Both countries call for sub-regional framework for Biotech regulation
By Onche Odeh
Ghanaian scientists, representatives of regulatory agencies, lawmakers and other experts are in Nigeria. Their mission is to learn from Nigeria, how they were able to achieve in-country approval and subsequent release of the Pod Borer Resistant (PBR) cowpea, a Genetically Modified version of beans.
The first leg of their ‘Seeing-Is-Believing’ visit was held on Tuesday at the Stratton Hotel in Asokoro where scientists, policy makers, representatives of regulatory agencies and other stakeholders shared experiences about how Nigeria was able to achieve commercialization of PBR cowpea, after about a decade of trials and vetting processes.
The team from Ghana, led by some ranking members of their senate and lower legislative arm were later led on advocacy visit to the Minister of Agriculture and the Minister of Science, Technology and Innovation.
The Ghanaian participants would use the opportunity to study the policy, regulatory and commercialization infrastructure that Nigeria has put in place for the responsible delivery of products of agricultural biotechnology.
The Pod Borer Resistant (PBR) cowpea which has been commercialized in Nigeria is currently undergoing biosafety review in Ghana.
Speaking on the relevance of the process that led to the launching of the PBR cowpea (beans) in Nigeria, the country’s Minister of Science, Technology and Innovation, Dr. Ogbonnaya Onu said, “Nigeria has taken the bull by the horn at embracing the application of technology in our agricultural systems as this is the only way to feed our huge population.”
The PBR cowpea is the second GM crop to be approved in Nigeria, alongside Bt Cotton.
According to the minister, a third crop, the TELA Maize which is resistant to fall army worm and stem borers, as well tolerant to drought has been approved as a safe product for environmental release by the National Biosafety Management Agency (NBMA) and the National focal point and competent Authority on Biosafety in Nigeria, having undergone risk assessment for food and feed safety, environmental safety and agricultural sustainability.
“In two year-time, this crop is expected to be commercially released after national performance trials on farmers fields,” Onu disclosed in his remarks delivered at the meeting by Professor Abdullahi Mustapha, the Director General, National Biotechnology Development Agency (NABDA).
On his part the NABDA DG described the PBR Cowpea is a classic example of how technology can provide solutions to one of the major challenges confronting cowpea farming.
“For many years plant breeders tried without success to find solution to the ravaging attacks of Maruca. This technology has taken care of that and its potentials to improve other crops have started emerging. Farmers in Nigeria are excited with the performance of this new variety and giving testimonies,” Mustapha said.
While lamenting the unsavoury debates about GMOs, the NABDA DG said, “Today we are still debating on the efficacy, safety, and benefits of genetic modification, a 25-year-old technology that the inventors have moved on. we must make technology the engine room for our agricultural development. That way we can ensure that no African goes to bed hungry.”
Rose Gidado, the Nigerian coordinator of the Open Forum on Agricultural Biotechnology (OFAB) shared some of the strategies that have been used to douse the anti-GMOs voices in Nigeria with the Ghanaian team.
She said most of the activities held were aimed at correcting the misinformation on GM technology and other technologies used in agriculture by the anti-GMO crusaders.
“We were in many locations across the country talking to farmers with scientific evidence that debunked what the anti-GMOs are telling them. We followed this with ‘Eating-Is-Believing’ a public exercise where delicacies made from the PBR beans were consumed publicly by prominent members of the society and farmers. This really helped,” Gidado said.
“People have the right to know and take decisions on what they consume (GMO). But such must be based on informed knowledge,” she said.
Meanwhile, the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) has said it is to conduct impact assessment of the PBR cowpea in Nigeria.
This was disclosed by Joseph Ejima, a Research Analyst who stood in for the institute’s Country Programme Leader, Nigeria Strategy Support Programme, Kwaw Andam.
He said the randomised controlled trials will ascertain the effect of the crop on household incomes, the health effect vis a vis the use of insecticides for pest control and how it has resulted in ground water pollution, about no fewer than 1,200 farmers 30 per cent of which are females in two Nigerian states of Kwara and Adamawa.
Dr. Rufus Ebegba, The Director General of Nigeria’s National Biosafety Management Agency (NBMA) said Ghana has a lot to learn from Nigeria, saying the country has one of the best regulatory systems in the world
He said that regulation is not intended to strangulate science but to make it work.
“All GMO approved in this country are safe. We have one of the best biosafety labs that can detect the minutest transgenic,” he said.
Dr Richard Ampadu-Ameyaw, is the OFAB, Ghana Coordinator.
He said Ghana has a good lesson to learn from Nigeria, adding that Nigeria has done enough that could be used as template for regulation and speedy approval of GM products in other West African countries.
He said, Ghana has a lot to learn from Nigeria on Biotechnology, which is the reason they were in Nigeria.
“Ghana and Nigeria have the same kind of ecology so. There is a need for lot of scientific collaboration with Nigeria on this. We need to speedily get an approval for PBR in Ghana to avoid spillover from Nigeria, which is sure to happen.”
He said there is a need for an ECOWAS framework to be developed and adopted by member countries to fastrack future processes of approvals by countries.
Dr. Emmanuel Marfo, Chairman of Ghana’s Parliamentary Select Committee on Science, Technology and Innovation said Nigeria must be commended for undergoing the processes that led to the commercialization of PBR Cowpea.
He said this would help Nigeria’s GDP and the economy to grow.
According to him, Nigeria and Ghana coming together is a testimony of South-South Collaboration that is most needed at this time in Africa.
“The mindset in the past is that the best is in the west. In Africa, we have not explored the wealth of knowledge in the continent. We have a body of knowledge that if we choose to learn from ourselves, we would move faster than we have moved so far.”
He said with the kind of forum created by the African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF), more of the lawmakers, who incidentally determine the budget would be speaking for the scientist.
He lamented the fact that only South Africa has been able to commit more than 1 percent to Science and Tech as agreed by African leaders.
He said the discussions from Nigeria would be escalated to Ghana to facilitate speedy approval of the PBR Cowpea.
Ebenezer Okletey Terlarbi, a scientist and Ranking Member of Ghana’s Parliament said the Nigerian experience has charged them to push for speedy approval of the PBR Cowpea for release.
“Scientists have always been at the background while people without such knowledge are left to take the lead. This is not the case here. We need to come out of the shelves as scientists to tell our own stories. Allowing non-scientists to take the lead in debates for and against GMO will leave us with a long way to go,”he said.
He said, the visit to Nigeria is a learning process, adding “We are charged to go back. It should not take a month or two to get this approved in Ghana.”