While promoters of GMOs work to counter criticisms and reassure safety, our investigation finds that safety concerns are not the only challenge hindering the implementation of the new variety.
On a recent afternoon, a dozen smallholder farmers gathered at Eziokwu village in Anambra State, alongside their colleague, Emmanuel Osondu, who was billed to share his experience after participating in the genetically modified cowpea farming experiment.
Mr Osondu, an indigene of the densely populated farming community of Eziokwu in Ndikelionwu town of the South-east state, was among farmers selected from across Nigeria's 36 states and the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) to participate in the trial phase of the Pod Borer Resistant (PBR) cowpea project.
Last August, the farmers were given cowpea seeds genetically modified (GM) to resist the destructive pod-borer insect pest and improve yield to experiment on their farms.
Mr Osondu said his farm became the centre of attraction a few weeks after he planted the cowpea. "As you can see, I planted the beans at a roadside where everybody can see it," the farmer said. He was quick to point out the sharp contrast between the traditional cowpea the farmers are used to and the new variety.
"I used to spray insecticides at least five times on the normal cowpea yet the crop will still be eaten by insects before harvest. But this one I sprayed only once, and it did very well. I harvested about two months after planting and the yield was impressive.
"They gave me half a cup and I harvested three painter buckets. If I planted the same amount of normal beans, I would have harvested only one painter," the farmer said, adding that the new cowpea variety does not only look good in the eye but is also delicious to eat.
He said many farmers around the area witnessed the high performance of the crop hence the gathering that Sunday afternoon. "The rapid growth of the crop amazed everybody," he said.
"We saw it with our own eyes. The beans (BT cowpea) did very well. I would like to plant it myself," a bearded young man among the group of farmers said as others took turns to give mostly positive reviews about the Bt cowpea.
Amid the upbeat mood, there was an awkward silence when the farmers were asked what they knew about the new variety of cowpea, where it came from, and how it was engineered.
Because none of the farmers in Eziokwu had grown GM cowpea, it was difficult for them to say anything about it. Any concerns with the new technology had not yet reached them.
Pro GMOs vs Anti-GMOs
Within the past decade, the adoption of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs), commonly referred to as GM seeds by crop farmers has been a subject of debate among scientists, environmentalists and even food activists in Nigeria and globally.
The question of what role, if any, GMOs should play in helping to address a range of agriculture, nutrition, and climatic challenges in developing countries like Nigeria has been at the centre of discussions.
Concerns have been raised over the environmental and health impacts of GMOs, as well as their impact on traditional farming methods and issues around seed patents, and farmers being dependent on corporations.
Governments in developing nations are responding to those concerns in a variety of ways with some banning GMOs outright, some embracing the technology, and others attempting to find balance between the concerns and needs of all sides.
According to the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA), at least 33 major food crops have been genetically modified globally. Of these, four (maize, cowpea, cotton and soybean) have been officially approved for commercialization by the Nigerian authorities, with Nigeria listed among the six African countries leading in biotech crop adoption in the continent.
Some experts have argued that planting GM seeds will help to produce enough food for the teeming global population, hence achieving food security at a fast pace. Others have also argued that food productivity can be improved through natural methods.
In Nigeria, the debate around GM food is highly polarised, as it is elsewhere in the world, even in the U.S., where resistance has paralleled a growing demand for organic foods and clear labelling of genetically modified products.
These debates have created two distinctive divides that have come to be commonly known as pro and anti GMO groups.
The National Biotechnology Development Agency (NABDA), an agency established under Nigeria's ministry of science and technology to promote, implement, and coordinate biotechnology and GMO development - and the Open Forum on Agricultural Biotechnology in Africa (OFAB), an advocacy arm of the African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF) - are working to change the public's negative perception and increase positive awareness of GM products.
Considered as pro GMOs, the duo organises meetings and workshops between scientists, farmers, and the media.
