Monday, July 4, 2022

Tackling Food Insecurity Through Biotechnology: Imperatives Of Synergy

The director-general, National Biotechnology Development Agency, Prof. Abdullahi Mustapha.
The director-general, National Biotechnology Development Agency, Prof. Abdullahi Mustapha.

Several research findings indicate that food insecurity is prevalent in Nigeria. Last year, Nigeria was ranked 103rd out of 116 countries on the Global Hunger Index.  A recent report by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) notes that about 19.4 million Nigerians are vulnerable to the perils of food insecurity.  A simple comparative analysis of this year’s figure with that of 2021, which estimated that 12.8 million Nigerians were vulnerable to food insecurity, shows that hunger constitutes an existential menace to additional 7 million Nigerians.

Food insecurity in Nigeria has multidimensional implications. It does not only stunt the growth of children and impede their cognitive and psychosocial development, it also compromises national security.  Food insecurity means national insecurity.  National security is compromised when food availability, food access, utilization and adequacy become luxuries many enterprising citizens cannot afford. Hence, alleviating poverty and ending hunger are central to the Federal Government’s approach to ending insurgencies, kidnapping and other prevalent criminalities.

In recognition of the centrality of food security to sustainable national development, the director-general, National Biotechnology Development Agency (NABDA), Prof. Abdullahi Mustapha is repositioning the agency to optimally provide cutting-edge biotechnology solutions.

Across the world, patriotic, techno-savvy leaders place a premium on harnessing biotechnology ethically, prudently and timely, to solve socio-economic challenges impeding sustainable development. They see the ethical uses of biotechnology for economic development as a clamant task and a moral obligation. Hence, in line with the vision of President Buhari’s administration, one of the focal points of Mustapha’s innovative leadership is to promote food security.  

Innovative leaders are renowned for their aversion to ad hoc measures.   They do not fight fires. They deploy their foresight to provide sustainable research-based solutions. In this wise, Mustapha has consistently demonstrated his understanding that research is the oxygen for innovation. Thankfully, it is paying huge dividends as research efforts have led to mitigating the limitations of conventional breeding methods.

NABDA has deployed its resources to extenuate a key existential challenge confronting Nigeria – food insecurity. NABDA’s over 32 bioresources development centres across the nation are engaged in various research aimed at ending the challenges of conventional breeding. Also, a focal objective of their research enterprises is the improvement of crop yields and seeds, and resilience to adverse climatic conditions.  NABDA has revolutionised yam seedlings production. Despite the challenges of COVID-19, the agency’s target of 7 million yam seedlings has largely been successful with over 2 million produced and distributed to farmers. With the commercialisation of two genetically modified crops; Bt Cotton and Bt Cowpea, Nigeria is on the path to attaining food and nutrition security.

The highly improved pod-borer resistant (PBR) Cowpea was unveiled for commercialisation by Governor Ganduje Abdullahi on Tuesday, June 29, 2021, in Kano. Thereafter, to assure the general public of its safety and promote widespread consumption, stakeholders embarked on the ‘Eating is Believing’ advocacy in Lagos and Abuja. 

One of the benefits of the improved PBR cowpea is that it is resistant to Maruca, a destructive pod-borer. It has gravely limited the production of cowpea and ruined the livelihoods of cowpea farmers in Nigeria.  With this development, the production of cowpea in Nigeria will not only increase, it will improve the income of farmers and enhance food availability. One of the spinoffs of these research enterprises is that they will make farming alluring to youths; thereby stemming urban migration among youths and its associated security challenges.  

Despite the challenges of climate change, environmental degradation, farmer-herder rancour and widespread insecurity, Mustapha is optimistic that Nigeria can attain food security and sustainable agricultural practices without undermining the capacity of future generations to meet their needs.  As he often reiterates, attaining self-sufficiency in food production is not rocket science. It requires a smart hybrid of farming techniques; that is, introducing genetic engineering to small-holder farming practices. This hybrid model has many advantages.  First, it will meet the ever-increasing demand for nutritional food. Second, it will lead to improved yields, since, there will be more disease-pest resistant crops. Third, it will make the environment more sustainable, as it will abate reliance on chemical-based fertilisers and pesticides.  

This hybrid model is essential against the backdrop of the fact that one of the triggers of food insecurity in Nigeria is obsolete farm practices. A centrepiece of the food security agenda of NABDA is to revolutionise agricultural technology and promote the early adoption of innovative technologies. These are critical to meeting the present and future nutritional needs of Nigerians.

One of the identified challenges debarring Nigeria’s attainment of food security is widespread technophobia. This largely results from misinformation.  Many well-meaning Nigerians are unaware of the benefits of biotechnology. Others are misinformed about it, while some have embraced conspiracy theorists; alleging that biotechnology is aimed at reducing the human population.

Given the above, the role of the media is clear to ensure Nigeria promptly adopts biotechnology solutions for sustainable development.  Being a veritable channel of public education, the media should prioritise the dissemination of fact-based information about biotechnology and counter popular myths that do not fuel national progress.  Objective dissemination of scientific facts will significantly make the business environment more friendly, spur investments in biotechnology and aid rapid commercialisation of research findings. 

It is worthy to reiterate that policymakers, think tanks, researchers and the media are not inactive in the face of Nigeria’s growing food insecurity.  However, their spirited efforts have failed to yield commensurate results, largely because of a lack of multi-sectoral cooperation. Without multi-level, multi-stakeholders’ synergy, Nigeria’s fight against hunger will be futile.  

Nigeria cannot derive maximum benefits from the innovative works of researchers as long as there are gaps between the gown and the town, between research institutes and market players. NABDA appreciates the strategic role of the media in building bridges across divides. Hence, it consistently conducts capacity-building training for journalists to foster multi-sectoral partnerships.  It is anticipated that such partnerships will open new vistas of market opportunities for homegrown scientific innovation.

Paucity of funds will remain a major limitation to improving Nigeria’s food security index and attaining sustainable development until synergetic networks are formed, and innovative products move from laboratories to markets. 

Toyin Omozuwa is the press secretary to the director-general, National Biotechnology Development Agency. She can be reached at toyinomozuwa20@gmail.com

Toyin Omozuwa
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