Dr Rose Gidado is the Nigeria country coordinator of the Open Forum for Agricultural Biotechnology in Africa (OFAB), a platform that brings together stakeholders in biotechnology and enables interactions between scientists, journalists, the civil society, industrialists and policymakers
Tell us about the Open Forum for Agricultural Biotechnology in Africa (OFAB)?
The Open Forum for Agricultural Biotechnology in Africa (OFAB) is a platform that facilitates the sharing of scientific information and facts about agricultural biotechnology with policymakers, lawmakers, civil society, media and farmers’ groups aimed at fostering better understanding of agricultural technologies: how they work and their benefits.
This is because all scientific endeavours are aimed at addressing specific problems of the people. Until now, there has been a huge gap between the scientific community and the public; there is a gap between science and the people, even though the work of the scientists is meant to improve the livelihood of the people. So, if scientists don’t begin to sensitize the people about what they are doing in terms of their benefits to them, by the time the products are out, uptake will become a problem.
OFAB which is an initiative of the Kenya-based African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF) is aimed at bridging that gap, by bringing together stakeholders in biotechnology and enabling interactions between scientists, journalists, the civil society, industrialists, lawmakers and policy makers towards fostering better understanding of the technologies.
How far have you gone in achieving your mandate of sensitizing the public about agricultural biotechnology in Nigeria?
We have built different strategies including organizing workshops where we bring scientists developing seeds to explain the processes of developing the seeds and by so doing demystify the seeds since Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) and GM foods have been mystified in the eyes of the public who don’t really know what they are.
Some environmentalists are therefore taking advantage of that to carryout propaganda against GMs saying they cause cancer and infertility which is further confusing people. But GMs are scientific products and science is a body of facts and is evidence-based. So, discussions at such workshops, seminars and colloquiums centre on these issues.
We also organize ‘seeing is believing’ tours particularly for the media which plays a very key role in our work since whatever information you disseminate through the media is likely to have multiplier effect; the media acts as a bridge between science and the people. We therefore take them to the field were trial crops are being grown so they can see that GM crops are also natural, as they say, what you say you believe.
The only difference between GM crops and non-GM crops is the gene of interest that has been put into GM crops to make them resistant to pest and diseases, drought tolerant or nutritionally enhanced. Moreover, we produce TV and radio programmes, dramas, jingles and carryout one-on-one engagements with policymakers and lawmakers as well produce information materials including Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) for those who are able to read.
And for our farmers at the grassroots, we carry out community-level engagements where we explain to them the benefits of the seeds after which they mostly end up asking for the seeds. Farming is all about harvestable yield, moreover, global warming has brought about rise in temperature and research has shown that for every 2 degrees rise in temperature, there are seeds of rice, millet and sorghum that do not germinate.
There is also the challenge of urbanization which is taking up agricultural land as well as population growth which makes it really not easy to produce enough for our need. Nigeria’s population will be nearly 250 million by 2030, yet even now we can’t feed ourselves; we have deficits in rice, tomato and cowpea production which is being bridged by importation.
This technology gives farmers the opportunity to grow more on less land and with less farm inputs; growing crops that are resistant to pest and diseases means less pesticide usage which has both cost and health benefits since you are not sure of the health implication of the pesticides. The pesticides are also not healthy to the environment which means they can kill soil insects. This is to say the benefits of GM crops are just enormous.
Critics of GMOs argue that there is a grand agenda by Western multinational seed companies to dominate and monopolize agricultural production in Africa through GM crops. What is your response to this argument?
To me, those propagating these information thereby creating fear and confusion are enemies of food security, they are bringing in trade politics into the issue. I think the multinational companies are helping the system because governments alone cannot provide these services since they don’t have the resources, hence the involvement of the multinationals who invest a lot in research.
I am not holding brief for them but they are also providing employment to people so they are also giving back to the society; it is a win-win issue. And what we are even trying to do in Nigeria is not import transgenic seeds, rather we are trying to domesticate the technology by transferring the traits from the transgenic seeds to our own local varieties, to improve our own indigenous crops.
So, we are not depending on the multinationals for seeds, and even the hybrids seeds which don’t yield much if replanted provide value for money since they provide 3 times the yield local varieties provide. Therefore, even if the farmer is going back to buy seeds every year, the farmer is still gaining while the seed companies also gain, so it is still a win-win situation. As such farmers are happy going back to the companies to buy the seeds every year since they are sure about getting higher yield.
What about the allegations of cancer and other diseases against GM crops?
Allegation of cancer and other diseases are baseless and unscientific because these foods are rigorously tested and highly regulated; they are the most rigorously tested foods in history of mankind. The reason why they are tested and regulated is because they are transgenic i.e formed as a result of combining genes of different seeds.
It takes between 13 to 15 years to come up with a wholesome and safe GM product. The regulatory process is long because you just have to ensure they are safe. They have been in use for the past 21 to 22 years yet there is no evidence that they cause cancer. Those making allegations against GM products are just peddling rumors; their allegations are all unfounded and not based on scientific facts.
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