In sharp contrast, Health of Mother Earth Foundation (HOMEF), Environmental Rights Action/Friends of the Earth Nigeria and several other civil societies who are at the forefront of criticisms against the technology for safety concerns are regarded as anti GM groups.
NABDA and OFAB would often disregard safety concerns by HOMEF and their allies for lack of scientific proof, insisting that GMOs are scientific, and research based with years of rigorous safety procedures before commercialization.
While the pro GM groups welcome Western support and believe the international partnerships serve the interests of local farmers. Anti-GM groups, however, do not trust the companies or their technology. "They are playing God. No patented seed can be compared with natural ones. This is a new form of colonisation. They want to replace our food system and culture", said Nnimmo Bassey, founder of HOMEF, the most active anti-GM group in the country.
The position of HOMEF and others is that genetic engineering is proposed mostly on myths that are readily acceptable because they claim to be scientific. These groups insist that GMOs do not necessarily yield better than natural varieties, and that they erode or diminish biodiversity due to their dominant traits.
They also argue that most of Africa's genetic modification projects are closely targeted at staple crops that are of local and international corporations and organisations. Licences for the patented genes that African scientists use to modify cowpea crops, for example, were provided royalty-free by biotech companies such as Monsanto (acquired by Bayer in 2016) -- inviting questions about whether their goals are purely humanitarian.
In 2013, a report published by the UK Guardian revealed how Monsanto sued hundreds of farmers in the U.S in attempts to protect its patent rights on GM seeds that it produces and sells.
The study outlined what it says is a concerted effort by the multinational company to dominate the seeds industry in the U.S. and prevent farmers from replanting crops they have produced from Monsanto seeds.
The report jointly produced by the Centre for Food Safety and Save Our Seeds Campaign and titled 'Seed Giants vs US Farmers' that tracked lawsuits Monsanto brought against farmers found some '142 infringement suits against 410 farmers and 56 small businesses. In total, the firm had won more than $23 million from its targets, the report said.
While promoters of GMO are working tirelessly to counter these criticisms and reassure safety, over a month-long investigation by PREMIUM TIMES on Bt cowpea farming in Nigeria shows that safety concerns are not the only challenge standing in the way of implementation of the new variety. Poor awareness of GMO among not just lay people but even many informed Nigerians fuels scepticism which is making it difficult for Nigerians to make informed decisions on whether to accept or reject GM cowpea in Nigeria, our findings revealed.
Here in this rural village of Eziokwe, Mr Osondu and other poor farmers have not been following the controversies surrounding GMOs.
"All I know is they told us the beans have been treated to perform well," said Mr Osondu who admitted he does not know what it means for a crop to be genetically modified and if there are possibilities of health and environmental implications in planting such crops.
Elsewhere in Alor town of Anambra State, another farmer selected for the PBR cowpea trial project said rodents ate up her BT cowpea before she could harvest them.
"I was very happy with how the crop performed but unfortunately rats ate most of them before harvest," Eucharia Obiorah, a mother-of-five who mainly plants vegetables, said adding that the BT cowpea had no negative effect on the other crops within her farm.
After a rigorous selection process, Emmanuel Amaechi is among the two farmers that participated in the PBR cowpea project in Delta State.
Mr Amaechi farms inside the Delta Agricultural and Rural Development settlement located in Ibusa, Oshimili North LGA of the state.
The farmer explained how they were given the BT cowpea after a seminar for them to practise in their farms. He said they were told the new varieties were treated to resist pests and improve yield.
But when probed further on what he knows about GMOs, the farmer said, "I don't really know anything about all these things. I can't remember if they thought about it during the training, I honestly don't understand how they were made or where they are from."
Mr Amaechi however insisted he preferred the new variety to the old one. He said the only downside he noticed was that the BT cowpea takes longer time to cook "but the test was excellent. Many farmers in my area indicated interest in planting the GM crop."
Juliet Elumere, another farmer selected for the PBR project in Delta State seemed enchanted by the performance of the BT cowpea.
