Nigeria is faced with the challenge of feeding its huge population of over 200 million people and ensuring food security on the other hand. Our agriculture has remained largely at subsistence level with little or no application of technology in farming as it is the case in many other countries of the world.
Rice is one of the major and important staple foods which the country depends on to feed its people. For the records, Nigeria is the highest producer of rice in Africa and ranks 14 in the global world index of rice producing countries. However, it is unable to produce enough rice to meet the demands of its growing population and so had had to depend on massive importation of the commodity to fill the gap in its production deficit.
The key constraint to rice production in Nigeria and by extension Africa had long been identified as soil nitrogen deficiency and drought. This challenge causes farmers to depend heavily on fertilizer usage to grow rice. The global statistics places the use of fertilizer for growing rice alone to more than 15 per cent which leads to the release of nitrous oxide (N2O) which is a deadly gas to the atmosphere. This leads to the emission of greenhouse gas, one of the main factors accelerating global warming.
To tackle this challenge, scientists in Africa have developed Nitrogen Efficient Water Efficient Salt Tolerant (NEWEST) also called Nitrogen Use Efficient (NUE12) rice variety which allows the plant to make use of limited nitrogen in the soil, resist drought and withstand salty soil.
The NEWEST rice project being carried out by African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF), National Cereal Research Institute (NCRI), Agricultural Research Council of Nigeria (ARCN) and other partners has undergone confined field trials at the NCRI, Badeggi, Niger State and a dossier is being prepared to be sent to the National Biosafety Management Agency (NBMA) for permission for a national performance trial.
Speaking at the NUE/NEWEST annual review and planning meeting (ARPM) in Abuja, the NCRI executive director, Dr Aliyu Umar, said the project would contribute immensely to the economic growth of Nigeria while addressing certain key issues of environmental safety due to appropriate nitrogen fertilizer use.
“We hold this project on a high premium because of the numerous advantages accruing from it, and we know that most of the farmers are poor and they are not able to meet up the cost of the inputs. This project will greatly enhance the rice revolution which is taking place currently in the country,” he added.
Giving a review of the NUE/NEWEST progress, the AATF rice project manager, Dr Kayode Sanni, said scientists had to turn to innovative technologies to tackle the constraints in rice production as the conventional rice varieties in the country have low yield per hectare.
“One of the technologies that we have seen, that can help to improve the usage of the nutrients in the soil, which happens to be one of the biggest challenges, that is we need fertilizer. And what caused that is that every year there is depletion in the soil.
“In Africa, it has been observed that the nitrogen resource depletes by about 4.4 metric tons per year, so there is a need to supplement that. And one of the ways to sustainably produce these crops is to have crops that can make the best of every little nitrogen that is available in the soil, and that is what we are doing.
“We have to also be conversant with the fact that the excess use of fertilizer leads to green house gas emission, which leads to the release of nitrogen oxide into the environment, which leads to environmental pollution. So, the reduction of the quantity of fertilizer that the crops need helps us to become environmentally friendly even as we produce our rice.
“What this crop will do for our farmers is that it will serve as security for them, and so that when they plant in a land that has no nitrogen, or in a land where they are unable to have access to fertilizer on time, their crop will still give them something that can make them to maintain their livelihood,” he added.
Sanni who is also the leader for Alliance for Hybrid Rice in Africa, based in Nairobi, Kenya said the review meeting would initiate the dossier preparation for submission to the NBMA for approval.
The director-general of NABDA, Prof. Abdullahi Mustapha said Nigeria was moving forward in the area of development of climate smart crops, describing his agency as among the front liners.
He lauded the efforts of AATF, NCRI as well as NABDA in the development of this genetically modified rice for the nation, pointing out that Nigeria was losing billions of naira annually owing to the massive importation of rice with the number of job creation opportunities blocked as a result of not taking advantage of our rice production potential which, according to him, calls for concern.
He contended that President Muhammadu Buhari did well by placing restriction on rice importation, which he said was a giant step, adding, though the efforts of the president led to an improvement in the rate of locally-grown rice, supply still fell short of local demand as farmers are still unable to meet up with the consumption rate of the continuously increasing population.
“It is in this regards I must say that the application of biotechnology tools to improve the quality of our local rice seeds will usher us into tremendous avalanche of wealth, job creation and a healthier environment…. As we continue to make progress as a nation towards using biotechnology to solve our food and nutrition crisis problem, there is no better way the impacts of agricultural biotechnology adoption can be more felt than this,” he added.
Speaking on the requirements for dossier submission, review and commercial release of GM crops in Nigeria, Dr. Rufus Ebegba, the director-general of the National Biosafety Management Agency (NBMA), said crops must meet all safety standards before permits are granted.
He reeled out the requirements for application dossier for the release of the GM organisms with all the necessary information which include name of the applicant and methodology used in the development, saying it goes through processes of getting input from the public as well as constituting a national biosafety committee and the national biosafety sub technical committee to work independently to review the dossier, which is the content of the report itself.
According to him, the recommendations of the national biosafety sub technical committee guide the agency in its final decision based on scientific evidence that the crop will have no environmental impact or risk to human health and it is going to be of economic value to the nation. He pointed out that the agency was established as a means to ensure that modern biotechnology was deployed safely to enhance the economy of the nation, particularly the agricultural sector and the production of raw materials for industry.