As an Assistant Director and head of the cassava breeding team at the National Root Crops Research Institute, Umudike, Chiedozie Egesi has led efforts at developing and releasing to farmers improved varieties of cassava including pro-vitamin A cassava. His research activities involve the use of cross-cutting biotechnology tools in the genetic improvement of cassava including transgenic technologies. Chiedozie supports several African NARS cassava breeding programs in developing adaptive breeding schemes. He worked previously as a university teacher and a yam breeder and has participated in the development of several yam varieties.In this interview, he talks about the various research works his team has carried out on cassava, GMOs and the need for bio-safety law in Nigeria.
By Jimoh Babatunde
On his works on cassava Over the years, the National Root Crops Research Institute, Umudike has been known for genetic improvement of cassava varieties and we developed nearly 50 cassava varieties in the last 30 years or so. So my work in nearly 15 years at the institute has been to develop improved cassava varieties and focussing on certain traits like diseases resistance, virus diseases in cassava and breeding for resistance to certain diseases. We have recorded significant success in that area, but most importantly, in recent times is the pro-vitamin A cassava variety that we have released to farmers. Since 2011, we released three vitamin A cassava varieties, but this year’s June, we released additional three that have more vitamin A content than the previously released ones. So overall, we have six vitamin A cassava varieties.
On the reception by farmers to the cassava varieties
If you develop new cassava varieties and they don’t get to farmers, then the whole efforts is useless. So having that in mind, what we did was to ensure that farmers get the various varieties we released, in a pragmatic way. What we did between 2012 and the end of 2013, we reached 300, 000 farmers with the vitamin A cassava varieties. We go to communities where we identify poor farmers, people who actually need the vitamin A varieties. Each farming household receive at least two varieties out of the three.
If farmers are paying for the supplies and if they can replant the stem the following year
Due to the nature of the organisation we are working with, National Root Crop Research Institute, which is a public organization, we are also working with another organization called HarvestPlus, and IITA, Ibadan. The three organisations are working together to ensure that farmers receive the new cassava varieties. So, the materials are given to farmers free, because we want to see a change in their lives and the lives of poor people. If you plant 25cm of the improved stem this year, if you plant one stick of 25cm of this year we expect you to get at least a minimum of eight sticks from it next year. That is how we have been giving it to people. We expect you to replant so that you multiply it and our target is to increase the hectare of cultivated land with vitamin A cassava.
On the response of farmers
Everybody is so excited. In fact we have more demand than we can meet. What the farmers have done is that some have grown the new varieties and some have started eating it. Of course, before we released them we tested them with farmers , we got good feed back from them, and so we have seen that farmers love it, the records are there because it gives good garri products, it gives good fufu products and it is so innovative with the yellow colour. It looks like custard when you prepare fufu with it.
In improving the cassava varieties, are we talking about GMO here?
The vitamin A variety that we are growing now is not GMO, it is conventionally bred, and it is through what you call recurrent selections. We will breed and breed again. Over a period of ten years, we were able to get to this level and we are even having more in the pipeline with higher vitamin A content and they are not all GMOs, but we have research on vitamin A cassava GMO. But it is not only vitamin A, but with iron and we are not very close to giving it to farmers now, because we don’t even have a bio-safety law yet in the country that will permit us to do that . The national guidelines in place allow us to do research and destroy it thereafter. So for now, there is no cassava GMO being grown in Nigeria. We are very hopeful that the biosafety law will be passed and, when that happens, it will allow us to do more trials, because now we are not even allowed to do public trials. So, by the time we have a biosafety law in place, we will be able to do trials with the vitamin A combined with iron or other essential nutrients the body needs, especially for children under five, pregnant women and even old people. Everybody needs this but it is more important in children, because anything that happens to them before the age of two, if they have shortage of vitamin A, the effect is irreversible. Even if you start giving it to them in later years, it will not change their lives any more. That is why our work is very important.
On his stance on GMO debates in Nigeria
I don’t know if there is a debate or if there is a vested interest of some people, but, to me, GMO is not anything than a tool that we can use in the improvement of plant varieties or animal varieties.
So GM is a science, it is a tool; it helps you do something differently, it is something that is proven and that has been used and is routinely used elsewhere. In Burkina Faso, BT cotton is GM and they have been growing it; instead of getting poor, the farmers are getting richer; instead of getting sick, they are getting healthier, they are able to take care of themselves in hospitals and send their children to good schools because they are rich. To me, we don’t have a debate on GM, what we need is a law and Nigeria begins to reap the benefits and manages the risks associated with technology. You can’t say because planes have been crashing all over the world you don’t fly again.
Biosafety law is about how we manage biotechnology. It is not that anything is wrong with biotechnology, but how do we manage the risk?
On value addition to cassava
The present government has done a lot to improve agriculture. I think we need to commend the minister, Dr. Adesina Akinwumi, for the changes he has brought to agriculture in Nigeria and using it as example for others in Africa. For cassava, a lot has been done. Many plantations have been set up, but it is not about production, it is the aftermath of production. So that is what the minister has been tackling. You know value addition involves putting the infrastructural decay of the past right. Now that the fertilizer issue is settled, planting materials handled through the Growth Enhancement Scheme (GES) working well, of course not 100%, but when you are scoring between 60 and 70% from zero, I think you have made a lot of progress. So the point is how we continue from here.
For cassava, we have factories now , for example we have a factory producing ethanol purely from cassava , we have revitalized starch factories as well as HQC flour and they are all depending on cassava and they all have farmers linked up to them. We are even doing breeding for high starch cassava varieties, we are nearing release. I think between now and 2015, we would have new high starch cassava varieties that will be released to those industries for use. As at now there is no variety that is meant to produce high starch, but we are breeding it together with IITA and we hope that by 2015, we will have one or two high starch cassava varieties.
On linking research institutes with the private sector
I think we have not done very well in linking up with the private sector and they have not done well in linking up with researchers also. The reason is that we have the mentality of government giving us money and supporting small holders, the other reason is that the research organisations we have in Nigeria are public organisations.
We are not used to doing things with the private sector, we are used to doing government things, but now we are beginning to talk with starch companies on what they need, they tell us they need varieties that produce starch of this quantity. Some companies are participating in trials for high starch varieties. We have engaged some of the private companies to ensure that they are also participating in selecting the varieties they need for their industries. That is the beginning but the road is still far. On research funding, government has been trying as they have invested heavily in cassava and other agriculture researches in recent time, but a lot of things were bad before now.
So what we have now in terms of funding is not enough. In other countries, like Thailand, I know they have a group of private sector operators called the TTAI that supports the public sector do research that suit their people. For example, the starch industries in Nigeria can meet the research institutes that develop new cassava varieties and say this is money, we want you in three or five years to give us cassava varieties that would give us this kind of result. We don’t have that happening and this is where I think Nigeria should go, so that a tomato processing factory can say we need farm so and so breeds; ditto for sugar, etc. There will be a legal agreement between the researchers and the industries on how to meet up with the set target, otherwise they pull out their money. I think we will get there. At least, PPP is working very well.