The recent approval of the Pod Borer Resistant Cowpea (popularly called beans) developed by the Institute for Agricultural Research, (IAR) Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, has continued to generate reactions, creating more anxiety than applause over the innovation.
Recall that in late January, the Federal Government through a decision document issued by the National Biosafety Management Agency (NBMA) granted permit for the environmental release of the PBR Cowpea, which has been genetically modified to resist the insect pest-Maruca Vitrata.
According to the release, “the approval means the crop is safe and posed no harm to human and the environment and can now be submitted to the National Variety Release Committee for consideration and registration as a commercial crop in Nigeria.”
Just few days after the approval, a coalition of civil society organisations (CSOs), including the Health of Mother Earth Foundation (HOMEF), and farmer groups raised alarm on its safety, thereby calling for the revocation of the permit.
They maintained that the commercial release of the GM beans would not only contaminate indigenous varieties, but also place them at risk and expose farmers and people to avoidable risks.
According to them, this cowpea containing the transgene Cry1Ab has not been approved for commercial use anywhere in the world, as the use of the Bt gene was discontinued in South Africa. “Current research has revealed that protein produced by this transgene has toxic effects on human liver cells and induces alterations in immune systems of laboratory animals.
“From the study of pollinator characteristics of the natural West African wild cowpea populations, which reveals that the Bt gene will move from the genetically-modified lines to non-modified lines of both cultivated and wild relatives, resulting in other plants gaining the resistance trait that will cause an alteration in ecological balance and present adverse effects.”
HOMEF director, Nnimmo Bassey, pointed out that “it is clearly impossible to label genetically-engineered beans and its products in Nigeria,” adding that our socio-cultural setting makes it impossible to give Nigerians the right of choice through labelling of GMOs.
But a cross section of civil society groups led by the National Biotechnology and Biosafety Consortium (NBBC), majority of whom are members of the academia and farmers have condemned the call to ban the GM beans.
They described the invention as a confirmation of “our expertise in Nigeria to be able to provide a home grown solution to our pest and diseases problems in agriculture. Those behind the call condemning the achievement of Nigerian scientists are enemies of the country who are bent on opening up the country to unregulated GMOs and chemicals so as to make farming unattractive.”
President of the NBBC, Prof. Celestine Aguoru, said with the modification of beans, just one crop has brought so many benefits to the country.
He listed such benefits to include: reduction in the use of dangerous chemicals, protection of Nigeria’s position as the largest producer of beans, reduction in the spending of Nigeria’s foreign exchange in the purchase of over 500,000 tons of beans annually from other countries. He said farmers can now heave a sigh of relief from chemicals, which they have to spray about 10 times for each beans season and that Nigeria is going to save a lot of foreign exchange used in the importation of chemicals.
According to the Professor of Plant Science and Biotechnology, other benefits include the fact that farmers’ health, water bodies across the country and the environment will no longer suffer extreme pollution from the chemicals used by farmers to keep Maruca at bay and that the younger generation will now be attracted to farming, knowing that a bumper harvest is guaranteed.
“Today, beans from Nigeria are not accepted at the international market due to heavy use of chemical on farms and in storage. This development should worry any right thinking Nigerian, but some who have constituted themselves into perpetual critics see nothing bad in that, they want government to ban the GM beans.”
National Coordinator, Real Life Global Humanitarian Foundation, Engr. Akinsoji Akinsola, stated that as responsible civil society groups they are in support of any meaningful technology that will lessen the burden of stress farmers go through.
Akinsola, the coordinator of over 76 NGOs said that the only way to make farming profitable in the country is to introduce technologies. He hailed the scientists at IAR, ABU.