Nigerian delegation visits Shore
CORDOVA, Md. — In the parking lot of an Eastern Shore farm stand, Obinna Chidoka, a member of the Nigerian House of Representatives, said he’d been impressed by U.S. agricultural biotechnology, particularly the advantages of genetically modified seeds.
The potential benefits to Nigerian farmers, from boosted yields to pest resistance, seemed obvious.
Fears about GMO safety also seemed overblown, Chidoka said.
“You guys haven’t died,” he said, half jokingly. “It’s not affecting you adversely.”
Chidoka was part of a delegation of Nigerian and African government officials, sponsored by the U.S. Grains Council, that toured the Eastern Shore on June 27 to observe U.S. crops and the benefits of biotechnology.
Several of those on the trip said they supported the expansion of GMO technology in Nigeria and were in the United States to see it in use so they can promote it back home.
Several genetically modified crops are undergoing government field trials in Nigeria with the goal of expanding their use across the central African nation, home to more than 180 million people, several legislators on the tour said.
“My concern is for the delegates to stand up and defend the technology (back home),” said Olalekan Akinbo, a regulator with the African Union, which includes all 55 countries across the African continent. “Using GMOs would be an advantage.”
The delegation spent the morning touring the farm of Chip Councell, a Talbot County grain producer and past chairman of the grains council. He spoke to the benefits of agricultural biotechnology, including its boosted yields and its elimination of overpowering insecticides that often killed beneficial insects and harmed the environment.
Biotechnology also plays a role in the improving health of the Chesapeake Bay, he said.
“I am convinced that this technology will solve our problems with regard to the health of the Bay,” he said.
Its financial benefits are numerous. For instance, farmers used to harvest corn at about 25 percent moisture, Councell said, requiring a drying process that could damage the end product.
Now, it’s possible, thanks to genetic intervention, to harvest the crop at 18- to 20-percent moisture, which can be dried with less heat or even natural air. Biotechnology also helps American farmers produce at a high level regardless of environmental challenges.
“In 2012, we had a serious drought in this country, but it was still the fifth-largest crop we ever produced,” Councell said.
On Councell’s farm, he said he harvests about 18 metric tons of corn per hectare. (One hectare is about 2.5 acres.)
“That’s beautiful,” one of the delegates said.
But there may be a more pressing need to make agriculture consistently profitable for Nigerian growers.
By 2030, three-quarters of the country will be youth, said Robert Ajayi Boroffice, a Nigerian senator and geneticist. The Nigerian economy has become too attached to the oil industry, which is likely to decline as consumers worldwide adopt cleaner sources of energy, he said.
Most of Nigeria’s grain is also imported. If it was grown domestically, agriculture could become another source of jobs and economic security for Nigerians — much like it used to be, Boroffice said.
“We want to revive that,” he said. “We want to go back.”
The spread of genetically modified seeds and other biotechnology in Nigeria could also inspire other African countries to follow suit, opening up new markets to U.S. agriculture, Councell said.
“They need the technology. It could help these people, U.S. interests aside,” he said. “It opens up markets instead of shutting down markets.”
The delegation was scheduled to fly later that night to St. Louis where Councell said they would tour fields planted in slightly better soil with more consistent crop yields — equal beneficiaries of biotechnology regardless.
“I wish you safe travels, and I wish your farmers back in Nigeria the best,” he said to applause.
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