Prof. Bamidele Ogbe Solomon, the current Director General of National Biotechnology Development Agency (NABDA), Nigeria is a Professor of Chemical Engineering. Before his appointment he was Vice-Dean, Faculty of Technology, Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, and later appointed Head, Chemical Engineering Department, Ladoke Akintola University of Technology. In this exclusive interview with the Economic Confidential, he stressed the importance of biotechnology to Nigeria's economic development. Excerpts:
EC: Can you give us an overview of National Biotechnology Development Agency?
National Biotechnology Development Agency is the sole Government parastatal that has the responsibility to promote both the application of biotechnology and protect the (R&D) agenda for the country and to ensure that biotechnology becomes a major driving instrument for national development. The agency was setup in 2001 and we started out by having our headquarters in Abuja.
EC: What are the mandates of the National Biotechnology Development Agency (NABDA)?
As you may be aware the mandate of NABDA is to coordinate, promote and regulate the development of biotechnology in the country. This is to develop an indigenous critical mass of human resources and infrastructure for biotechnology in Nigeria and develop sustainable exploitation of bioresearches for our food & Agriculture. In addition we have the mandate to develop mechanism for adequate funding of biotechnology activities through national and international funding Agencies and promote indigenous competence in the development and application of biotechnology-based products and services. The private sector too could benefit from our activities as we develop viable and commercial biotechnology and technologies through strategic investments in biotechnology R & D to support innovation and economic development.
EC: How can biotechnology address the problem of food shortage?
Despite current efforts to increase food production, hunger and food insecurity still persists. This has underscored the importance of biotechnology research. Over the years, improved crops varieties have accounted for an estimated half of agricultural productivity enhancement programmes. Agricultural biotechnology is a proven tool which, when complemented with traditional breeding and novel resource management, can increase productivity. The benefits of biotechnology include: the reduction in excessive use of pesticides and agro inputs and thus less impact on the environment, reduced impact of plant diseases pests, breeding of stress-tolerant crops that withstand vagaries of changing climate, including the enablement of diagnosis of livestock diseases and vaccines production, production of numerous crops with enhanced nutritional quality to improve the health and nutritional status of farmers and consumers. In anutshell the intractable challenges particularly in the era of food production could be overcome with the emergent technologies. We recognize the critical role of agriculture in the economy of the country as we are developing a technology for rapid multiplication of both crops and trees of economic importance.
EC: What about genetic products?
There are two levels to conceptualizing the biotechnology act; one is the high level request and two is the manpower development. What we basically do is to take our genetic resources and improve them using modern biotechnology, that is genetic engineering, we improve them to produce higher yield, have resistance to pest or have higher nutritional value. We currently have three crops which are already in place, these are; Bt cowpea (Beans), Bio-fortified Sorghum (guinea corn) and Bio-fortified cassava. These crops have been improved to basically have high availability of zinc, iron, and vitamin A which very important ingredient for good eye sight. The first set of genetically modified Guinea corn was harvested recently in the country.
EC: But there are many groups campaigning Against GM Product
the fight against Genetically Modified products started at the initial stage of its development, at that time we used a technology that led to what we call the terminator-gene. In which case you cannot re-use or re-plant the seeds in the next planting season, this is because, there was a gene that was inserted to perform this function. As a result of complaints from farmers and stakeholders, we had a meeting which is now referred to as the Katsina protocol. At the Katsina Protocol, we deliberated and agreed that we should remove that gene because it will cause problems for farmers; they will keep spending money to buy seeds every planting season, hence that terminator-gene was removed. Also, there are issues of allerginicity where people say some Genetically Modified products may cause allergy. These were screened for at every level, so no human on earth will have allergic reaction to any Genetically Modified products. These are the precautionary things that were done during biosafety screening. The major resistant we have is in Europe and it is for economic reason and issue of trade. America has adopted biotechnology with hook and sink and have not had any problem for the past one decade since they have been using it.
EC: Any records Of death?
We have not recorded any case of death from the consumption of Genetically Modified products. America has continuously consumed the product in the past decade and has not recorded any case of death. Instead, the only cases of death resulted from the consumption of Non-Genetically Modified cassava in Nigeria, where families died in Ekiti State, because the cassava was not screened.
EC: What roles is your agency playing towards economic developments?
The role of NABDA in this respect is to develop Genetically Modified products that can improve the economy of the country. For instance, let’s look at the textile industry in Nigeria today, practically speaking; all our textile mills are down. One of the major problems is the non availability of good quality cotton. The good quality cotton is now genetically modified and it is called Bt cotton. It is grown around the world, the whole of the cotton is grown in US is Bt, in China it is Bt, 80% of South African cotton is Bt, our neighboring Burkina Faso is growing it as well. India and Pakistan have gone haywire with it. The quality and consistency of the cotton is very alarming.
EC: We learn that other products could be converted to oil.
Yes. Another product of enormous economic value is soya bean. Soya bean is a source of vegetable oil or even oil that we can be use for bio-diesel that is the issue of green energy, so we can augment our diesel by growing soya beans. Soya beans is grown in Nigeria already particularly in Benue state, but there is huge ecological barn in the country where Soya beans can become a crash crop. You can have variety of soya beans that is genetically modified and round-off ready, this means that you can apply herbicide thereby reducing labour and become attractive to young people. Through biotechnology, we can have Soya beans with oil that is exactly like fish cod oil. The cod liver oil is now being contracted to farmers in Argentina; they grow it and export it to the people producing. So, you don’t have to go fishing to have fish oil.
