Christian A. Fatokun: The guardian of biosafety

Fatokun
Christian Fatokun. Photo by IITA

Christian Fatokun is a plant breeder/molecular geneticist in charge of biosafety at IITA. He attended the University of Ibadan where he obtained BSc and PhD degrees in agriculture and plant breeding, respectively. He was a lecturer in plant breeding and genetics at his alma mater before joining IITA as a scientist in September 1993. He was also a postdoctoral research fellow in IITA’s farming systems program between 1976 and 1977. According to him, his active working career will end at IITA when he retires this year.

Tell R4D Review about your work.
I work on cowpea improvement. In Nigeria, we eat a lot of cowpea, a cheap source of protein. Before joining IITA I had worked on exploring the genetic potentials of wild cowpea relatives and on the genomics of cowpea. I continued research in both areas when I joined IITA. Now my research is on improving cowpea for enhanced levels of drought tolerance. Compared with many other crops, cowpea is drought tolerant. Our efforts are geared towards increasing the level of tolerance in existing improved and farmers’ varieties. The new varieties would be better adapted to drought stressed environments.

What are some of the highlights of IITA’s work on cowpea?

IITA has a global mandate to study cowpea. It has conducted research, including agronomy, pathology (bacteriology, virology, nematology, Striga and Alectra biology), entomology, physiology, microbiology, socioeconomics, technology transfer, seed storage of germplasm lines, breeding and genetics, and attempts to genetically modify the crop.

Making wide crosses, studying the genome structure, identification of markers with effects on traits of importance, and evaluating germplasm lines for their drought tolerance are all aimed at genetic improvement of cowpea.

We are now developing varieties with enhanced drought tolerance, resistance to Striga and Maruca vitrata, and possessing consumer-preferred traits, such as higher nutritional levels and easier processing. The Bacillus thuringiensis gene which was recently introduced, through bioengineering, into cowpea in Australia can be transferred, using conventional breeding techniques, to lines that are popular with farmers and consumers if the gene is found to be effective in controlling Maruca. I foresee increased research on the contribution of cowpea consumption to human health.

What impact does IITA’s work on cowpea research have on producers and consumers in Africa?
The average cowpea grain yield for Africa up to the 1990s was around 300 kg/ha. According to FAO, average cowpea grain yield for West Africa in 2006 increased from 240 kg/ha to 470 kg/ha. For Nigeria, the world’s number one producer and consumer, grain yield increased from about 470 kg/ha to 670 kg/ha. IITA research on cowpea contributed to these increases.

cowpea-plants
Cowpea. Photo by IITA

There are now new varieties that mature within 60 days from planting. These varieties suffer less damage from drought and pests than traditional varieties that remain much longer in the field before flowering and setting pods. Some improved breeding lines with resistance to field pests such as aphids and flower thrips and the parasitic weeds, Striga gesnerioides and Alectra vogelii are also available. Farmers who adopt these new improved varieties apply insecticides less often. These have reduced production cost, less damage to the environment, and provide less exposure to chemicals. Improved production practices have also increased yield. Improved dual-purpose varieties are particularly beneficial to farmers in the dry savanna regions because the haulms are a very good source of quality fodder for livestock.

What is your work philosophy?
It is to do my very best and leave the rest for others along the chain of workers. The primary school that I attended has as its motto: ”what is worth doing is worth doing well”. We were made to repeat this statement regularly.

In addition, I am convinced that the most benefit can be derived from one’s income only when one always has put in one’s best efforts. Essentially, the nature of the harvest accruing to an individual cannot be different from what has been sown.

How did you get involved in biosafety work?
I participated in the preparation of the Nigeria Biosafety Guidelines that IITA initiated in 1993 and published in 1994. Later, I was invited by the Federal Ministry of Environment to participate in preparing the National Biosafety Framework.

IITA has a biosafety containment facility built next to the biotechnology laboratory. It is at a biosafety level (BL2-P standard), which is appropriate for growing bioengineered crops. We also have a confined field trial site on campus at Ibadan that has not been used since it was constructed. IITA is therefore committed to ensuring compliance with international standards in biosafety.

What are some of the biggest constraints to the adoption of biotechnological tools or products in Africa?
The use of these relatively new tools in research in Africa is in its infancy. There is great promise in the new technology. However, the capacity to carry out research using these new tools is very limited in most African countries. The critical mass of scientists in the field is nonexistent in several African countries. In addition, the needed infrastructure is also lacking. A few countries, such as South Africa and Egypt, have been exemplary in developing scientific capacity and providing resources to support research in this field. Their farmers, both commercial and small-scale, have seen some of the benefits that the technology has to offer. Burkina Faso has recently joined these countries to commercialize a genetically modified crop. Kenya has likewise given approval for the growing of a bioengineered crop in the country.

Biosafety regulatory regimes would be needed for the technology to prosper in Africa.

Fatokun shows off cowpea plants in the screenhouse. Photo by O. Adebayo
Fatokun shows off cowpea plants in the screenhouse. Photo by IITA

What could be done to take advantage of opportunities that current agricultural technologies provide and harness them for the development of African agriculture or the improvement of food security in SSA?
Governments in Africa need to show more commitment to agriculture by addressing the problems that limit productivity. For example, crop production is mostly rainfed and this exposes crops to terminal drought, especially in the savanna region where there is large potential farmland. There are very limited irrigation facilities where year-round farming could be practiced.

Inadequate fertilizer supply to farmers is a major problem. Many of the newly developed crop varieties are responsive to good soil fertility. They cannot attain their optimum yield where soil fertility is low. There should be commitment on the part of governments to ensure availability of this important input. The private sector should be encouraged to get more involved with production, importation, and distribution of agricultural inputs.

In a nutshell, expansion of irrigation facilities, better supply of fertilizers and other needed inputs, such as improved seeds, etc., and the construction of motorable roads to ensure easy transportation of farm produce would, among others, enable farmers to take advantage of available technologies. If these and other identified problems faced by farmers could be addressed, agricultural productivity would be increased and food security ensured. When farmers come across good technologies, they embrace them.

Any lessons or insights that you want to share with colleagues?
We should see ourselves as members of a community of scientists working to solve problems of food security and poverty in Africa. There is a great need for harmoniously working together since we are all working toward the same objectives of increased food production, ensuring food security, and regeneration of income for our clientele. The Yoruba people in Southwestern Nigeria have a saying. When translated, it means that if hunger is eliminated from among the problems associated with poverty, then the burden of poverty is remarkably reduced. As IITA staff, we should always remember that our little individual contributions add up and could make a difference to many people.