The number of countries planting biotech crops on the continent has grown from three in 2018 to six in 2019.
Nigeria, Ethiopia, and Malawi are now part of the African countries planting Genetically Modified (GM) crops, alongside South Africa, Sudan and Swaziland, according to a report by the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA).
The ISAAA's Global Status of Commercialised Biotech crops report, launched via a webinar broadcast on Monday, said Africa doubled the number of countries planting biotech crops from three in 2018 to six in 2019, leading the progress among the regions of the world in GM crop adoption.
According to the report, the aforementioned six countries grew three major biotech crops (maize, soybean and cotton) on approximately three million hectares by the end of 2019.
It says the seventh country, Kenya, granted approval for cultivation of Bt cotton and may soon join the league of adopter nations on the continent.
"Nigeria approved commercial planting of Pod Borer-Resistant (PBR) GM cowpea, adding a new biotech crop to the global biotech basket," the report added.
PREMIUM TIMES had reported on the array of views from experts and farmers examining the positive and negative effects of adopting GM crops in Nigeria.
Some experts say Nigerian farmers are yet to fully understand the efficacy of planting GM seeds, while some believe that GM seeds might contribute to the soil toxicity already being observed in their farms alongside other complications.
What are GM crops?
Genetically modified crops (commonly referred to as GM crops) are plants used in agriculture, whose DNA has been modified using genetic engineering methods.
In most cases, the aim is to introduce a new trait to the plant which does not occur naturally in the species. Food crops for example can be genetically engineered to be resistant to certain pests, diseases, environmental conditions, reduction of spoilage, chemical treatments (e.g. resistance to a herbicide), or just to improve the nutrient profile of the crop.
Genetic modification can also be applied to non-food crops for the production of pharmaceutical agents, biofuels, and other industrially useful goods, as well as for bioremediation.
The report highlights that Africa also recorded significant progress in biotech crop research, regulation, and acceptance, as evident in Mozambique, Niger, Ghana, Rwanda, and Zambia.
According to the report, Niger became the latest country to pass their Biosafety Law, as Rwanda joined Kenya and Uganda in undertaking research into GM cassava, while Zambia approved importation of GM produce.
The report noted that Mozambique has completed an application for environmental release of biotech maize, as Ghana passed a legislative instrument that would facilitate biosafety review of GM crops for commercialisation.
The ISAAA report said many farmers in Africa have exhibited increased awareness and appreciation of biotechnology, particularly, in Kenya, where farmers expressed hope in resuming profitable cotton farming with the start of Bt cotton planting in 2020.
"Bt cotton presents me with a golden opportunity to provide for my family and secure the future of my children," Francis Apailo, a cotton farmer in western Kenya, was quoted to have said.
According to him, with more awareness about the technology, African farmers are expected to adopt biotech crops, which will impact their families and the continent at large.
Meanwhile, the report said Africa is regarded as the region with the biggest potential to benefit from biotech crop adoption because of immense challenges relating to new pests' infestation and climate change impacts.
It noted that with the addition of three African countries, the number of countries globally planting biotech crops in 2019 increased to 29 from 26 it was in 2018.
"The top five countries with the widest area of biotech crops were the USA, Brazil, Argentina, Canada, and India. With high adoption rates of principal biotech crops in these countries, approximately 1.95 billion people or 26 percent of the world reaped the benefits of biotechnology in 2019," the report said.
It stated that a total of 190.4 million hectares of biotech crops were grown in 29 countries in 2019, contributing significantly to food security, sustainability, climate change mitigation, and uplifting the livelihoods of up to 17 million biotech farmers and their families worldwide.
According to the report, double-digit growth rates in biotech crop areas were recorded in developing countries, particularly in Vietnam, the Philippines, and Colombia
In her remarks, ISAAA AfriCenter director, Margaret Karembu, said that positioning Africa as a leader rather than a follower of technology adoption will require strong political goodwill at the Africa Union level, in order to harness the creativity of her young professionals through bio-entrepreneurship growth.
"Importantly, embracing regional coalitions of the willing will accelerate this growth by optimising data sharing, expertise and other synergies across the continent," she said.
Responding to this, Rose Gidado, the Scientific Officer and Assistant Director of the National Biotechnology Development Agency (NABDA), who is also the country coordinator of the Open Forum on Agricultural Biotechnology (OFAB) in Africa, said the ISAAA report about progress being made on the planting of GM crops in Nigeria rings true.
She said two crops were approved for commercialisation in 2018 and 2019 (Bt cotton and Bt Cowpea). In 2019, Bt cotton was planted in 12 states as demonstration plots on farmers fields, and in 2020, more states joined.
"For Bt Cowpea, the year 2020 was a year of establishment of demonstration plots on farmers fields to enhance their adoption of the crop based on evidence," she said.
The demonstration plots were established in nine states, Mrs Gidado said. Each state had more than one location, and the farmers experienced bountiful harvest.
She said the planting to harvest period was 75 days and that the crop is early maturing and resilient to weather conditions, i.e climate smart.
"The average yield is 2.9-3 tonnes per hectare compared to the local variety with a yield of 350 kg/hectare," she added.
She said that Bt Cotton was in full commercialisation this year, stating that the average yield experienced by farmers is 2.5-3.5 tonnes/ hectare or more depending on farm management practices, while the yield potential is 4.1- 4.4 tonnes/ hectare.
Not pleased by this, the Director, Health of Mother Earth Foundation (HOMEF), Nnimo Bassey, when contacted by this newspaper, said this is very shameful for Nigeria.
"Instead of leading Africa to protect our biodiversity and natural varieties, it is now seen as leading in destroying what nature has given us," he said.
Mr Bassey also claimed that unfortunately Nigeria has a biotechnology agency whose job appears to be just to permit GMOs rather than regulating the entry of GMOs into Nigeria.