"I was given half a cup of the cowpea, but I harvested 48 cups", Juliet explained. "The seed grew very fast and looked healthy. Just as I thought, it was sweet. I prefer it to the normal one".
The farmer said she made several delicacies from the Bt Cowpea including Akara and moi moi (bean cakes) and they all turned out delicious.
One thing is common in experiences gathered from these farmers: they are open to new approaches that would minimise pests, allowing them to grow enough cowpea to feed their families with a surplus to sell even though they know little or nothing about the Bt cowpea.
Similar tales in Nigeria's South-West region
Like Mr Osondu and his co-farmers in the South-eastern region, crop farmers in Southwestern part of the country who planted the beans were enthusiastic to share their Bt cowpea farming experience with our reporter.
"Whenever we are given seeds like that, we are told it is an improved variety and we are usually trained on how to plant it so as to get the right results," Idowu kazeem, a cowpea farmer in Akindin village of Olaoluwa Local Government Area of Osun state said.
Mr Kazeem is one of several farmers selected for the trial phase of the Bt Cowpea by the Osun State Agricultural Development Programme (OSSADEP) in September last year. He farms crops such as Cassava, maize, beans among others to make ends meet.
"I planted the beans on September 4 last year and the beans produced very well," he said in Yoruba language, adding that he observed the beans from the first stage of germination until it got to its flowering, pod bearing and harvesting stages respectively.
The farmers alleged that a major motivation and excitement for them while growing the new variety of beans lies on the fact that they sprayed plots planted with pesticide only twice unlike the indigenous variety of beans they are used to which they would have to spray more than five times before they can harvest something significant from their farms.
"With this new variety given to us, I sprayed the farm only twice before harvesting, in fact, I am thinking if we don't spray the new variety at all, one will still have a good harvest," Mr Kazeem said.
After harvest, the farmer said he observed that Bt Cowpea bore more pods than the previous beans he had been planting.
"The Bt Cowpea seeds are bigger, and the pods are longer than the old variety I have been cultivating," he added, noting that he observed about 60- 50 per cent increase in yield during harvest when compared to the previous type of variety he is used to.
While the farmer believed that the beans are good for consumption, he said it does not come out well whenever it is used for bean cake (Moi-Moi).
"The peels are difficult to remove, and it makes the moi-moi turn black," Mr Kazeem said.
Sulaiman Adijat, a cassava, and beans farmer at Ileoluwa-Iwara settlement, just like Mr Kazeem, narrated a similar experience about the seeds performance she got from OSSADEP.
"The seeds sprouted well" Mrs Adijat said, explaining that it bore more pods than the type of beans she used to grow before, making other farmers ask where she got the seeds from?
"Some farmers even stole from the ones planted," she said.
However, she bemoaned the beans inability to turn brownish quickly when cooked.
Ahmad Sulaiman, another farmer at Olaoluwa Amere settlement said he was also given the seeds to plant which he did.
He said the seeds given to him were fast to germinate, and that he harvested the beans within two months.
With this, Mr Sulaiman explained that a farmer can grow the Bt Cowpea three times annually if they want to because it does not give much stress like the conventional variety they have been planting all these years.
Ogungbenro Ebenezer, a seasoned crop farmer at Iwo farm settlement in Osun state, explained that he was given the Bt cowpea seeds by OSSADEP for trial on September 7 last year.
He said the seeds were planted the day he was given, and that the first germination was observed on the third day unlike the conventional beans that would sprout after five days.
He said weed control was minimal because of the spacing adopted, ( 5m x 5m rectangular). This he said made weed control to be very effective and that he sprayed his farm with pesticide just once before harvest, which implies the degree of pest invasion was minimal.
At 35 days, Mr Ebenezer said he observed the first flowering of the beans and that at exactly two months, it was harvested.
Unlike the conventional beans whose pods do not mature uniformly, Mr Ebenezer said the Bt cowpea beans matured all at once and they were all harvested at the same day.
