Biotechnology is currently facing controversial challenges due to merchants of misinformation, but the importance of Genetic Modification in advancing agriculture cannot be overstated. ODIMEGWU ONWUMERE examines that biotechnology is now viewed as a necessity rather than a choice
Despite the difficulties encountered by Nigeria’s agricultural sector, including inadequate irrigation, climate change, land degradation, limited market access, insufficient funding, post-harvest losses, technological limitations, high production costs, and inadequate resource distribution, Dr. Emmanuel Okogbenin, the Director of Programme Development and Commercialisation at AATF, emphasized the significance of providing strong support for agricultural biotechnology to effectively utilize it for improving crop productivity.
“It should be integrated with traditional breeding methods to amplify genetic advancements and revolutionize the value chain,” he said.
Dr. Okogbenin stated at the 23rd virtual annual meeting of the China Association of Science and Technology (CAST) that biotechnology is now viewed as a necessity rather than a choice. Agriculturists understand the importance of genetic resources in ensuring sustainable farming and global food security in spite of the challenges. Nigerian farmer Patience Koku issued a support, advocating for farmers to be provided with the opportunity to utilize genetically modified (GM) seeds, as it is the most certain method to boost agricultural productivity.
Koku stated in a speech at the Cornell Club in New York City recently saying that specialists need to provide individuals with the option to choose. He emphasized the importance of empowering farmers in Nigeria or Africa to decide for themselves whether or not to adopt the technology.
Dr. Rose Gidado, the Nigeria chapter coordinator of the Open Forum on Agricultural Biotechnology (OFAB) in Africa, urged the media to assist in raising awareness among Nigerians and farmers about the true essence of modern biotechnology. She emphasized the importance of farmers during this period of commercialization.
“Biotechnology is currently encountering controversial challenges on a global scale due to the dissemination of misinformation by anti-biotechnology activists,” she said.
In addition, Gidado noted that it is important to mention that there has been no recorded evidence of any harm inflicted upon humans, animals, or the environment since the introduction of this technology over twenty years ago.
It was observed that variety of genes in plants enables them to adapt to various challenges such as pests, diseases, climate change, drought, and soil erosion. Dr. Gidado, acknowledged the significance of genetic modification in advancing the agricultural sector and enhancing crop and animal productivity in the country.
Dr. Yemi Akinbamijo, the Executive Director of the Forum for Agricultural Research in Africa (FARA), expressed concerns regarding Nigeria’s role as a determining factor for the success or failure of biotechnology policies in Africa.
Akinbamijo urged the Nigerian government to strengthen its capacity to utilize scientific advancements in the agricultural industry during a virtual conference organized by OFAB and the National Biotechnology Development Agency (NABDA).
It is well-known that genome editing has the potential to improve agricultural productivity in Nigeria by developing crops and livestock with high nutritional value and the ability to withstand changing climate conditions and emerging diseases and pests.
These efforts are being made to ensure the sustainability of agriculture, which heavily relies on conservation.
Nigeria, which heavily depends on imports to meet its food and agricultural needs, spending approximately $10 billion each year on commodities like wheat, rice, poultry, fish, and consumer-focused foods, has concerns about food scarcity due to factors such as poverty, the use of crops for biofuels, rising oil prices, population growth, climate change, and the conversion of arable land for residential and industrial purposes.
Similar to the rest of the world, Nigeria has made significant progress in biotechnology research and development. Despite facing initial opposition, indications are that Nigeria has achieved notable success in this field, largely due to strong government support.
To facilitate the promotion, commercialization, and regulation of biotechnology products, Nigeria established the National Biotechnology Development Agency (NABDA) in 2001. In 2018, Nigeria officially approved the commercialization of its first biotechnology crop, Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) cotton.
The authorization for the commercial release of Pod-Borer Resistant Cowpea (PBR cowpea; AAT709A) was granted in January 2019. Towards the end of 2020, the NBMA issued guidelines on gene editing, and on October 8, 2020, the cultivation of TELA maize (drought and insect tolerant) was authorized. Nigeria also became the first African nation to introduce gene editing guidelines in December 2020.
Checks have shown that Nigerians are accepting biotechnology, while scientists and farmers are rejecting a bill that aims to restrict the adoption of biotechnology to less than 1%. This bill also allows for the possibility of legal action from individuals who believe they have experienced health-related issues due to the use of this technology, as well as regulation of biodiversity.
The sponsors of the bill, who were attempting to amend the National Biosafety Management Agency (NBMA) Act 2015, did not attend a “public hearing” organized by the Senate Committee on Environment of the National Assembly to present their arguments.
However, upon investigation, it was found that despite the risks posed to genetic resources, the world’s capacity to ensure food security is diminishing. Nevertheless, improving the genetic quality of indigenous livestock would necessitate the introduction of genes from either exotic or enhanced breeds. Yet, if this process is not carried out with caution, it could potentially harm the local livestock industry. This could result in the loss of valuable genes that contribute to local adaptation and the ability to thrive in demanding tropical conditions.