Daniel Otunge is the project manager of the Open Forum for Agricultural Biotechnology in Africa (OFAB) who speaks about their work of raising awareness about agricultural biotechnology in Africa, including the various controversies around Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs)
OFAB is trying to change public perception of agricultural biotechnologies in Africa where there are a lot of misconceptions and controversies about GMOs. How has your job been?
It is quite difficult given the fact that there are a lot of misunderstandings, controversies and misconceptions about biotechnology especially GMOs and the fact that agricultural biotechnology is a relatively new technology in Africa as a result of which there is opposition to it by nongovernmental organisations and civil society organisations. Therefore, the work becomes even more difficult.
Some of them do not necessarily understand the science behind GMOs while others do understand but for other reasons, they choose not to support this technology which we believe – as OFAB and the African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF,) – can help our farmers address challenges such as pests, diseases, and drought and improve agricultural productivity towards making Africa food secure.
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Anti-GMO activists argue that you are only trying to promote the interests of multinational seed companies such as Monsanto, at the detriment of African indigenous seeds. What is your response to this?
First and foremost, we need to understand that the issue of African indigenous seeds does not even arise because African countries themselves have modern research facilities that are developing various varieties of seeds which are better suited to fight pests and diseases and drought, which are also higher yielding.
As such the quest to produce better seeds like the genetically modified maize and genetically modified cowpea in Nigeria, where Maruca is a very big problem in the northern region where this crop is grown, is being led by the scientists themselves at the Institute of Agricultural Research (IAR) in Zaria, Nigeria. They requested for this technology to be able to produce improved seed varieties.
Remember, even the current seeds that are being grown by farmers in Nigeria are developed by the same national agricultural research institute. The technologies we are working to get across to farmers are developed through public-private partnerships; they are not being pushed by seed companies. They are developed by the national research systems of the 7 countries we work as OFAB – Nigeria, Ghana, Tanzania, Burkina Faso, Kenya and Ethiopia.
There is nothing like Monsanto, Syngenta and Bayer being involved, however, one thing we need to understand is that the same multinationals like Monsanto are the ones that have given their technology (free of charge) to improve our seed varieties like our 2 new Bt cotton varieties that have been approved for commercial use in Nigeria and Cowpea, which the multinationals are not interested in.
So, it is a very mutually beneficial partnership that we have but what is most important to us is that our farmers are aided to get the best technology available and which is being used by farmers all over the world.
The critics of GMOs argue they have negative health and environmental effects, what do you have to say about this?
I will say that GM crops are being approved worldwide for commercial release, on a case by case basis, to help farmers fight pests and diseases, drought and soil infertility and also to increase the nutritional content of those varieties. They have to go through rigorous regulatory processes before any of them is approved. For example, the research for Bt cowpea that is being developed in Nigeria started 10 years ago and up to now it has not been released.
At each and every stage of the research and during every planting season, they plant and test it to determine if it will have negative effect on livestock, human beings and beneficial insects such as bees. And it is only when the regulator, the National Biotechnology Development Agency (NABDA), is sure that there is no health or environmental risk associated with the variety that it will be released.
And even when they finally approve it after 10 years of research, risk assessment and regulatory processes it has to go through the seed council and varieties release committee which also subjects it to further tests by giving it to farmers and comparing the new varieties with existing varieties. They ask the farmers to choose between the two through the national performance trials. If the preference shows that it has beneficial aspects over and above the variety that is available in the market then it will be finally commercialized.
You can now see the process of developing a GM crop, if there is any health risk it will be removed, if there is also allergy there is a scientific process to remove it. For example, many people are allergic to groundnut and through genetic engineering, scientists can trace the gene that causes that particular allergy and remove it and when they do so even groundnuts will be safer but there is no GM groundnuts being worked upon at the moment.
However, what I can say and assure of is that any variety of crop that will be released in Nigeria, Kenya, and Ghana including South Africa where they have grown GMOs for years, go through rigorous processes. Moreover, there are a number of researches by international organisations such as the World Health Organisation (WHO), Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) and European Food Safety Reporterity which have all conducted researches dating back to 20 years but none of them have found any health risk associated with GM crops.
Your job is quite a herculean one; do you think OFAB is succeeding in tersm of acheving its mission in the last 12 years?
Yes, we are succeeding; we are beginning to see very positive trends in the policy front, a number of policymakers and governments of countries are now speaking more positively about biotechnology. They are putting up laws and regulations that are science and evidence-based which shows we are moving in the right direction. We are also seeing a number of countries beginning to give regulatory approval for environmental or commercial release of GM crops.
I can give two recent examples, one is Nigeria which has given approval for 2 varieties of Bt cotton to help farmers fight the impact of pests; if farmers are not using Bt cotton they will have to spray their cotton 13 to 16 times which has a lot of effect on them because it is very costly.
Because of bollworms many farmers in Nigeria’s cotton growing belt have abandoned the growing of cotton which has affected the textile industry and is consequently affecting the economy and job creation. Therefore, Bt cotton will help reduce cost by reducing the number of sprays from 13 to just 2, it has a lot of benefits and we are seeing its impact in Ethiopia which has also approved the commercial use of 2 Bt cotton varieties to fight bollworms and revive its textile industry.
My country, Kenya has also put into the national performance trial the Bt cotton varieties because cotton production has gone down which is affecting the textile industry in Kenya. Without raw materials you cannot advance the manufacturing industry, that is why governments are seeing the need to take up these technologies to help improve productivity and above all, achieve food security.