"At germination, I observed about 98- 99 per cent germination, the seeds were so viable," the farmer who himself is a graduate of agriculture from the Federal University of Abeokuta said.
Due to the spacing method adopted on the 200g of seeds he was given, he explained that the cost of weeding was minimal, insect pest control on the farm too was minimal, and it made the use of insecticides more efficient and effective.
Bamigbola Kehinde, OSSADEP's agric extension deputy director in Iwo, who coordinated and monitored the farmers that planted the Bt cowpea seeds in the state, said during the monitoring and evaluation phase of the crop, they noticed that it was quite different from the varieties their farmers have been planting in the area of insect infestation.
"If we don't spray the old varieties we have been planting 3-4 times, we may not be able to achieve a reasonable yield, but with the PBRC variety, even with no spraying, we achieved a good yield," the OSSADEP official said.
Online survey on perception, awareness
In the past two weeks, our researchers put questions on social media platforms including WhatsApp and Facebook asking Nigerians if they have been following the GMO debates; what they know about Bt Cowpea and whether GMO crops should be generally accepted as a solution to the country's farming challenges.
Respondents are mainly civil servants and corporate workers who can be classified as the literate public.
About 70 per cent of over 200 respondents admitted they basically have no knowledge of what GMOs are all about. "I don't even know what genetically modified crops are. I will have to google it," said Tega Okene, a loan company staff in Abuja.
"As a medical practitioner, I know nothing about this subject. Oh God!" exclaimed Bissallah Ekele, the Chief Medical Director, University of Abuja Teaching Hospital, Gwagwalada.
About 20 per cent who said they have basic information on the technology preferred natural crops and farming solutions. Their reasons differ but can be linked to rising safety concerns.
"No (GMOs should not be accepted). I think it's horrible and can be harmful to our biodiversity in the long run," Jessica Oduh, a journalist said. On the reason for her answer, she said, "Monsanto is horrid. I have read several reports linking the company's products to health and environmental hazards."
Miss Oduh's reservations for Monsanto are not unfounded. The American agro-chemical and biotechnology company (acquired by German company Bayer in 2016) has over the years been engaged in controversial high-profile lawsuits over its product's health and environmental effects.
Chinenye Nwabueze, a lecturer and media expert, believes several allegations and safety concerns about GMOs should not be treated with levity in Nigeria. "There's a sharp increase in the price of wheat and some other foodstuffs across the globe because of the Ukraine and Russia war. Both countries, which are the largest producers, stopped exporting. So, ask yourself, why can't they use GMO versions to solve the problem," he said.
The lecturer hinged his argument on the strong hostility GMOs are facing in many parts of Europe where the technology is perceived as very unfavourable due to a general lack of confidence and health concerns about the product.
Only 10 per cent of the respondents think GMOs should be accepted in Nigeria citing its usefulness in solving the country's food crisis. "Nigeria should accept GMO because it can prove food production although a lot of awareness and sensitization is needed to allay fears of safety concerns and instil confidence among about the crop", said Osita Onyeji, a Lagos-based banker.
Inadequate labelling in grocery shelves & poor awareness subsist
Despite their irreconcilable difference, pro and anti GMO groups acknowledged the poor awareness of the technology among Nigerians and inadequate shelf labelling of GM in groceries has been argued to be an infringement on people's right to know what they buy and consume.
Rose Gidado, director of OFAB agreed that there is still very little awareness on GMOs, attributing the situation to the fact that some of the farmers growing the crops are not lettered and funding challenges her organisation is facing.
"Most of them (farmers) didn't go to school, we just give them the seeds and tell them that the seeds have been improved," she explained, adding that " when you tell them GMO, they've never heard about it, so I don't know how you expect us to go about it."
Usually, she said, when you give improved seeds to farmers you don't have to feed them with all the information, let them be the one to give you the feedback.
"What we just need to do is to teach them those agronomic practices, even if you improve the seeds, if good agronomic practices are not put into use it will not work," Mrs Gidado said.
