CENTRE FOR AGROCHEMICAL TECHNOLOGY AND ENVIRONMENTAL RESEARCH (CATER)
1.0 BACKGROUND AND INSTITUTIONAL PROFILE
The University of Agriculture, Makurdi (UAM) is located in the Middle Belt of Nigeria, an area that has been termed the “food basket” of Nigeria because a substantial proportion of the staple food available in the country is grown in this region.
However, the full potential of this area to provide for the agricultural needs of the country has all along been grossly underutilized, mainly because current agricultural practice is still tied to the traditional modes of production which are not only labour-intensive but inherently cost-ineffective and inefficient. The institutional matrix for the diffusion of agricultural technologies is based on an inherited paradigm for agricultural research, training and extension from the colonial Nigerian past, which, in the light of its failure to meet the challenge of providing food security for the Nigerian nation, is considered grossly inadequate.
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In recognition of this inadequacy, three Universities of Agriculture (located in Makurdi, Benue State (FUAM), Abeokuta, Ogun State (FUNAAB) and Umudike, Abia State (MOUAU)), were established by the Federal Government of Nigeria (FGN), beginning in 1988 with FUAM and FUNAAB. This paradigm shift in line institutionalization was intended to address the problems facing Nigerian agriculture, by providing manpower specifically trained to be practical farmers, as well as evolving lasting solutions to farmers’ problems. Typically, these range from poor soil fertility and low-yielding varieties of crops and animals, through to ravages of pests on the field, post-harvest losses that occur due to poor storage, and inadequate processing technologies. FUAM has, in all of its nearly twenty years of existence, sought to address this national concern through its various Colleges and Centres, with the philosophy of multi-disciplinary, commodity-based, problem-solving research.
The idea for the establishment of the Centre For Agrochemical Technology & Environmental Research (CATER) was developed from an initiative taken in 1993 by Professor Ikenna Onyido, Professor of Chemistry and then Deputy Vice-Chancellor of FUAM, based a long-standing scientific collaboration between him and two internationally acclaimed scientists in the Department of Chemistry, Queen’s University, Kingston, Canada, namely, Professors Erwin Buncel and Gary W. van Loon. Initial funding of Cdn$800,000.00 for the establishment of CATER, dedicated exclusively to manpower development and provision of critical laboratory equipment, was provided by the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA). CATER is now a full-fledged independent training, research and outreach facility within UAM which works co-operatively with other Colleges and Centres in the development and propagation of new and appropriate technologies in agriculture in Nigeria.
Modern (scientific) agriculture involves high inputs not only in terms of machinery and financial credit but also in agrochemicals like fertilizers, pesticides, plant-growth regulators, food preservatives, etc. The present scenario is one in which local farmers are actively encouraged to use agrochemicals which, because they are largely imported into the country, are often difficult to procure. Hence, there is the need to explore the sourcing of these inputs locally. There is also the compelling need to be concerned from the onset, with both short-term and long-term effects of the use of these chemicals on the environment. At present, there is no meaningful database against which future changes in the environment resulting from the extensive and intensive use of agrochemicals can be measured. An evident risk, therefore, is that long-term agricultural productivity may be impaired by and mortgaged to short-term gains in the volume of food production, resulting from the pressing need to improve the situation in Nigeria without taking precautions against environmental degradation.
These issues bring into sharp focus the urgent imperative to take immediate steps to ensure evolution of agricultural practices that are sustainable, in the sense that the milieu in which these practices operate remains largely unchanged. This can be achieved, in part, by instituting a mechanism for consistent study and monitoring of existing technologies with a view to determining and documenting their environmental consequences.
Parallel to the above-stated concerns and needs is the issue of environmentally safe and friendly agrochemicals. These concerns provide the impetus for the search for safer pesticides, plant-growth substances, food preservatives, etc. from natural sources, and their possible chemical synthesis.
The foregoing constitutes the rationale for the establishment of CATER, which is organised to evolve scientific, technical and instrumental capabilities within FUAM to undertake the functions discussed above, which are important components of a modern sustainable agricultural delivery system.
Against this backdrop, CATER has the mandate to:
(a) Undertake research in agrochemicals (fertilizers, pesticides primarily but will include plant-growth hormones, food preservatives, etc.) and their interactions with the natural environment as well as the implications of their use. This should assist in the evolution and evaluation of strategies for anticipating and enhancing the prospects for sustainable agriculture;
(b) Undertake research into the discovery of new materials for pest control, especially from the abundant natural resources with which Nigeria is endowed, with a view to developing safer and environmentally friendly products. In this regard, it is noteworthy that an area of emphasis is the conduct of investigations into effective traditional methods of pest control, with a view to rationalizing and understanding their scientific basis and fully exploiting the same;
(c) Undertake outreach activities, to include training workshops, seminars, radio and television talks and production of simple literature in English and other languages in the immediate catchment area on the proper, timely, and safe use and handling agrochemicals; and
(d) Develop and deliver curricula in environmental science at the undergraduate and postgraduate levels.