EC: What about the demand for Cassava?
Well let us look at the issue of cassava which we consume. Cassava is a major source of Carbohydrate for Nigerian food, but there is limitation to its production; they are usually affected by a disease known as cassava mosaic. Through biotechnology we can develop species that are resistant to the African cassava mosaic. So the yield of the cassava plantation can get higher thereby we can export the excess or convert to bio-ethanol.
EC: What is the level of our food consumption?
Well the only thing I can say is that, for instance we have a shortfall in cowpea production in this country. Our consumption is 2.7 million metric tons annually and we produce 2.1 million metric tons, hence we have a shortfall. It is similar in other produce. Our consumption will continue to rise. Over $10 billion is used to import cowpea annually. So this is an issue we need to consider in order to conserve our foreign exchange. If possible we too should be able to even export. In a nutshell the nation could conserve over $10 billion through appropriate deployment of biotechnology. There is high demand for cassava from China, but right now they cannot buy at the price we produce because of low yield. So with the Chinese we are working on what we call the NC3 – Nigeria China Cassava Centre. We are exploring avenues whereby we can move Nigeria from producing cassava between 8 – 13 million metric tons to producing between 40 – 80 million metric tons. When this is done, you will be talking about several millions.
EC: Is there any progress in Medical Biotechnology?
Medical biotechnology can be used to produce diagnostic kits for malaria, HIV and so on as well as bio-informatics which is a technology-based system that enables the production of customized drugs to meet the specific needs of an individual. The environmental biotechnology can also be used to clean up the spilled oils in the Niger Delta creeks and rivers using living organisms. Nigeria is not producing any medical biotechnology innovations. When there is an outbreak of disease we don’t have the technical know-how to respond. We are developing diagnostic locally. Already we have four diagnostic kits. Three have been registered with NAFDAC. We have kits for malaria, syphilis, hepatitis B and pregnancy. The one for HIV has reached advanced level and we are working towards developing fourth generation to be able to cope. We are setting up an African centre for excellence in biopharmaceutical research. We are partnering with some overseas collaborators to develop pilot scheme and move into the private sector who will build on large scale. We are working on sickle cell anemia problems. Many Nigerians are sufferers and you know it has devastating effect as it reduces productivity and shorten lifespan. There is a technology now that could manage and cure it. Two products are now available in Nigeria. We are now going into stem cells. Many people consider the technology as controversial because they use embryonic stem cells. Now we don’t have to use embryos. The one we want to start with is bone-marrow transplant whereby you can take somebody who is SS and once there is a donor that matches perfectly it becomes a success story. If for instance the donor is AA, you turn the SS to AA. You can also turn AS to AA. We have Nigerians who have benefitted from the technology but abroad. Luckily few months ago a successful one was carried out at the University of Benin Teaching Hospital. We are working towards ensuring a dedicated centre for it as we are in contacts with reputable institutions abroad to transfer the technology to us.
EC: You were talking about Environmental biotechnology. How far have you gone on that?
In the area of environmental biotechnology, the agency is looking at desert encroachment issue. We establish a centre at the University of Maiduguri to train the manpower to assist in combating the threat. Another centre was established at University of Nigeria Nsukka on gully erosion to combat the malaise of water erosion. University of Port-Harcourt also has a centre on biodiversity that carries out researches on oil degradation and spillages.
EC: What is the fate of Biosafety bill before the National Assembly?
The biosafety bill is expected to regulate the practice of biotechnology in the country. The bio-safety bill would place Nigeria among the League of Nations, using advanced technology to boost food security and enhance professional application of biotechnology for national development. The bill seeks to set standards for the application of biotechnology in Nigeria. The bill is receiving adequate attention of the stakeholders including the legislators and the Presidency. A domestic bio-safety regime was an international requirement designed to ensure adequate level of protection in the field of safe handling, transfer and use of genetically modified organisms resulting from modern biotechnology. The bill is a tool that is intended to ensure that biotechnology is practised within the stipulation of international conventions.
EC: How does your agency provide job opportunity?
Job creation by NABDA will come by way of giving people the capacity to be able to do things on their own. It is not that we will become employer of labour. For instance, we started soya bean popularization project in Kogi State and at this point I can say that so many people have become interested in planting soya beans in Kogi State. The Agency has began to give them planting materials and they are responding rapidly. In the same way, we develop fish fingerlings with which people can start their own fish ponds. Production of soya bean cake will serve as feed for the fishery and poultry.
EC: How adequate are your funding?
The funds that government put in are variable. First, government takes complete charge of personnel; that is paying salaries of all the workers, but this will increase as we develop a critical mass. This is one of the challenges that the government has given to us; to develop a critical mass of people who can handle biotechnology, with this, perhaps government can put in less than 1 billion Naira annually. We need very huge amount to run our overhead. This will include the running of our 7 various bio-resource centres, which include; Odi, Ogbomosho, Katsina, Jalingo, Isolu, Owo and Arochukwu. Everything in these bio-resource centres are outsourced according to government regulations. Note that these are different from the centres of excellence which we also maintain. What we are getting right now is insufficient to properly coordinate our activities. Presently we get an appropriation of about 1 billion Naira annually, but we may end up getting only 20% or in some cases 50% if we push hard. We receive about 12 million Naira per month.