Dr. Abubakar Lawali, a Plant Breeder is with the Department of Crop Science of Faculty of Agriculture, Usmanu Danfodiyo University, UDU, Sokoto. In this interview with Abdallah el-Kurebe, he spoke on plant genetics and the place of biotechnology in the provision of food security. Excerpts:
For a Nigerian traditional farmer, how would you describe plant genetics?
Plant genetics is used in agriculture to develop new and modern improved varieties through plant breeding. The varieties could be for high yield, improved mineral and vitamin content, early maturing, etc.
How would you relate the political will of Nigerian leadership to the agricultural needs of the nation?
One can conveniently say that it is not there. However, let us wait and see, perhaps with all promises made, something may come out of it.
Recently, the Global Food Security Index of the Economist Intelligence unit ranked Nigeria 80th among 105 other countries on food insecurity. What do you see as the reason for this ugly development?
It is quite unfortunate but the reasons that Nigeria is lagging behind in the provision of food security for the citizenry include inadequate funding and infrastructure for research; lack of adequate link between research and development; funding of development, where available, is not realistic or has been politicized and as such, does not reach the target farmers.
Do you see the current Nigeria's Agricultural policy as truly addressing the problem of food crisis in the country?
Theoretically it can, but it has always been the problem of implementation. You cannot transform Agriculture when the infrastructure is not there; you cannot supply inputs through cell phones in a country where there is no power and literacy level is low.
What do you see could be the role of Agricultural Biotechnology in improving food production in Nigeria and by extension, African continent?
Agricultural Biotechnology can lead to a quantum leap in food production if utilized effectively and efficiently. However, bio-safety regulations must be respected.
Biosciences for Farming in Africa, B4FA has come into the continent with a view to creating awareness on the need for governments and farmers here to wholly adopt biotechnology in order to increase food production to meet up with the over-growing population. As a plant breeder, how would you advise the FG on this?
Government can adopt biotechnology. There is no problem with that but we must, first of all, place all the bio-safety regulations in place.
Ways for improving food production are by genetically modifying plants as well as genetically engineering crops such that would be resistant to deterring factors like pests and other plant diseases. According to your research and findings, how much of these are Nigerian farmers using?
There is practically none as of now; perhaps in the near future.
If, according to your research findings, no Nigerian farmer on the average is using genetically modified plants and genetically engineered crops, how do we start as a country?
Well you see the way to start even in the countries that have started; the first thing is to put in place, the bio-safety regulations like I said earlier. What are bio-safety regulations? These are regulations to ensure that there are no unwarranted or unwanted transfers of genetic materials to sources that they are not designed for.
If this takes place, then it may lead to the creation or development of very terrible and hazardous threat to the environment. And that is why before you start; make sure that the bio-safety regulations are being observed. To my knowledge, the bio-safety law has been passed by the National Assembly but not sure if it has been assented to by Mr. President. Even if it has been assented to, what have we put in place to ensure that these things are working? If we don't ensure that they are working and we just kick-start the project, I assure you that we will be in more trouble than we expect.
You have consistently mentioned the observance of bio-safety regulations as a precondition for Nigeria's adoption of Agricultural Biotechnology. Specifically, which of these regulation are you referring to
These are regulations as to how and where you practice; how the laboratories will function and even the farmers are going to control, polling transfer and so on. So, these things have to be worked upon by a national committee of experts. We have teeming professors out there that could help in this regard. What remains is for the government to present this document for the experts to do some work on its workability.
How would you assess government's support for research and development, especially in the area of agricultural biotechnology and the application of such research results for national development?
The basic infrastructure for biotechnology is lacking in the country as well as training and retraining. More so, funding for biotechnology research is lacking. We also need to prioritize and focus on certain key crops that will immediately solve the problem of food insecurity and for economic empowerment in order to reduce poverty; provide jobs through value addition to our crops, which in turn will attract international market.
You said there is inadequate link between research and development. Can you explain this?
When you go to the universities and check the shelves of the professors and other researchers in the universities, there are a lot of researches lying with piles of dust. In advanced countries, commercial people and those in the private sector go to the universities, get the researches and mass-produce them.
That is the name; you research and develop them. This is the link between research and development. In our country, the private sector is not so organised to do that as an economic activity.