Thursday, December 8, 2022

Revitalising Nigeria’s Agricultural Productivity Through Genome Editing

Dr. Valentine Ntui.
Dr. Valentine Ntui.

Genome editing has the potential to revitalise agricultural productivity in Nigeria by developing crops and livestock with high nutritional qualities and are more tolerant to changing climate conditions or emerging diseases and pests without losing the other traits of the breed.

Nigeria is the most populous nation in Africa, with an estimated population of 205 million, with about 50 per cent of this populace domiciled in rural areas. The total land area is 911,000 square kilometres, with about 80 per cent – of arable land, perennial crops, pastures and irrigated land – suitable for agriculture. Agriculture is the economic mainstay of most Nigerian households and it is a significant sector of the country’s economy, contributing about 23 per cent of the total gross domestic product.

Despite its economic significance, Nigeria’s agricultural sector suffers numerous difficulties that have an impact on its output. Poor land tenure systems, insufficient irrigation for agriculture, climate change, land degradation, inadequate funding, significant post-harvest losses, minimal access to markets, low technology, high production costs and poor input distribution. Due to these challenges, agricultural output has significantly decreased, reducing the sector’s contribution to the nation’s GDP and increasing food imports due to population growth, resulting in diminishing levels of food sufficiency.

These days, scientists have developed techniques to tackle the harmful effects of climate change and emerging diseases and pests which threaten crops, livestock and agricultural productivity. One of these techniques is CRISPR/CAS genome editing. This is a new genetic engineering tool which is very flexible and seems to work well in many organisms in which it has been tried. Before the discovery of CRISPR, scientists were using other methods to improve crops and livestock, but those methods take several years and are not usually precise. With CRISPR, precision and speed in producing crops and livestock which are adapted to changing environments can be achieved.

One huge benefit of genome editing is that it has the potential to greatly speed up the process of developing new varieties of crops and livestock with qualities that might not be present in the breeding population, without introducing new genetic materials from other organisms. Therefore, the new varieties will not be regulated as GMOs, as they do not contain foreign genetic materials and are safe for human consumption. Another benefit is that genome editing has the potential to produce crops and livestock with important characteristics that farmers need while helping increase and protect genetic diversity within the population.

While CRISPR/Cas genome editing is not a silver bullet for all agricultural problems, it is, in my opinion, the most exciting and novel genetic engineering technology so far developed to produce crops and livestock with important traits. It is cheap and easy to use and has been adopted by researchers all over the world to develop solutions to agricultural problems.

Unfortunately, Nigerian scientists are yet to adopt and apply this technology in various aspects of crop and livestock improvement. Nigeria was the first African country to develop and release guidelines on genome editing in Africa, but no genome editing work or research is currently ongoing in the country. In a genome editing communication workshop held in Abuja, from September 18 to 21, 2022, the director-general of the National Biosafety Management Agency (NBMA), Dr. Rufus Ebegba lamented the lack of applications by Nigerian scientists to carry out genome editing research in the country – either in agriculture or medicine. This is, indeed, a sad development in a country with intelligent researchers in the field of plant and animal science.

With the increasing population estimated to reach 400 million by 2050 and the effects of climate change on the environment – consider the recent floods across the country – it is estimated that most people will face food and nutrition insecurity. Enhancing agriculture productivity through the adoption of new technologies and innovations such as genome editing is necessary to ensure food and nutrition security. Nigerian scientists are encouraged to take advantage of the new technology and apply it in the field of agriculture to increase crop and livestock production. This will contribute to increasing the livelihood of farmers and raise the economic potential of the country.

Ntui, an associate professor in the department of genetics and biotechnology, University of Calabar, wrote in from the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture, Nairobi Station, Kenya. He can be reached via v.ntui@cgiar.org.

Dr. Valentine Ntui
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