Professionals say agricultural biotechnology is a master key Nigeria can use to combat food insecurity and unlock economic diversification potential, reports Associate Editor ADEKUNLE YUSUFA
Descendant of generations whose common means of livelihood is subsistence farming, Ajibola Adio, 69, knows no other means of taking better care of his large family. Daily, he and his large family, including six male grown-up children, work like Trojans on the farm to eke out an existence. Apart from the mud house that serves as a place of abode for the struggling family, there is nothing tangible the poor family can show for decades of communal hard work. Being the most common job available to rural dwellers, subsistence farming is the norm, since it helps the family produce enough calories to keep them alive.
But the Adios are not alone. For many families in Nigeria’s vast rural areas, subsistence farming remains both the main source of income and means of nurturing the household. Farming the unprofitable type open to over 60 percent of the population that ekes out a living in the rural areas is a gamble on the weather, on pest invasions, and other plant diseases that can eliminate whole crops in a jiffy.
As far as rural farmers are concerned, the growth and health of the crops are almost totally reliant on how much rain there is, and whether it spreads out during the growing season, whether it arrives just at the right time.
Subsistence farmers also cope with few effective pesticides every season, leaving them at the mercy of huge swarms of grasshoppers, blister beetles and other powerful enemies that often invade the farmlands and decimate the crops. Besides inability of subsistence agriculture to serve as a route to economic prosperity for rural dwellers, Nigeria has become a country that relies on importation to feed her population estimated to be over 200 million. According to agricultural experts, by simply deepening the use of biotechnology in Nigeria, many of the woes faced by aging farmers may disappear within a short time.
If used properly, the Director-General, National Biotechnology Development Agency (NABDA), Prof. Alex Akpa, said biotechnology could serve as a tool to reverse the country’s dependence on imported foods and curb hunger among Nigerians as well. Agricultural biotechnology is a range of tools, including traditional breeding techniques that alter living organisms or parts of organisms to make or modify products; improve plants or animals; or develop microorganisms for specific agricultural uses. In agricultural biotechnology, genetic engineering has enabled the production of crops that are able to grow in non-ideal soil or in dry conditions.
In addition, they have been engineered to be resistant to pests, which allows farmers to use less pesticide. It also represents one tool used to address some micronutrient deficiency in resource-poor countries, where staple crops have low levels of micronutrients, persistent drought, flood caused by climate change as well as pestilence which affects storage. In addition to availability of more nutritious food, Akpa believes that deploying biotechnology in agriculture will take care of farming challenges and bring about more yields to farmers. Neither America nor the United Kingdom will come here to address challenges facing our cotton, cassava, or beans for us; we have to do it ourselves. Africa must rise up to address her challenges.
COVID-19 has taught us many lessons, one of which is to look inwards and do things for ourselves so as to save our continent. It is high time we stopped importing data but begin to generate our own data to run our systems well, he said. He said this during an interactive session with science reporters in Lagos. The event was organised by the Open Forum on Agricultural Biotechnology (OFAB) to counter misinformation about genetically modified foods (GMOs) and to seek media support for agricultural biotechnology.
While seeking the support of the media in the quest to educate the public about the safety of genetically modified foods, Akpa said Nigeria, a country blessed with over 15 agricultural research institutes that have mandates to scientifically improve crops, could not continue to import food and other staples it could produce using modern techniques.
For research institutes to fulfill their mandates and contribute to the nation’s quest for self-sufficiency in food production, there must be protection from anti-technology lobbyists, he stated. Stressing that the era of hoe-and-cutlass farming is in the past, the professor of pharmaceutical microbiology and biotechnology insisted that no nation has developed without integrating science and technology into its development agenda. Nigeria must adjust to this reality, he said. The NABDA boss asked the media to always beware of misleading information by armchair critics who want the people to avoid genetically modified foods by instilling fears so that the populace can remain food insecure, poor, and backward.
For the research institutes to fulfill their mandates and contribute meaningfully to the nation’s quest for self-sufficiency in food production, the media must support and protect them from anti-technology lobbyists. You must be aware of misleading information and news circulated in the media by a group of arm-chair critics telling the people to avoid genetically modified food (GMO): that they can cause cancer, make humans grow horns, can kill, among other (lies).The aim of all this campaign is to instill fears in our farmers and populace and ensure that our farmers and people remain food insecure, poor and backward.
