Nigerian farming finally has entered the 21st century. This year, at long last, we will have the opportunity to plant GMOs—and I’m ready to join the global agricultural revolution.
A decade ago, I knew next to nothing about GMOs. We didn’t grow them in Nigeria, and I wasn’t even a farmer. Instead, I bought and sold clothes, shoes, and bags. I was in the fashion industry.
Then I made what may seem like an unfashionable choice: I decided to go into agriculture. I can’t explain why. The idea came to us – I believe divinely. I’m an entrepreneur, as is my husband, and it looked like a promising economic opportunity.
First we raised chickens. Later, we shifted into crops. That’s what we do today, growing grain and seed corn on more than 500 hectares just north of Abuja, which is Nigeria’s capital city.
As a newcomer to agriculture, I had a lot to learn. But I also enjoyed an important advantage: I was able to take a fresh look at an old business. I wasn’t going to do things the way they’d always been done. I was determined to try new things and find new ways.
Yet it quickly became apparent that Nigerians have not had much of a chance to move forward into the future. We lack access to basic technologies, starting with mechanization. Manual labor dominates our farming. It keeps us stuck in the past and helps explain why African agriculture trails the rest of the world in productivity.
Even worse, though, was Nigeria’s self-defeating refusal to adopt GMOs. For years, we had imported GMOs, which means we allowed them into our food chain. And yet we wouldn’t let our own farmers plant them. We banned our farmers from growing food that we purchased from other countries.
It made no sense—and it held back the entire country. You might even say it held back all of Africa because Nigeria is a continental leader. We are home to Africa’s largest population, approaching 200 million people. Many of our neighbors look to us for leadership.
Yet on GMOs, we failed to provide it. This was a big mistake.
That’s because GMOs are safe. Scientists have studied them extensively. Farmers in other countries have grown them for a generation. They’ve sold them for just as long—and they’ve even sold them to us. But we couldn’t plant them here because our government had not approved GMOs for commercial use.
If we’re going to succeed in feeding our big and growing country, we have to give our farmers every possible tool—and that includes access to the mainstream technologies that farmers in the United States, South America, and even a few African countries have and some have taken for granted.
Now this has changed. Nigeria has adopted biosafety regulations and our farmers will soon be going into the fields with GMO cotton. Other kinds of GMOs are on the way.
They can’t show up soon enough. Every year, weeds and pests assault my crops. The fall armyworm is a special menace. We spend an enormous amount of time and resources trying to control these problems, mostly with sprays.
GMOs are the obvious solution. They provide a natural resistance, beating back the weeds and pests that reduce our yields and make farming a nonstop challenge. If we can use them in Nigeria, they will allow us to pull back on our herbicides and pesticides. We will produce more food with fewer resources.
GMOs also will deliver an important health advantage. Many smallholder farmers rely heavily on sprays, but they don’t always follow the application instructions. I see it all the time: Farmers doing their best to defend their crops but failing to defend themselves with the protective clothing (which most of them can’t afford) that they must wear when they work with these tools because it is so hot and they remove the extra layer of clothes.
Because GMOs allow farmers to reduce their dependence on sprays, they’ll also improve the health of our population.
As soon as next year, I’m hoping to grow GMOs for the first time—and I’m looking forward to seeing the benefits for my farm, my country, and my continent.
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).