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mE GUARDIAN, Monday, March 7,2011

601

BusinessInteIView Bio-technology imperative for achieving

Solomon

PHOTOS: EMEKA ANUFORO

There have been-r:.enewed talks recently about the prospects of using biotechnology to provide access to food to the over 2.5 million Nigerians that are threatened by food insecurity. In this interview with EMEKA ANUFORO, Director-General of the National Biotechnology Technology Agency of Nigeria, Prof. Bamidele Solomon allayed the fears of Nigerians over the safety of biotechnology products. The agency has the mandate of acquiring, deploying, promoting and facilitating biotechnology in Nigeria. To Solomon, "reliable overwhelming evidence already demonstrates the benefits of biotechnology globally. The technology has the potential to improve food security in the country as it will help the country get out of being over-dependent on food importation on a perennial basis.' Excerpts.

ow can bioteChnology be applted In. solving some of the economic challenges Nlgerta faces? The al?plication of modern biotechnology, which IS an advanced aspect of biotechnology, in a integrated mUltidisciplinary manner can be a valuable tool for addressing the several challenges of the country's food production, genetic improvement of living systems crops and animals, as well as improved health management, environmental sustainability and industrial growth. Modern biotechnology has great potentials in fostering the achievement of some of the targets of government In the areas of job and wealth creation and increase in food production. A draft biosafety bill Is currently awaiting passage at the Senate. Nigeria cannot exist in isolation of the international community. Let me use this opportunity to remind all Nigerians that the international community,local modern biotechnology experts, and merchants are anxiously waiting to usher in their modern biotechnology products.. Let me also assure that notwithstanding the above, Nigeria would not serve as ground for unregulated modern biotechnology products, but shall treat all cases in line

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with national and international standards and regulations. Based on the understanding of DNA, scientists have developed solutions to increasing agricultural productivity starting from the ability to work with such characteristics very precisely. Biotechnolog;y enhances breeders' ability to make improvement in crops and livestock. It also enables improvements that are not possible with traditional cross with related species alone. The first step in assessing the usefulness of this new technology to agriculture for instance, is to identify the problems that have proved intractabfe using conventional approaches. This intractable problem remains food shortages among others, which biotechnology now has prospects to remedy. The researcli in recombinant genetics and biotechnology aims to develop varieties that provide reliable high yields at the same time or lower costs by breeding-in quantities such as resistance to diseases, Realisation of pests, and stress factors. these goals would lead to tremendous gains In food production. Commercial applications of agricultural biotechnology have already produced crops such as Bt-Malze, rice, potatoes, cotton and sweet corn (sweet maize) that can protect themselves against insects; virus resistant papaya, squash and

potatoes; and herbicide- tolerant crops such as wheat, maize, sugar cane, rice, onions and

beets that allow more effective weed management. There is accumulating evidence that these modified crops can be more productive and profitable for farmers. Major reductions in costs for labour, ener~y and chemicals have been documented whIch contribute to farmers' profitability index. There is also an emerging international consensus of scientific and regulator opinion that crops derived through agricultural biotechnology are safe to eat as food and feed and beneficial to the environment. The other part is that there are varieties of soybeans in the market that have already' improved oil content. Some of them with 011 are exactly like that of the fish oil, which is used in making cod oil. You can now have the sources of" cod, which will come from soybeans oil. This means that there will be a source of two things in soybeans. One, oil for making food supplement, and the cod oil and the cake whICh can stand in for the feed industry that can be able to improve our productivity in terms of other potentials,like the poultry and so on. The aspect of this is that there can be a contract grower type of a situation. The proces-

sor will be the one that will come f(\ the farmers and say, please grow this for us. That is exactly the model in Argentina. The farmers grow the soyabeans with that par-, ticular property and people will buy. That will provide them ready market and we will be able to use already abandoned lands, especially as the crops don't require too much fertiliser because they are leguminous, they fix nitrogen into the soil and make it richer when you plant them year in and year out. In the area of aquaculture, we have been working steadily with the National Fresh Water Research Institute to see the development of new species of fish and particularly to get tilapia, either it is all male or all female tilapia, that will translate into giant tilapia. Currently, the agency is supporting a Nigerian in Israel and he is coming down with the technology before the end of this year. Once he returns, we will be able to put model of such even in our permanent site. Beyond that, there is this collaboration between our agency and the National Institute on Oceanography and Marine Research in Lagos on the canning of fish. We want to develop canned fish with the Nigerian taste. Tlie way we cook is different


