Genetic Modification As Tonic For Tackling Malnutrition

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The application of modern biotechnology in an integrated multi-disciplinary approach can be a valuable tool for addressing the several challenges in Nigeria in the areas of food production, genetic improvement of living systems (crops and animals) as well as health and environment.

Experts in the sector have underscored the need to improve productivity/yield in the nation’s food production efforts and thus address the issue of food security using biotechnology.

At a webinar series with the theme ‘Curbing COVID-19 pandemic in Nigeria: analysing the role that modern agricultural biotechnology can play in boosting immunity against infectious diseases’ organised by the Open Forum on Agricultural Biotechnology (OFAB), Nigeria chapter, the forum’s country coordinator, Dr. Rose Gidado, identified genetic engineering technology as a powerful tool that can revolutionise the world food system and solve basic problems such as hidden hunger, climate change, and COVID-19 among others.

She pointed out that scientific findings have revealed that various bacterial and viral infectious including COVID-19 are greatly suffered by undernourished people around the world.
“Malnutrition intensifies the impact of every disease including the novel COVID-19 which appears to be especially deadly for people already in poor health. Therefore, the need to give maximum attention to the diet and nutritional status of all age groups in Nigeria is critical and calls for emergency,” she said.

Gidado described malnutrition as one of the major pre-existing conditions that adds to the risk of several thousand people falling ill from COVID-19 because it leads to severe weakening of the immune systems, increases the likelihood of getting ill, staying ill, and dying because of illness.

“For instance, the deficiency of iron, iodine, folate, Vitamin A, and zinc, a term referred to as hidden hunger not only increases the risk of morbidity and mortality but also contributes to poor growth, intellectual impairment, and perinatal complications,” she added.
In his remarks, the director of biotechnology and products development at the National Root Crops Research Institute (NRCRI), Umudike, Imo State, Prof. Chiedozie Egesi, said the burden of micronutrients’ deficiency included being susceptible to common diseases, poor immune system, stunting and wasting, permanent physical impairment, limited cognitive development.

Nigeria, according to him, losses over $1.5 billion in GDP annually to vitamin and mineral deficiencies and the’ government recognizes biofortification as a sustainable intervention strategy to manage micronutrients’ deficiency.

Egesi said great progress had been made over the past decade with respect to the application of biotechnology to generate nutritionally improved food crops with the transgenic crop technology, pointing out that the genes of interest are inserted directly into the plant genome and is faster and cheaper than conventional plant breeding programs.

“Recently a new technique based on the principle of genome editing has emerged. Genome editing focuses on nuclease-based forms of engineering like clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats (CRISPR) and involves creation of precise incisions, mutations and substitutions in plants. This technology will revolutionalise the way we think about enhancing food crops to improve global nutritional status,” he said.

The regional director of African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF), Dr. Issoufou Kollo, said the foundation’s breeding programme’s perspective focused more on the nutrient content of the new varieties being developed in sorghum, maize, millet and rice, and that AATF was working on NEWEST rice (rice efficient variety) and that trial was on at the National Cereal Research Centre, Badeggi, adding when completed, it would be sent to the National Biosafety Management Agency (NBMA) for deregulations.
Noting that our nutrition is based on starchy food such as cassava and yam from the south and maize, sorghum and millet from the north, he spoke of the need to improve agricultural yield by increasing the capacity of the crop to accumulate photosynthesis products which are usually starch.

He added there is need for genetic improvement and paradigm shift in the promotion of African indigenous crops which he described as very nutritious, stressing the need to do more investment in that area.

The AATF boss challenged government and policy makers to be committed to investment in breeding of indigenous crops.

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