For the Director General, National Biosafety Management Agency, Mr. Rufus Ebegba, modern bio-technology is all Nigeria needs to tackle food shortage, crime, unemployment and poverty rate in Africa’s largest economy. In this interview with ABIOLA ODUTOLA, the environmental scientist urges farmers and Nigerians at large to embrace the innovation in order to trigger agricultural revolution in the country. Excerpts:
Now that the Federal Government appears determined to diversify the economy through agriculture, how can modern bio-technology trigger this revolution?
Modern bio-technology is a scientific means of developing new product, particularly in the improvement of organism. The essence is to stop specific problems in breeding, which cannot be done through conventional means. Modern bio-technology with safety in place, can be used to enhance the economy, particularly in the area of agriculture.
The innovation can come up with agricultural products that use less chemical, which makes the cost of input to be reduced. It will also reduce exposure of human beings to chemicals sprayed on farms, because farmers can use modern bio-technologies that are insect and pest resistant. It also make farming more lucrative and that can attract the youth. It will drastically reduce unemployment, poverty and crime rate in the country. When more people go into farming, recent hike in food prices will drop. The initiative can transform the economic.
Specifically, how much can farmers save using genetically modified crops?
Judging by the experiment that is going on with beans that are genetically modified against pests, from what we see on the farm, a farmer can make as much as 400 percent yield on the crops, compared to the conventional seeds.
What is the update on the campaign against all illegal GMO foods in the country?
What we did was to meet super stores general managers and owners asking them to remove all unapproved GMO foods in their stores and they complied. We are not saying they are bad, because wherever they are coming from, they must have been certify safe, but we need to ascertain what are brought in the country. We have the responsibility to ensure that Nigeria do not consume what is bad for them, and also to track all the GMOs in the country. If there are complaints, we will be able to trace where it came from. We did not ban them.
How many youths can the innovation take off the streets?
There is the tendency that biotech and safety can generate about 25,000 jobs annually or more. With the law we have in place, safety is guaranteed because there will be more bio-tech companies coming up, either locally or internationally. The research institute will be more vibrant, new products will come in, more people will join farming, and the value chain will also increase. There will be direct and indirect employment through research, farming, marketing and distribution.
bio-tech and safety can generate about 25,000 jobs annually or more. With the law we have in place, safety is guaranteed because there will be more biotech companies coming up, either locally or internationally
Won’t the current economic recession hamper this anticipated growth?
No, it will not, because recession require out of the box thinking. We cannot continue to do the same thing and we are not moving. The technology is about 20 years, it should be given a trial. The World Health Organisation had said that there is nothing wrong with GMOs. It is just that we need to ensure it is not abused. Science and technology drives the world and as a country, we need to move in the same direction.
How can modern bio-technology be used to tackle the unrest in the Niger Delta region of the country?
There are researches going on in developing micro-organism that can mop up oil spills from the environment. If that is concluded, farmers in the region will gladly go back to the farms and fishing profession. If that happens, poverty level in that area will drop and the unrest will drastically reduce also. The health status will also improve because the water will be clean.
Nigeria spent about N365 billion on rice between 2012 and 2015. What is the update on the bio-tech rice and are there chances that this will cut the fortunes spent on the importation?
It will definitely curb the high rate of importation of rice. There is an experimental seed of GM rice from nitrogen use efficient, water and salt tolerant. That means you use less nitrogen fertilizer for it. If that is successful, such crop will preserve the ozone layer and address climate change. The farmers living in drought areas can also plant it because it uses less water. The rice has not been released for commercial purposes anywhere in the world.
There are fears among stakeholders that GMO seeds cannot be replanted. What is your take on this?
Such claim is false. The seeds can be replanted, but the productivity of the seeds would drop after some time. We are not saying GMO is the solution to food shortage, but the technology is to solve problems that the conventional seeds have not been able to solve. The Federal Government is determined that Nigerians have access to food and that is the reason we are performing experiments on the initiative to avoid abuse.
Some of the fears are also attributed to the fact that the innovation had been banned in some developed nations…
(… cuts in): We should not confuse Nigerians while trying to inform them. If China, Brazil and South Africa have subscribed to GMO, why will Nigeria run away from a science that will help us in food security? We need to be creative and innovative, to run away from GMO seeds would compound and not solve our food crisis issues. It would lead to an increase for the economy and not a loss, because the farmers will make more profit from the initiative like their counterparts in Burkina Faso and Brazil.