She said good farm management practices are critical that is why farmers are educated on how, when and at what stage to do what and what to achieve the best results.
However, she said the awareness level on GMOs among Nigerians is still very low because it is capital intensive.
"Being a government agency there is paucity of funds. When we go to a media house, especially television, to sponsor a programme they will say N30 million and without the media we cannot go anywhere, but we are doing our best," she said.
HOMEF on its part says it agrees on the need for Nigerians to have knowledge of GMOs to make informed choices. "For many years now, we have tried to sensitise the public of the safety concerns of GMOs and possible dangers of its introduction into our Environment and country", Mariann Bassey- Orovwuje, the Coordinator for Food Sovereignty Program for Friends of the Earth Nigeria and Africa and the Chair of the Agroecology and Land Working Group of the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa (AFSA, said.
"Whenever we carry out such awareness and sensitization workshops and visits to communities, we still hear people say they do not know what GMOs are. When it comes to BT Cowpea, I can categorically confirm that the awareness level is quite low. The terminology used 'BT Cowpea' alone is misleading. Most people don't know it is the same thing as Beans."
For Mr Bassey of HOMEF, the fact that farmers do not know what they are given to plant and GMO promoters admitting to not providing sufficient information to Nigerians should be enough reason not to allow GMOs into the country.
"Even if they go around the country and tell everybody about GM foods, when it gets to the market it will still mix up with organic products because it is almost impossible to label GMOs in Nigeria", he said.
"We are in a situation where we are ambushed to eat what we know nothing about. It is the fundamental right of a consumer to know what he or she is consuming".
Edwin Kwaku, leader of Food Sovereignty Ghana (FSG), an anti-GMO group leading Ghana's battle against approval of GMOs said the poor awareness on GMOs is deliberate.
"A lot of media has been compromised... Nigerians are tough people everywhere in the world and if they really know the dangers of GMOs and why it should be rejected, they will kick against it", he said.
NBMA: Free pass for GMOs?
Nigeria's Biosafety Management Agency - NBMA has been inundated with accusations of handing "a free pass" to western companies bringing in GMOs into the country despite safety concerns and poor awareness of the technology in the country.
The NBMA Act is defective, according to Mr. Bassey, because its governing board is filled with GMO promoters such as NABDA and the Biotechnology Society of Nigeria.
"The speed with which Nigeria is permitting GMOs is highly suspicious and offers no assurance that the government is concerned about safety and the preservation of our biodiversity", he said.
In 2016, NBMA allowed the first set of GMOs into Nigeria by issuing two permits for commercial release of GM cotton, and the confined field trial of GM maize to Monsanto.
The NBMA approved the glyphosate herbicide resistant maize despite safety concerns including the International Agency for Research on Cancer report that linked the active ingredient glyphosate to cancer.
But Monsanto had argued there's "overwhelming weight of evidence" against IARC's classification of glyphosate as a carcinogen.
Nigeria's foremost investigative newspaper, PREMIUM TIMES in its Editorial of August 29, 2016, titled, "The Growing Menace of the Monsanto-induced Pro-GMO Lobby in Nigeria", raised concerned about what it described as a determined march by Monsanto to impose GMOs into agricultural production in Nigeria.
The publication noted that Monsanto found two willing accomplices in NABDA and NBMA who are taking the lead in opening doors to GMOs.
"The Governing Board of the NBMA is composed largely of biotech promoters and Monsanto advocates. Neither farmers nor consumers are represented on the board. The present Act allows for the display and receipt of comments on GMO applications to be made within only 21 days. In the case of the approval for Monsanto's GMO cotton, the application was displayed only at Zaria and Abuja. There was no public hearing or consultation before the approval was given. The Agency was acting as empowered by the clearly deficient Act", the Editorial read.
After the approval of BT cotton, HOMEF and other anti-GMO activists sued NBMA and NABDA, losing in 2018 on technical grounds of not filing the case within stipulated time boundaries. They have since filed the case again as a fundamental rights issue.
