Will Nigeria be permitted to lead in agricultural innovation?

Nigeria is Africa’s largest economy and most populous nation. It is also a cultural leader, thanks to its enduringly popular Nollywood exports, which are viewed throughout the continent. But can Nigeria lead in science and innovation, too?

That is the question now being asked across the globe following the Nigerian government’s approval of genetically modified pest-resistant cowpea. It was a critical decision because cowpea will be the first African GM food crop developed expressly for smallholder farmers, other than GM maize being grown in South Africa.

As a result, those for and against progress in agriculture are beginning to face off in a battle that will have consequences not just in Nigeria, but in Africa as a whole. Will this innovation be permitted to proceed, and help kickstart agricultural improvement across the continent? Or will it be blocked by those who for one reason or another fear and oppose change?

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Cowpea (known as “beans” locally and black-eyed peas elsewhere in the world) is much more than just a symbol in West Africa. It is a vitally important source of affordable protein for millions of people, and thus a critical contributor to the region’s food security.

Nigeria grows an estimated 3.1 million tons of cowpea annually, more than half of the world total. Even so, the country is not self-sufficient and is forced to import an additional 500,000 tons each year to meet demand.

Very low productivity on subsistence farms is the main reason why Nigeria cannot grow enough cowpea even for its own consumption. Although lack of inputs is one factor, cowpea is also attacked by a voracious pest called the pod borer, which as the name implies bores through the pods and destroys the beans inside. This can cause losses of 80 percent or more of the crop.

Farmers have just two ways to combat pod borer infestations. The first is the current strategy of spraying pesticides widely and often in order to kill the insect, while risking environmental and health damage due to chemical contamination. Many of the pesticides employed are banned in Europe and elsewhere due to their toxicity, and pesticide residues are so high that Nigerian cowpea cannot even be exported.

The second approach is to use a resistance gene, known as Bt due to its origin in a common and harmless soil bacterium, that is inserted using genetic engineering, instead of being applied topically, as is done by organic farmers. This is the approach that has been taken by the Nigerian scientists who developed the Bt cowpea. The Bt gene has already been inserted into maize, eggplant, cotton and numerous other crops, and used safely around the world for decades.

It is estimated farmers who adopt GM Bt cowpea can dramatically reduce their use of pesticides by 50 to 80 percent less overall. This will save farmers money as well as protect the health of consumers and the integrity of the environment. In additional boost to farmers’ incomes and food security, Bt cowpea also has been shown to improve productivity by 20 percent.

However, this is where the opposition forces come in. Because Bt cowpea was developed using genetic engineering, it has been tagged a “GMO” by numerous NGOs, both in Nigeria and in neighboring countries.

These opponents are trying to block Bt cowpea from reaching farmers, even though it will mean that rural farmers remain locked in low productivity and dependent on pesticides.

It is ironic that many of these NGOs call themselves environmental groups when in this case, being anti-GMO equals being pro-pesticide. Scientists say that the use of the Bt gene has cut insecticide use by 40 percent around the world on GM crops. I cannot see why true environmentalists would oppose this progress towards more healthful and sustainable farming.

The most prevalent and worrying tactic employed by anti-GMO activists is to spread misinformation about the crop and genetic engineering generally to try and engender fear and spark public rejection. Hence, one Nigerian NGO, the Health of Mother Earth Foundation (HOMEF), spreads unfounded rumors that the introduced gene has “toxic effects on human liver cells.”

There is a worldwide scientific consensus that crops developed using genetic modification are safe for human health and the environment. This is the same degree of consensus that exists around the reality of climate change and the safety of vaccinations. Groups that deny the basic science put themselves outside the margins of mainstream discourse.

Denying the science and consensus around safety brings up an important cautionary tale in Nigeria. First in 2003, and more recently in 2017, rumours were spread against the polio vaccine, hampering the vaccination program for young children. As a result, Nigeria is one of only three countries where polio is still considered endemic. The other two are war-torn Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Many of these rumours are conspiracy theories that claim outsiders are trying to harm Nigerian children. These same themes come up often in the anti-GMO discourse, which similarly aims to prevent progress in agricultural innovation and modernisation and protect “traditional” subsistence farming. This may sound tempting, but it actually means keeping rural people in poverty.

Of course, progress has always caused opposition. The late Kenyan scholar Calestous Juma’s last book, “Innovation and its Enemies: Why people resist new technologies,” documented determined opposition to technological innovations from the printing press to mechanical refrigeration to coffee.

While those who fear innovation make a lot of noise, those who stand to gain from progress often struggle simply to be heard. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that when farmers are able to speak up they call strongly for better seeds, such as Bt cowpea, which can reduce their costs in terms of pesticide use and produce a better harvest. Chief Daniel Okafor, of the All Farmers Association of Nigeria, has been very clear that his members are ready and willing to adopt new technologies that reduce losses and increase yields.

So this is the choice that Nigeria must make. Should innovation be allowed to improve the lives of the poorest farmers? Or should uninformed fears imported from abroad be allowed to block innovation once again?

It is not just Africa, but the whole world that is watching to see how Nigeria responds.

Dr. Sarah Evanega, who is a plant biologist and director of the Alliance for Science, writes from Cornell University, New York City, USA.