Prof. Muhammad Faguji Ishiyaku is the Dean of Student Affairs of Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria and Programme Leader of Biotechnology Research Programme of the Institute of Agricultural Research (IAR) of the University. In this exclusive interview with Abdallah el-Kurebe who was at a Media Training organized by Biosciences for Farming in Africa (B4FA) at the Institute, Prof. Ishiyaku spoke on Biosafety & Biotechnology and the need for President Jonathan to expedite assent on the Biosafety Bill and other issues relating to mass food production. Excerpts:
Against Nigeria’s quest for food security, do you see any need for the application of biotechnology for mass food production?
First of all, the application of science on Agriculture is aimed at solving the problems of food security in Africa, not Nigeria alone. There is the need for Africa to keep its citizens from hunger against the ever-growing population. This is as important as keeping a standard army in any country, except if we want to lag behind.
Talking about Nigeria, for the country to attain the Agriculture Transformation Agenda, which is now being pursued, necessary steps aimed at institutionalizing biotechnology in the country must also be aggressively pursued. On the whole, I think there should be pressure on policy makers to refocus and reprioritize their area of attention, especially where food is involved.
Do you see the Agricultural Transformation Agenda (ATA) as being comprehensive enough in the absent of the Biosafety Bill?
In the first place, the researches being conducted in all our research centres on biotechnology would be useless if that law is not signed into law. We have a law that backs the conduct of research. But for commercialization purposes, we need to have an act from the National Assembly to allow for the commercialization of these products.
If the President refuses to ascent to that bill into a law, which I doubt, it means that the results of these researches would remain on the shelves of our laboratories. What we are doing is targeting the problems that our people are facing with a view to solving them.
What is your take on the reluctance of our leaders to approve the cultivation of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs)?
Our politicians should listen to the needs of the people. Until our leaders come to terms with the hunger and starvation staring us in the face, and until we see the importance of fighting this menace by creating a legal framework for commercializing agro-research breakthroughs for improved food production, all efforts by researchers to develop improved crop varieties that would aid in creating wealth and generating income for farmers in the country would come to nothing.
The African Agricultural Technology Foundation, AATF was developed under the aegis of New Partnership for African Development, NEPAD for them to become a linkage between licensed technology owners and African farmers. It is aimed for African farmers to be able to have access to licensed technologies, which are most likely generated privately or in joint partnership with the private.
But also, questions of safety of these GMOs are being asked. Some see them as harmful for mankind. Do you share this fear?
There are immense opportunities of biotechnology for the benefit of mankind. Unlike what we now have, chemicals are used to control pests and diseases of plants. These are unsafe for consumption and not environmentally friendly, aside from being expensive.
But quite oppositely, with science and technology, host resistant plants are now bred. We have worked on the genes of cowpeas, tested them and seen that they are safe. We are hopeful that the biosafety would be signed. However, more awareness, enlightenment and education of farmers and consumers should be intensified in other to achieve food security as fast as possible.
You are currently the Principal Investigator for the Development of Maruca resistant transgenic Cowpea. Why Cowpea and how far have you gone in this research?
In the first place, Cowpea has economic importance in the areas of food, fodder, soil fertility enhancement; soil erosion control, provision of employment and serves as medicine. Why Cowpea? Nigeria is both the largest producer and consumer of the product, globally.
With a national average of about 350kg per hectare, the national cowpea deficit for Nigeria is put at 500,000 tones. It is cultivated in cereal-based system and grown everywhere, mostly in the Savannahs. Cowpea is used traditionally and at low-level industrial levels.
So, which are the common diseases that attack Cowpea?
The diseases that attack cowpea include bacterial blight, dumping off, septoria leaf spot, scab, rust, ashy stem blight and aschochyta blight. There are also parasitic flowering plants like Alectra and Striga. Insect pests also serve as constraints against cowpea.