Within the context of its institutional mandate spelt out above, CATER has the following specific objectives:
(a) Development and sustenance of analytical techniques and protocols to monitor the terrestrial, aquatic and atmospheric environments for pesticide and other agrochemical residues as well as other pollutants derived from agricultural and industrial activities.
(b) Development and maintenance of low-level radiochemical facilities for tracer studies necessary for the assay of pesticide and other agrochemical residues in environmental media, as well as in nutritional and metabolic studies that are important in the development and evaluation of diets and food processing technologies.
(c) Manpower development and capacity building: the Centre is to devote considerable and continuous attention to training of manpower not only to run facilities in (a) and (b) above, but to form a core of well-trained specialists that would ensure that CATER remains an effective resource-base for Nigeria and the entire sub-region.
The activities of CATER are organised under four main headings:
(a)Agrochemical Residue Studies
(i) Development and applications of analytical techniques and methodologies for the determination of pesticide and other agrochemical residues in the soil, air and water, including the monitoring of surface and ground water contamination.
(ii) Investigations of the fate of agrochemicals in specific environments, especially in the Middle Belt area, bearing in mind that processes which determine stability, retention and degradation of particular chemicals are highly site-specific, depending on factors like soil-type, rainfall, vegetation, temperature, etc.
(iii) Chemical determination of organic matter accumulation and decomposition as an aid to designing and developing truly sustainable systems, i.e. systems that are productive and efficient and which do not generate undesirable environmental side effects.
(b) Materials and process development
Screening of plants chemical substances for their potency as pesticides, plant growth substances, and food preservatives (a vast store of traditional knowledge already exists in this context) and optimization and chemical synthesis of identified chemical substances.
(c)Radiochemistry (a long-term activity)
Development of training programmes and infrastructural facilities in radiochemical tracer and measurement techniques. Labelling of agrochemicals and monitoring their fate, including degradation mechanisms, in the environment.
(d) Development of novel and environmentally friendly pesticide formulations
(e) Outreach programme
Organisation of training courses, workshops, seminars etc. for extension workers and local farmers on safe and proper use and handling of agrochemicals, especially fertilizers and pesticides, and their effects on the environment. Mass education programmes involving radio and television. Publication of simple literature on agrochemicals, with translations into the local languages, for mass circulation.
The critical mass of scientific manpower assembled at inception of CATER is given in the table below. These are staff, either directly under the Centre or are resident in the Colleges and Departments for their teaching functions but are expected to conduct their research and outreach activities under the auspices of CATER
The critical mass of scientific manpower assembled at inception of CATER is spread across Departments (Chemistry, Crop and Environmental Protection, Physics, Biological Sciences, Agric and Environmental Engineering, Agric Extension and Communication and Soil Science) in the University. These staff, are either directly under the Centre or are resident in the Departments indicated for their teaching functions but are expected to conduct their research and outreach activities under the auspices of CATER.
Training: Significant success has been recorded in training (short-term in order to acquire specific skills and long-term in order to acquire higher degrees) by affiliates of CATER at Queen’s University, Kingston, Canada under the CIDA/CATER programme.
Infrastructure: CATER has offices in the Ochapa Onazi Building in the South Campus Core of the University. It’s Laboratory is conjoined with the Laoratories of the Department of Chemistry in Gaius Igboeli Building pending the time when the severe resource constraints of FUAM will permit the provision of permanent structures. This is where all its high-tech equipment for research, purchased in Canada, are currently installed. This space is grossly inadequate.
The research ambition of the Centre include the following with the levels of success indicated:
Outreach: Manuscripts for radio and television programmes and for simple literature on agrochemicals usage have been in preparation since 1998, but with virtually no institutional support, these have remained archival materials. However, CATER did participate actively in reviewing UAM’s outreach programmes conducted under the auspices of the Co-operative Extension Centre (CEC). A training workshop on pesticide usage was also conducted in April 1998.
Funding: The level of funding for CATER which is determined by the regular budget of UAM is very low. In order to achieve its mandate, CATER needs to have additional sources of funding for its research and outreach activities which are capital-intensive.
Infrastructures: Proper furnishing of offices and laboratories in order to provide a conducive working environment and ensure strict safety standards is an imperative. Furthermore, a host of computing and analytical equipment is needed, as well as audio-visual aids and equipment.