Biotechnology has emerged as a powerful tool contributing to increased agricultural productivity in many countries. Nigeria has joined other nations in introducing this technology in the economy, but there are fears associated with the Genetically Modified (GM) food as one of the major components of biotechnology. Adequate provision of information and education to consumers on the implication of this technology in their everyday life is a sure way out. CHINYERE AMALU takes a look at this and some of the benefits, challenges and prospects of GM crops.
It has been widely argued that investing in agriculture is the surest way to ensure food security in Nigeria. It is also difficult to accomplish any meaningful industrialisation in any country without a strong agricultural base, but the fact remains that this cannot be achieved by depending only on the traditional planting methods by peasants or even mechanised farmers. The federal government, even with the understanding that Nigeria has fertile land for improved agricultural yields, went an extra mile to ensure that Nigerians did not lack food of any sort, by signing the Cartagena Protocol, an international convention on transboundary movement of living organism.
The government has even gone as far as having the Bill that would ensure successful application of this technology in the country signed into law, although still awaiting the endorsement of President Goodluck Jonathan. Being a signatory to this protocol, the country has already joined other nations of the world like China, Brazil, America, Australia, etc, in embracing this modern way of improving agricultural yields.
This refers to the use of living organisms or their products to improve human health and environment as well as ensuring food security. Its applications range from the use of micro-organisms in the fermentation of milk to the modification of the genetic components of plants and animals to improve their quality and ability to withstand biotic and abiotic stresses.
Though this new technology cuts across all sectors of the economy, including medicine, education, security, etc, its major impact is felt on agriculture, because it improves the yields through genetic modification. Agricultural biotechnology is a relatively new technology in Nigeria and it is applicable to other new technologies. It is a very powerful technology with a huge potential to mitigate food insecurity and malnutrition. But one of the controversial areas of biotechnology in the world today, and especially in agriculture, is the production of genetically-modified (GM) foods. These are foods derived from sources that have been modified using modern biology techniques to enhance desired traits such as increased resistance to herbicides or improved nutritional content. GM foods saw the market in the early 1990s. They are plants such as GM soybean, corn and cottonseed oil, cassava, sorghum, etc.
There are fears that these categories of food have negative health implications on their users. Critics have also objected to the GM foods on several grounds, including safety issues, ecological concerns and economic concerns, but experts have stood their ground, arguing against such dangers, and insisting that even if there are, adequate measures are being put in place to ensure any unforeseen/foreseen occurrences.
“In countries where these categories of foods have been in existence, including America, there has never been any health hazards recorded so far,” they argued.
The experts are also of the opinion that although it is a welcome development, but for a new technology to thrive, it is important that the technology or the products and services which comes with it are accepted by the masses, whom the technology would serve, and that they should be well informed about the implications of what they are consuming. They also noted that in other countries, such foods are labelled to enable the consumers know what they were eating and as well give them the right to decide whether they wanted to eat it or not.
In Nigeria, the application of agricultural biotechnology is still in its infancy with only three crops, cassava, cowpea (beans) and sorghum, currently undergoing field trials, but the fear has also engulfed a majority of the people about its possible implications. Being an African country that believed in the traditional way of farming, there is need to educate and inform the masses on what this technology could offer to them.
According to the director-general of Consumer Protection Council (CPC), Mrs. Ify Umenyi, most African countries are reluctant to adopt technologically derived products as the policy makers are confronted with contradictory sources of information and threats from some trade partners.
“At the national level, state and local level, there is need for scientists and experts to provide policy makers and the general public with evidenced information needed to harness biotechnology,” she said, noting that as an international consumer movement, CPC often took cognizance of the concerns expressed by consumers, organisations and groups, and the debates from all quarters with regards to the safety of GM foods and their impacts on the environment, which, according to her, may u0ndermine food security.
“Our position is that consumers must be adequately educated on the existence, benefits and possible adverse effects of genetically modified foods, to enable them choose whether or not to consume GM foods from an informed standpoint. As a result, such foods must also be labelled appropriately,” she said.
