Despite opposition by some civic groups, the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture, IITA, said it is to carry out confined field trials, CFT, on genetically modified cassava.
In a statement sent to PREMIUM TIMES on Tuesday, the Institute said it had received permission to carry out the research in collaboration with ETHZ Plant Biotechnology Laboratory in Zurich.
It said CFT permit was issued by the National Biosafety Management Agency in accordance with the National Biosafety Agency Act 2015 and is for the period September 22, 2017 to December 31, 2018.
PREMIUM TIMES reported how an anti-GMO coalition in Nigeria condemned the permit issues by the biosafety agency saying it is harmful on the country’s food security.
“Among our concerns is the fact that the genetic engineering technique used by IITA and ETZ to product this cassava has never been approved anywhere else in the world. This effectively makes Nigeria a testing field for risky, unregulated technologies,” the opposing groups said.
The Institute, however, said the exercise was aimed at reducing starch breakdown in storage roots of cassava after pruning the shoots, prior to harvest of the crop.
A spokesperson of the Institute, Katherine Lopez, said the objective of the field trials is to obtain storage roots with lower post-harvest physiological degradation without any loss of the nutritious starch.
Cassava is an important starchy food crop in sub-Saharan Africa as well as other tropical and subtropical regions.
However, one of the challenges faced by cassava farmers is the high level of postharvest loss caused by rapid deterioration of the starch-rich roots, which occurs naturally after harvesting.
Although the post-harvest deterioration could be reduced by pruning the shoots of cassava plants without unearthing the roots, researchers say that poses a problem as the desirable starch stored in the root could be degraded by the plant after pruning, which in turn lowers the harvest yield and root quality.
To address this problem, the IITA said a research project was conceived at ETH Zurich where cassava plants using cultivar 60444 were generated using RNAi as the tool to try to reduce starch breakdown in the root after pruning of the shoots.
Ms. Lopez said extensive testing was carried out in greenhouses in Switzerland, where the plants were grown for three consecutive years.
“Our greenhouse experiments were an important first step, but they cannot substitute for genuine field conditions,” said Samuel Zeema, a professor in the institute.
“Hence, it is necessary to grow the plants in a tropical climate such as that of Nigeria. IITA is an excellently equipped and well-staffed institute at which to perform such a confined field trial.”
IITA adheres strictly to national and international biosafety standards and will ensure that these are enforced during the trials, which will be carried out within the IITA campus in Ibadan.
The research is a fact gathering process to gain fundamental knowledge about starch metabolism in the storage root and about cassava as a crop. The cassava plants from the confined field trial are not destined for the market nor for commercial development and therefore will not be consumed, the institute said. It added that according to national regulations, all plants will be destroyed within the CFT site after analysis.
As part of the experiment, regrowth of stem cuttings from the plants will also be assessed, since regrowth may also depend on starch stored in the stem.
The IITA is an institution that generates agricultural innovations to meet Africa’s most pressing challenges of hunger, malnutrition, poverty, and natural resource degradation.
Working with various partners across sub-Saharan Africa, IITA said it improves livelihoods, enhances food and nutrition security, increases employment, and preserves natural resource integrity.
IITA is a member of CGIAR, a global agriculture research partnership for a food secure future.