2018 Global Farmer Roundtable participant Onyaole Patience Koku shares her perspective on several issues below as excerpted and transcribed from a radio interview with Ag News Daily in mid-October.
Question: Tell us about the GM debate in Nigeria.
Answer: This whole discussion about GMO is only going on in the forest if you ask me. It’s way above people’s heads. It’s not in the real society per se. We’re colonized by Europe, closer to Europe and there’s a lot of anti-GM groups from Europe who can put that information out there and people can hear it. We have that whole discourse that is going on that GM is bad and the facts aren’t being put out there to say, look there’s no scientific research that says GM is bad. On the other side of the whole equation we are importing GM crops, so we’re buying from the US and South America and we are basically just not telling ourselves the truth. We’re in a country where we can’t feed ourselves so we have a lot of food shortages. Farmers put in a lot of work, but they don’t have the tools. So if you don’t have access to the right seed, you don’t get a good harvest. The national yield is still somewhere around 2 tons of corn per hectare. We went to a farm the other day (in the United States) that did 13.5 ton/hectare or 15 tons. Even in South Africa farmers are getting 15 tons and above because they’re using GM. Farmers have huge challenges with weeds in Nigeria. So you’re constantly battling with weeds. We have drought issues. Climate changes – in some parts of the country we don’t get so much rain. Some years the rain just cuts off. It starts late and cuts off early. And then more recently we got the biggest challenge that we’ve faced so far which is the fall armyworms, which came from South America and flew all the way to Africa. When we first got them we were all over the place, trying to find the solution. We sprayed all kinds of pesticides and it didn’t work. Eventually we found some controls but you have to spray – literally what we plan in a season is to be able to spray ten times.
Question: Are GM crops just widely not accepted by consumers in Africa or are they illegal to plant?
Answer: In Nigeria we have a biosafety law that recently passed that allows us to be able to grow GM in the country, so we recently commercialized Bt cotton. For us it’s just a question of time. The companies who have the technology can bring it. There’s an enabling environment. Transporting these technologies costs money, setting it up, and so on – but we’re hoping that they can move fast now that we have these pressing challenges. But then there’s some work that’s been done already by some companies. There’s a project they’re working on WEMA maize: water efficient maize for Africa that’s funded by USAID/Gates Foundation. Monsanto, now Bayer, donated the genes royalty free to the project, so that is available in about five African countries and we’re hoping it can come to Nigeria.
Question: The area where you’re farming – you’re on center pivots. Is that fairly common?
Answer: Absolutely not. People come out to our field and they’re thinking no, this isn’t right. This is not Nigeria. So we’re like over 180 million people, more than probably 80% of those are farmers and the entire farmland where I’m on is 1,880 hectares irrigated with center pivots. Most people generally have to do the regular put a pump in the ground, flood irrigate, ditch irrigate, work for hours to irrigate the field so we are blest and we are definitely not the norm. Very far from it.
Question: It sounds like you’re very interested in what’s going on globally with trade right now.
Answer: I am. I’m intrigued because I think that what is happening in the US is very similar to BREXIT. When the whole BREXIT thing came up, I was talking to a few people I know in the UK. I think that the British probably just thought oh, we’re kicking out the foreigners. They didn’t realize they were kicking themselves out basically because you wake up one day and you realize that I had a system that was working fine, why did I need to rock the boat kind of thing and it will affect me adversely. And coming to the US trade war with China. I’m like if you have farmers who are selling to China, you need to realize that. Nigeria is one country where you say we have a huge trade deficit. We’re importing basically everything down to toothpicks. So we have this huge challenge but you must realize that you have to find other ways to work around it. If your farmers were selling to China, you’re at a disadvantage because now you look at other countries who are keen to take these things from you because they are also trying to export. Everyone wants to export. I think it’s something to think about again.
Question: What are some of the trade things that are happening internationally with Nigeria?
Answer: Currently we trade with just about everybody and I think those are some of the things that I’d like to see change, that we’d have a more focused trade policy. For instance if you say that you want to diversify the economy, because we’re very oil based. And you say OK we want to get agriculture, which is currently contributing like 25% of the economy. We want to boost the things that can help, aside from oil. And you say OK but you can still import some corn. Then corn farmers have a challenge because they now have to compete. We did that before with our textile industry. The textile industry in Nigeria now is pretty much dead. Now with the Bt cotton we’re hoping we get a revolution. But you can imagine a country of over 150 million people and we all wear clothes. The base cotton that is used even for our local tie dye, is imports. That is not sustainable. I think that we have to have a more focused policy. We have to trade, but we have to have a balance, which is what I think the US is trying to do with China. But you have to realize also that you have to think it through and pick your battles. I think you’re fighting the wrong country.
Comments from her interview with Ag News Daily