By Onyaole Patience Koku: Abuja, FCT, Nigeria
The young man was worried.
“My sister,” he wrote on Facebook, “I have read a lot of unsavory stories about GMOs and many countries with better advanced research facilities than Nigeria are banning their products.”
Then came his question: “Are we sure [GMOs are] the way forward for Nigerian agriculture?”
The answer is yes. We are sure.
In a moment, I’ll share with you how I replied to Ben. But first, it’s important to know why he looked me up on Facebook.
Ben is a friend of my younger brother at university—and like many of our fellow Nigerians, he has heard the false claim that GMOs aren’t safe. Activist groups that put politics before science have spread this damaging lie.
He’s also affected by the legacy of European colonialism in Africa. We all are: Ben and I communicated in English, for instance. Yet this influence also has its drawbacks. Europe’s unwarranted skepticism about GMOs has seeped into African public opinion.
I’ve had to think hard about GMOs because I’m a farmer who is on the front lines of food production, doing my small part to feed a nation of roughly 200 million people—the most populous country in Africa and the seventh most populous in the world.
“My brother,” I wrote back to Ben, just look at the facts. “There is NO scientific research in the world that has proven that GMOs are not safe.” The United States and Canada have adopted GMOs. So has most of South America. Several African countries also have gotten on board, including South Africa, where most of the corn is now a GMO.
Their production is booming. They have plenty to eat and export what’s left over—enormous amounts of food that feed people everywhere, including Nigeria.
That’s right. We eat safe GMOs imported from overseas, but our government hasn’t allowed its own farmers to grow these excellent crops.
Nigeria at last has started to accept agricultural biotechnology. This year, for the first time, Nigerians farmers will plant a type of GMO cotton that resists pests. This will boost domestic production, make us less reliant on foreigners, and keep our textile workers busy rather than idle.
Cotton is not a food crop, of course, but many food crops are in the GMO pipeline. A pest-resistant variety of cowpea recently received approval and could become a commercial crop later this year. In the near future, we should see improved forms of corn and soybeans enter the market as well.
These crops deliver incredible benefits. They’ll lead to better yields on farms, which means we’ll have more food available for everybody. This will keep food prices in check for ordinary consumers.
City people sometimes don’t appreciate the challenges we farmers face, from the routine problem of weeds to the more menacing threat of drought to the constant attacks of pests such as the fall armyworm.
Growing crops is a big struggle in the best of circumstances—and farmers need easy access to the best technologies. This includes GMOs, which can beat back weeds, weather, and bugs.
I’m tired of seeing Africa left behind. There’s no reason why we shouldn’t enjoy the benefits of excellent technology. Let’s catch up on GMOs and make sure we’re also ready for CRISPR and other gene-editing tools that promise even greater rewards, such as better nutrition. Rice fortified with vitamin A, for example, has the potential to prevent blindness in children. With agricultural technology, we can eat more and live healthier.
Let’s embrace this future rather than fear it.
If the Europeans want to reject GMOs, that’s their choice. They’re already well fed. They have the luxury of making decisions based on ignorance.
Things are different here. We live in another world. We need science and technology—and if we accept them, maybe the Europeans will start to look upon us with envy for once.
I was pleased to share these facts and ideas with Ben, and I think I may have helped persuade him. That’s the power of social media for farmers: When we combine a positive message based on sound science with a friendly face, we can overcome the negativity that harms agriculture.
By telling the truth about technology, we will win hearts and minds—one thumbs-up click at a time.
Ms. Onyaole Patience Koku co-founded and manages Replenish Farms where they grow mostly maize under irrigation in Nigeria. Patience is an outspoken advocate for making sure that all farmers have access to innovative technology and is a member of the Global Farmer Network (www.globalfarmernetwork.org) where this column originates.