1HE GUARDIAN.MOI).da)lMarch 7.;aon路

BUSINEssl61

Businesslnterview food security in Nigeria, says Solomon ~..

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from how the white man does. We can formulate different tomato sauce to appeal to us. We also have other activities in the area of agriculture that are being supported by the World Bank through its STEP-B project on the fruit juice concentrates project. I want us to note that we are in a tropical country, and yet only very small amount of the juice we drink is produced in this country. It is good that government has made some progress in the area of banning the importation of juice, but no ban is made on the importation of the concentrates. So all the companies, Chivita and so on, import concen trates and come and mix with water. Funman is the only company that is trying to do some direct production here. What we are trying to do now, is working with STEP-B, Funman, the Raw Materials Research and Development Council to develop this sector. I think by now they should be in Ibadan to plan how we are going to develop a factory for the production of planting materials. What part would the blo safety bill that Is stili pending at the Senate piay In all these? Thebiosafety bill is very important thing to promote technological and material transfer for research collaborations and commercialisation in biotechnology. It will regulate the safe application of biotechnology to harness benefits in the fields of agriculture, medical, environmental sustainability and industrial growth. It will also help protect humans, biological diversity and the environment from potential risks associated with genetically modified organisms. With the bill, one will be able to bring in biotechnology (BT) cotton, improved soyabeans varieties, bring in already improved paw-paw that is resistant to certain things. There is already improved tomato that does not rot. Post-harvest lost is the major problem to us. Once the biosafety bill is passed, even you can form a company that can grow and collaborate with anybody that you want, that has the technology in the world and say I want to collaborate with you. But there is a clearing house; you don't just bring in technology through the back door, you have to applY through this agency that is going to come as a result of the passage of this bill. That way, there will be new companies, therefore new jobs. The companies that are out there can now come into Nigeria, being a tropical country. We have one of the largest arable lands, when you look at it in terms of the ability to grow crops, availability of water, either surface or underground, so we can farm in different parts of this country that is sustainable. We can call on these people to come and grow various crops in our country so that investments will thrive, then there will be money for research and development, because there is need to do research in the country. So companies such as Monsanto, which is the world leader in all of these would come in. We cannot push them aside when they want to come in. We have seen their facilities. They have invested billions, trillions and are richer than governments and they are willing to come to Nigeria as they have gone to Burkina Faso. They are now in Kenya and in South Africa. We will also be able to bring in crops that are water efficient, like maize for Africa. Can you cite few countries that have passed their own blosafety bill and Impacts such have on their respective economies? I just mentioned Burkina Faso. They have commercialised the growth of BT Cotton. In fact a team from so many African countries visited the place and were amazed with what they saw. Egypt is another country that is already breeding BT maize. Egypt cannot play with their crops, because they have only the Nile. In fact they said if they have rain seven times in a year, it is even too much, so their major source of water for planting is irrigation. They have commercialised the issue of BT maize and rice to solve the issue of food shortage. In SouthAfrica, 70 per cent of cotton grown in the country is BT cotton. Their maize is also BT maize. If you go into Argentina and even Brazil, their farmers are seriously engaging in a lot of cassava and BT cotton and In the Philippines, is the same thing. I will not talk

