the bountiful knowledge of God to improve on his life. Scientists have continued to borrow from the knowledge of God to improve on the lives of human beings.

Like his contemporaries, the Rhodes-Vivour chose to go it traditional, a reason that propels one to ask that since accidents claim lives of travelers, should government ban the use of motor vehicles, ships and planes? Should government enact a law to enforce the use of donkeys, horses, etc to travel to London, Saudi Arabia and so on in order to avoid accidents?

These are safer means of transport, especially in this age of advanced technology?

In all facets of human endeavours, traditional methods of doing everything, including farming have long given way for improved methods. That these methods have associated risks and disadvantages does not foreclose people from adopting them, which limit the adverse effects of the risks. This brings the reason for frameworks (biosafety laws). It is the same way that road/air traffic laws are put in place to reduce rates of accidents.

I do not intend to hold brief for Monsanto or any seed company but for reason and records, which speak for the real situation of Indian farmers. The anti-GMO groups have had over the years, no better arguments than that the multi-national seed companies are agricultural evils. Therefore, in following cue of his sponsors, Rhodes-Vivour alleged in his write-up that “Official figures from the Indian Ministry of Agriculture confirm more than 1,000 farmers kill themselves in India each month.” No one would say that Indian farmers do not “kill themselves” (commit suicide) but it will be historically wrong for anyone to tie the suicide of the farmers in India to Monsanto or any seed company for that matter. Those who have knowledge of history on Indian farmers’ suicide acts, are better informed.

I think the general public have the right to know the truth and not falsehood. If however the anti-GMO still want to deceive the people, they should be wiser by feeding us “improved falsehood” as against the repeated lies and fabrication.

Indian farmers do sometimes commit suicide, and this is unfortunate. But the fact is such suicides began before the introduction of GM cotton in India in 2002 and therefore independent of Monsanto and GM seeds. Rhodes-Vivour should refer to the report of the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), a United Nations organization, which states that suicides among farmers have been decreasing since the introduction of GM cotton, and are no higher among Indian farmers than among the Indian population as a whole.

As we shall share with readers, research indicates multiple societal issues as contributing to farmers suicides in India. Inclusive of these researchers are the international community that has conducted several studies to identify the reasons for the suicides in India over the last three decades.

For example in 2008, a study by the International Food Policy Research Institute found indebtedness among Indian farmers as linked to numerous causes. These causes include a lack of reliable credit facillties, changes in government policies, cropping patterns, plant and insect resistance to pesticides, and even shifts in the crops planted on the farm. This is a verifiable study for anyone who cares to know the truth.

Similarly in June 2012, a study on Socio-Economic Impact assessment of Bt Cotton in India carried out by the Council for Social Development’s (CSD), identified the key reasons leading to farmer suicides as lack of irrigation facilities, unavailability of timely credit and fluctuating cotton prices over the years. Other studies are, “Measuring the Contribution of Bt Cotton Adoption to India’s Cotton Yields Leap,” International Food Policy Research Institute Discussion Paper 01170, Guillaume P Gruere, Yan Sun; Economic impacts and impact dynamics of Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) cotton in India, Proceedings of the National Academies of Science, May 15, 2012; and Indira Gandhi Institute of Development Research Study: Suicide of Farmers in Maharashtra (January 2006).

Rhodes-Vivour’s assertion that the new seeds were being forced on farmers is nothing more than the normal ignorance portrayed by the anti-biotechnology. In the first place, one cannot count how many conferences have been organised to talk about agricultural biotechnology, where farmers get educated and questions asked on grey areas. I have attended so many such meetings organised by universities, research centres, the National Biotechnology Development Centre, and many others. The most recent meeting that I attended was the Annual Open Forum on Agricultural Biotechnology in Africa (OFAB Africa) Review and Planning Meeting. This meeting was attended by various leadership of farmers, including the National President of Cotton Farmers Association. He was so optimistic about the importance of biotechnology to Nigerian farmers.

While, as it seems, Rhodes-Vivour may not have been involved in farming and therefore does not know the new taste of farmers, I hope too that he is not a failed architect that has taken to crusade against biotechnology and, in the process, working against the general interests of Nigerian farmers. More so, there are growing sales of biotech products in the countries where farmers have access to biotech seeds and buy more of them year after year. In the process, they are not cheated for having to buy the seeds year-in-year-out. They do not regret buying these seeds every year because of the resounding yields and benefits there-from.

He mentioned some countries, including Brazil where he alleged that millions of farmers took Monsanto to court demanding 6.2 billion Euros as royalties. Do not these contradict situations where regulatory and government approvals have been granted in the United States, Canada, Europe, Brazil, Argentina, Australia and other developed countries that test all new products for safety before they are placed on the market?

I would have expected Rhodes-Vivour to state some benefits of biotech crops to humanity, especially in the face of the present global population explosion. Some of us who have farming background and who have seen how our parents toil hard ONLY to grow not-enough food to feed their families, know the striking difference of agricultural biotechnology against the traditional methods of farming.

In the last part of my response to Rhodes-Vivour’s piece, I will attempt to give a brief about plant breeding, genetically-modified organisms and why these are important if we must feed the projected world population of nine billion by 2050. Look out for the last part of this response.