Minister of science and technology, Prof. Ita Ewa confirmed that government expressed concern about consumers’ fears on the consumption of GM crops and the possible risks to human health and the environment, saying that “the health of our people should not be jeopardised.”
On his part, the minister of agriculture, Dr. Akinwumi Adesina said that the need to gauge consumer perception of genetically enhanced foods is critical to commercialisation and industrialisation.
“Therefore, farmers need to be involved, not only in the use of improved technologies, but also during knowledge generation and validation,” he noted, and stressed that for enhanced acceptance of a new technology, like biotechnology and its products, “there is need for transparent debate about the potential risks and benefits of such a technology.
“Consumers have the right to be well informed on what they consume, they need to be enlightened,” added the director-general of National Biotechnology Development Agency (NABDA), Prof. Bamidele Solomon.
From the stakeholders’ opinion, Nigerians are yet to come to terms with the potentialities of GM crops and also need information to embrace this technological way of improved agricultural yields, especially for poor farmers in the rural areas.
Since inception, the production of GM foods has increased. In 2005, up to 125 million acres of biotech crops were grown in the United States alone. According to US National Agricultural Statistics Services (NASS), an estimated 61 percent of all corn and 89 percent of all soybeans planted in US in 2006 were GM products.
As a result of the rapid adoption of GM technologies, a majority of processed food products are available in US.
Also, according to global status of commercialied biotechnology/GM crops released by Clive James, founder and chair, ISAA board of directors, made available to LEADERSHIP, for the first time, biotechnology crops occupied a substantial 10 percent of the 1.5 million hectares of global cropland; 50 percent of global cropland is in the 29 countries planting biotech crops in 2010.
From 1996 to 2009, biotech crops contributed to sustainability and climate change by increasing crops production and valued by $65 billion; providing a better environment by saving 393million kg a.i. of pesticides; in 2009 alone, reducing CO2 emission by 18 billion kg, equivalent to taking eight million cars off the road; covering biodiversity by saving 75 million hectares of land; and helped to alleviate poverty by helping 14.4 million small farmers who are some of the poorest people in the world.
The global value of biotech seeds alone was valued at $11.2 billion in 2010, with commercial biotech maize, soybean grain and cotton valued at $150 billion per year.
Other benefits of applying agricultural biotechnology in the developmental process of any nation aqre that it is economicaly viable, environmentally sustainable and cheap and safe, all ingredients for food security.
Prof. Bamidele Solomon had noted that the impact of the this technology could be the dawn of a new beginning for Nigeria, adding that biotechnology is a tool that can never be overlooked, especially as the nation aspires to achieve Vision 20:2020 and ensure a successful transformation agenda.
“The outcome of the technology has the potential of increase yield of food crops through the production of disease and stress-resistant varieties, reduce use of pesticide on pest-resistant varieties to avert potential allerginicity related to the use of pesticides, and improve animal breeding techniques to enhance the quality of food and their products,” he noted.
Despite some of the challenges of GM foods on the organic side, which include growing consumption level, more expensive production and processing, increased market premium on organic identity of resultant food products and the price sensitivity at retail stores for some food categories, GM crops have proved to be the best option for food security, thus the need for acceptance and patronage by consumers.
There are future prospects of biotech crops in the next five years. This include draught-tolerant maize in 1012, golden rice in 2013, and BT rice before the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) in 2015, to potentially benefit one billion poor people in rice farming households in Asia alone. However, biotech crops can make an enormous contribution to 2015 MDG of cutting poverty byhalf by optmising crop productivity in a proposed global initiative.
NABDA, an agency in the ministry of science and technology saddled with the responsibility of implementing this technology in the country, had over the years been engaging stakeholders on a monthly Open Forum on Agricultural Biotechnology (OFAB), to give them basic information on what they need to know on this modern trend, its benefits, social and economic potentialities. But it seems that the masses need more of this sensitisation exercise to accept this model; which means that the agency needs to intensify its efforts in carrying this message, especially to those at the state and local levels.
With adequate information and education on the implications of application of biotechnology, Nigeria, just like any other country in the world will come to appreciate the introduction of biotechnology in the country.