of the United States, which is the father of biotech. But Europe has found out that they cannot stand on the fence. The Europeans at the beginning did not want to join, but it is clear that the Europeans are the biggest importers of genetically modified crops. Just last year, they approved the;cultivation of what they called genetically modified potatoes. I want to point out some significant things in the adoption of this technology. When we were very young, what we were hearing was the issue of deaths established in India and China, but that has been phased out now, because of their ability to produce food sustainable for the whole world. So, despite the large population in China, they are able to stay out of hunger. What Is the main reason for the delay In the passage of this bill In Nigeria. As it is, what has affected the biosafety has been the fact that it came as an offer. The issue of biosafety depends solely on the Ministry of Environment. That is the focal point for the biosafety bill. There is a biosafety desk that is located in the department of wild life and forest, but it is not getting attention in that place. No fund is allocated to it to do anything. Some civil society organlsatfons have been raising alarm on the possible dangers In the application of biotechnology In Nigeria. What Is your reaction to this? The Environmental Right Action, an international NGO, is fighting the passage of this bill, claiming that it has not been subjected to public hearing. If they are saying that, then they are not being fair to the National Biotechnology Development Agency and all the other stakeholders. On December g, 2009, there was a public hearing in which they were invited to make submissions. We have the video and documentary on all these. Of course they have their own reservation but they are just a fraction of the population. The majority of Nigerians' opinion is what we are talking about. It is not just one group. We are not here to convince the Environmental Right Action group alone. As I said, our role in the agency is to promote biotechnology, not to regulate it. I am not going to compromise myself by having the two put together. There will be a different independent agency that would do this when the law is passed. We are not afraid that biotechnology should be regulated, and that is the reason we are saying, let it be somewhere, so that if you see anything wrong in any situation, they can stop it. That is what is being done in the United States of America and elsewhere. Biotechnology and any technology at all can be used to inflict injury, but there are ethics and regulation towards its usage. For example, we are not saying that during genetic transmission, there will be no new protein that would be formed, but any new protein that will be formed will be identified. There are procedures to find out any ofthese, any link to any allergy in anybody. Once there is any link at all, that is the end of that particular research. We are not saying that we are going to manage it. Even in the natural condition, there are crops that people have allergies to, but we have not banned them. There are some people who cannot tolerate simple groundnut. I have seen a boy who ate ground nut in U.S. and died, and it was not genetically modified. There are certain things that people react to. So once you are looking for genes, even to cook, once there is history that anybody has reacted to any thing from that particular product, that gene will never be used. So in the documentation that is containing the biosafety bill, they will ask, where is the source, where is the donor, where is the vector. They must go into the anatomy of the process and be convinced about it. This is liecause they have to be proven before you can be allowed to do confirmed field trail. This is where you are going to convince us that even what you are claiming is actually happening. So, there are many of these things that were considered. The issue of the bill is not just going to be the issue of biotech, but even disapprove false claim that will come later. You have to prove, it is not just enough to come up with a claim, you have to prove it, so that is the clearing house. The major .danger actually, which the Environmental Right Action does not understand is that Nigerians travel a lot. We are everywhere in the world. We open our eyes when we travel. If we see any good thing, we will find a way to bring them home. It may not be through necessary conventional channef. If I see good maize in Amedca, I will bring it home and plant it at the back of my yard. When my neighbors see it and like it, they will take and it will continue to circu.Jate round. The bill is there to ensure that whatever we are taking will be safe.

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Let me use this opportunity to remind all Nigerians that the international. community, local modem biotechnology experts and merchants are anxiously waiting to usher in their modem biotechnology products. Let me also assure that notwithstanding the above. Nigeria would not selVe as ground for unregulated modem biotechnology products, but shall treat all cases in line with national and international standards and regulations,

Post-halVest losses remain the major problem to us. Once the biosafety bill is passed, even you can form a company that can grow and collaborate with anybody that you want, that has the technology in the world and say I want to collaborate with you.

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Egypt is another country that is already breeding BT maize. Egyptians cannot play with their crops, because they have only the Nile. In fact, they said if they have rain seven times in a year. it is even too much, so their major source of water for planting is irrigation, They have commercialised the issue of BT maize and rice to solve the issue of food shortage,


THE GUARDIAN, 07 MARCH, 2011