Meanwhile, Nigeria in 2019 amended the biosafety law by expanding the scope of the NBMA Act to include evolving aspects of biotechnology such as 'gene drives, gene editing, and synthetic biology.'
Rufus Ebegba, director general of the NBMA in an interview last week said the agency has the capacity and competence to handle the advanced genetic technology, an assertion Mr Bassey of HOMEF contested. "We are still battling with ordinary GMOs, and they are given a mandate to handle advanced ones."
Mr Egbeba however urged critics to remember that his agency was not established to stop GMOs, but rather to ensure they are safe to the environment and human health.
He explained the process the Bt cowpea underwent before approval. "What we found was that it does not cause harm to health and biodiversity. It's as safe as its conventional counterparts and environmentally friendly. If they are not safe, we will not confirm them".
On the poor awareness of the technology, Mr Egbeba said Nigeria is a big country and therefore the media also have a role to play with regards to sensitization.
"You must trust your government. Those against GMOs, their minds are already fixed, that's why there is a lot of sensationalism about GMOs", the official said.
Every new technology is bound to face suspicion and concerns. But Ebegba said Nigeria shouldn't let fear keep it from taking advantage of new technologies that could benefit current and future generations, particularly when there are safety measures put in place by the government.
Bt Cowpea reignites GMO debate
After the approval of the genetically modified Bt cowpea for commercial production by the Nigerian authorities in 2019, seeds of the new variety were distributed to officials of relevant agricultural agencies across the 36 states of the country for cultivation by farmers under their supervision so as to further ascertain the efficacy of the new GM seed. But most of these farmers are not lettered to know what a GM seed is.
The approval means Nigeria became the first country to approve Bt Cowpea in west Africa, a region where beans, commonly called "a poor man's meat," is the cheapest source of protein subscribed to by many homes.
Nigeria is also the world's largest producer of cowpea but still has to import around 500,000 tonnes to meet internal demand because of the potential loss in yield as insects - specifically the Cowpea Pod Borer - destroys anywhere between 20 and 80 per cent of cowpea crops yearly.
In response, the government approved and allowed the Bt cowpea genetically modified by western scientists along plant lines to resist the Pod Borer pest.
Advocates for the technology -- which involves altering an organism's DNA against adverse conditions in ways that aren't possible through traditional breeding -- believe the new variety can solve the country's cowpea farming challenges and give farmers an additional choice about what to grow.
But the GM cowpea contains the Cry1AB gene developed by Monsanto which can potentially be toxic for human liver cells and alter immune systems of lab animals, anti-GM groups said.
In South Africa, cultivation of Monsanto's GM maize containing the same transgene was banned because of massive pest resistance and infestations, they argued.
Critics also argue that the GM cowpea risks contaminating local varieties and exposing Nigerians to avoidable risks. For them, the pesticide reduction and 20 percent yield improvements promised by the new seed do not offset what they see as the potential for new health risks. These, among other reasons, reignited protracted dispute on GMO among environmentalists in the country.
If not GMOs, what then?
"The best solution is investing in agricultural research in the country. Our governments should engage its research institutions and bodies at different locations in the country in conducting research for increased agricultural productivity and in making the research results available to farmers and other actors in the agricultural development of the states", the PREMIUM TIMES had written in its 2016 editorial.
Meanwhile, Alex Abutu who works with the AAFT argued that GMOs are not meant to be a solution for Nigeria's food challenge but a tool that can help solve the issues that conventional breeding methods cannot solve.
"Most importantly, if Nigeria fails to develop and release GM crops, she will become a dumping ground for GMOs", Mr Abutu warned.
For Mr Bassey, the solution is simply to work with Nature and not to imagine that we can successfully fight against it. Nature has been good to Nigeria. We are the centre of origin of Cowpea. To genetically engineer this crop at its centre of origin has the implication of making the natural varieties go extinct and this has global implications.