As media practitioners, I urge you to look at the ages of our farmers, mostly in their 60s. How long are we going to rely on this age group and how can we get the younger ones interested in farming’As a nation, we must be conscious of our environment. We are acknowledged as the most travelled people in the world, superstore have started establishing their chains in the country. All the advanced countries of the world today have been eating GMOs for over two decades and there has not been any report of adverse impact on health or environment, he said.
The Country Coordinator of OFAB Nigeria and Deputy Director at NABDA, Dr. Rose Gidado, said with biotechnology, the world now understands the chemical and physical basis of life, as well as matters of molecular basis of creation.Speaking on Overview of Biotechnology Programme in Nigeria, she described agricultural biotechnology as an area of agricultural science involving the use of scientific tools and techniques used in improving plants, animals and microorganism. Biotechnology is divided into traditional and modern. The traditional process involves fermentation and selective breeding while the modern involves tissue culture, molecular genetics, and genetic engineering. Biotechnology is applied in the agricultural, health, industry, and environmental sectors.
Crop biotechnology is one aspect of agricultural biotechnology which has been greatly developed upon in recent times, Gidado, who described Nigeria as fertile for agricultural biotechnology, said. Achieving sustainable economic development in Nigeria and Africa at large will continue to be a mirage without well-nourished and healthy people, she added. By combining different types of technology, Nigeria can deliver solutions for food security challenges, according to Gidado.We multiply the benefits when we combine solutions such as biotechnology, plant breeding, crop protection and farm management solutions to solve problems and increase efficiency, he said.
Also, the Director-General, National Biosafety Management Agency, Rufus Ebegba said Nigeria has developed a national biosafety framework to regulate the activities of modern biotechnology and its use so that they do not cause harm on human health and the environment. Fears about GMOs are unfounded because the regulatory environment in Nigeria is tight enough to protect the national interest of the country, he said.He said the assessment is carried out by identifying the gene used to modify the crop, the source of it, and how safe the organism has been over the years for consumption and the environment.
In his paper, Key progress in Biotechnology Regulation and Approvals in Nigeria, Ebegba stated that although modern biotechnology and GMOs are intended to be beneficial to society, there are socio-economic and safety concerns over the potential risks they may pose to human health and the environment.
It is in addressing the afore-mentioned concerns that biosafety has become a means of ensuring socioeconomic and environmental security, he said. He described biosafety as the application of laws, knowledge, techniques, equipment and procedures to eliminate risks modern biotechnology might pose on the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity, taking into account risks to human health and the environment. Among resource persons, who spoke in a similar vein, included Aghan Daniel, Communication and Advocacy Officer at the African Seed Trade Association (AFSTA). He explained why reporters must work with seed companies to sensitise the masses on the benefits of GMOs. According to him, reporters must look at the bigger picture by helping to write in a way that portrays the methodology of introduction of GMOs in Africa. The writing that we have portrays GMO seeds are all about the terminator technology. And so, I still recommend that editors work closely with seed companies to provide them with up-to-date information on GMO seeds, he said.
Another speaker, Diran Onifade, Editor-in-Chief, Africa STI, an online newspaper focusing on science and technology, described GMO as a technology meant for good by promoters but despised by antagonists.It is science caught up in politics and now, in Nigeria, religion. Every science or technology offers benefits and risks, but opponents harp on the risks and downplay the benefits. Policy makers must weigh benefits and risks, Onifade, formerly of the Nigerian Television Authority (NTA), said.
Other speakers were Dr. Sylvester Oikeh, the Project Manager, TELA Maize, African Agricultural Technological Foundation, Nairobi, Kenya, Prof. Banji Oyelaran-Oyeyinka, Senior Special Advisor, Industrialisation, Office of the President, African Development Bank; Akin Jimoh, former Communications Officer, UNICEF Nigeria; Declan Okpaleke, former CNN African Journalist of the Year and Godwin Atser, Digital Extension & Advisory Services Specialist, International Institute for Tropical Agriculture, Ibadan.