To feed the growing population in Nigeria, many are advocating a change to the age-long way of cultivating and growing our food as we can’t continue to rely on the use of cutlass and hoe, but embrace science and technology. No nation has been able to develop without integrating science and technology into its development agenda and that is the path Nigeria is expected to follow now. Speaking at a one-day training organised by Open Forum on Agricultural Biotechnology, OFAB, Nigeria Chapter in Lagos recently, Professor Alex Akpa, the acting Director-General /CEO National Biotechnology Development Agency, NABDA, said the era of hoe and cutlass farming is over and we must adjust to current realities. But when technology is mentioned in an agricultural circle, what comes to mind is Biotechnology, which people see as synonymous with Genetically Modified/Engineered Organisms, GMOs. And to many, GMOs mean a different thing, depending on the information available and what the person wants to believe. While some people believe GMO food can cause cancer, make humans grow horns and can even kill, others believe if we want to be food secured we need to embrace biotechnology.
Prof. Akpa said 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 added that in the last decade, Nigeria has been a leading importer of maize, soya beans, rice and other finished food products. He said: “Unknown to many Nigerians, these products are coming to us from countries that have long deployed biotechnology tools such as genetic modification in their agriculture. “No nation has been able to develop without integrating science and technology into its development agenda and that is the path Nigeria is following now. The era of hoe and cutlass farming is over and we must adjust to current realities. Speaking on why Nigeria needs agricultural biotechnology, Dr Rose Gidado, Country Coordinator, OFAB Nigeria, said Nigeria will need to grow as much food in the next 50 as in the past 10,000 years combined because of rising population, climate change, declining arable land and changing diets. According to Gidado, “food is no doubt, the most basic of all human survival needs. Although so many efforts have been sunk in improving the quality as well as the production of world food supplies, food insecurity remains prevalent, particularly in the global southern nations of Asia and Africa. “In Nigeria, malnutrition has resulted in the death of many of her citizens, especially children within the age of one and five. Achieving sustainable economic development in Nigeria and Africa at large will continue to be a mirage without well-nourished and healthy people.” She noted that with a combination of different types of technology we can deliver solutions for food security challenges as biotechnology is taking mankind beyond ever known depths of understanding chemical and physical basis of life and matter to molecular basis of creation. “GM technology is gradually taking over the conventional natural way of health management, agricultural practices and industrial production of products consumed or used by humans in daily activities. “Nigeria has the greatest potentials to catch up with the US and other developed countries. We have the human capital, environment and all that it takes to be like Brazil, Argentina and others in the area of Biotechnology.
MOVING FORWARD on the way forward, Prof. Akpa said they have decided to reverse the country’s heavy dependence on imported food: “We cannot continue to import food and other staples when we have over 15 agricultural research institutes that have mandates to scientifically improve their crops. “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.” For Rose Gidado, Nigeria had in 2018 approved the registration and release of two new varieties of cotton and in 2019 approved Pod Borer Resistant (PBR) Cowpea (beans) variety for commercialisation. She disclosed that some research institutes are working on bioavailability of iron, protein and zinc in sorghum; HT soya; insect resistance in Cowpea and cotton among others. But the Director-General, National Biosafety Management Agency, NBMA, Rufus Ebegba, who acknowledged that GMOs are developed to solve problems, said before any GMO food is released that it will be tested for human and environmental safety. He added: “Although modern biotechnology and genetically modified organisms, 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.” As a regulator, Rufus Ebegba said that the agency has developed a national biosafety framework to regulate the activities of modern biotechnology and its use so that it does not cause harm on human health and the environment. He said that 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. Similarly, Ebegba said that the agency also looked at the gene that has been moved into a new organism if it has been crossed from a substantial gene and altered in such a way that has now lead to the introduction of new toxins that causes allergies.