Friday, December 2, 2022

Addressing Hunger, Unemployment Using Agricultural Biotechnology

Farmers in the field
Farmers in the field

In Africa, leaders have shown interest in adopting modern agricultural biotechnology because of its potential to address hunger and unemployment. 

During the 23rd Ordinary Session of the Africa Union Assembly in Malabo, Equatorial Guinea, the heads of states and governments of Africa undertook to eliminate hunger on the African continent by the year 2025. Put in simple terms, the Malabo Declaration states that, by 2025, no African should go to bed hungry. Nigeria is a signatory to this declaration but, presently, a significant per cent of the nation’s population is still unable to meet its daily calorific needs due to the challenges like affordability, ineffective mass food production, storage and distribution.

Countries under pressure to produce more food for their growing population have started growing biotechnology crops. That is why the Federal Government of Nigeria put in place structures and regulations to enhance the adoption and practice of modern biotechnology in the country.

Addressing council chairmen, clerics, monarchs, farmers and extension agents in the FCT during a one-day sensitisation workshop themed “Community Empowerment Through Agricultural Biotechnology: The Role of Council Chairmen, Clerics, Monarchs, Extension Worker and Farmers” organised by the Open Forum on Agricultural Biotechnology (OFAB), Nigeria chapter, under the auspices of the National Biotechnology Development Agency (NABDA) in collaboration with the African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF), Programme for Biosafety Systems (PBS) and the Agricultural Research Council of Nigeria (ARCN) in Abuja, the NABDA director-general, Prof. Abdullahi Mustapha, described biotechnology as the use of living systems and scientific tools to improve living organisms, plants, animals or micro-organisms to generate useful products.

He listed some of the modern biotechnology crops being developed and commercialised in Nigeria to include insect-resistant cowpea and cotton; while the one that has been environmentally approved by the National Biosafety Management Agency (NBMA) is Tela maize, developed to withstand the fall armyworm and resist the stem borer by Institute for Agricultural Research (IAR), Zaria.

According to him, those under development are herbicide-tolerant (HT) soybeans by NABDA, virus-resistant cassava with elevated levels of iron and zinc, called the ‘VIRCA Plus’ project by the National Roots Crops Research Institute (NRCRI); nitrogen use efficiency, water use efficiency and salt-tolerant (NEWEST) rice by the National Cereals Research Institute (NCRI), Badeggi, Niger State; Cassava developed for shelf-life elongation and cassava developed for tuber-starch increment by the IITA Ibadan.

He further listed approvals by NBMA to include general release of hybrid Bt. Cotton with stacked genes of Cry 2ab and Cry 1Ac by Fiyah Global Concepts and NABDA as applicants for the National performance/environmental trials; Blight-resistant potato by NRCRI and AATF Kenya as applicants for confinement field trials.

Represented by the country coordinator, OFAB, Nigeria chapter, Dr. Rose Gidado, Mustapha said participants were invited to be sensitised on the latest innovation Nigeria has embraced in providing affordable, safe and nutrient-rich food to the populace.

“This meeting is unique because we are at a very critical stage in our history where the average Nigerian is finding it more difficult to provide food for himself and his dependants. The reason for this is not far-fetched. We have continued to plant on the same size of land that is depleted every year to urbanisation, desertification and other vulnerabilities associated with climate change. We lose substantial portion of our agricultural land annually. Let me also inform you that our farming population is not getting younger. The age of the average farmer in Nigeria is about 60 years. The youths are all going into the city for white-collar jobs, leaving the feeding of over 200 million people entirely in the hands of aged men and women.

“We have invited you here today to inform you about the latest innovation Nigeria has embraced in providing affordable, safe and nutrient-rich food to the populace. Biotechnology and its tools have proven to provide spot-on solutions to most of the challenges facing agricultural productivity. With biotechnology, we can undertake precision agriculture that brings about increased yields, safe and clean harvest,” he said.

Mustapha assured that NABDA will continue to introduce and establish innovations that will make agriculture a thing of joy to the old generation and an attraction for the younger ones.

In his remarks, the director, NCRI Badeggi, Niger, Dr. Muhammed Ishaq, who allayed the fear of GMOs, said they are “designed to be extra, extra-healthy, extra fast-growing and extra-resistant to weather or pests, aimed at tackling the adverse effects of climate.

“Many GMO crops have been altered to be less vulnerable to insects and other pests. For example, Bt-cowpea is a GMO crop that has a gene added from bacillus thuringiensis, a naturally occurring soil bacterium.

“This gene causes the cowpea to produce a protein that kills maruca vitrata (pod-borer), a very devastating insect pest; thereby helping to protect the cowpea from damage.

“Instead of having to spray eight rounds of insecticide to prevent maruca, you now spray just two times to take care of other insect pests and save money in the process.

“Because they can save on resources, food producers can also charge lower prices for GMO foods. In some cases, the costs of foods like corn, beets and soybeans may be cut by 15 per cent to 30 per cent,” he emphasised.

Similarly, the director-general, NASC, Dr. Philip Ojo, said the newly promulgated Biotechnology Act now gives the agency power to operate under the law legally without hinderance.

“The newly enacted National Agricultural Seeds Council Act of April, 2019 that repealed the National Agricultural Seed Act No 72 of 1992 confers on the NASC the responsibility of coordinating and regulating the seed industry of Nigeria to ensure the provision of adequate quantities of high-quality improved seeds of all crops, including GM crop seeds to our esteemed farmers that are available, accessible and affordable.

“In its bid to actualise this mandate, the NASC carries out certification of all classes of seed for quality assurance. The seed industry happens to be the first beneficiary of modern biotechnology research efforts in the country with the recent registration and release of two transgenic cotton varieties (MAHYCO-C567 BG-II and MAHYCO-C571 BG-II) and one cowpea variety (SAMPEA 20-T) by the National Variety Release Committee for which the organiser of this programme has deemed it fit to introduce to the cream of policy makers, opinion leaders, traditional rulers, etc gathered here and to sensitise you on the benefits of these released transgenic crops.

“While the NASC shall work to ensure that the identities of these crop varieties are maintained through the seed multiplication chain to deliver the benefits of the product to the farmers, the assurance of the safety of these products of modern biotechnology to the environment and consumers is very paramount,” he added.

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