By Nkechi Isaac, Abuja –
Nigeria is projected to be the third largest nation in the world by 2050 just behind China and India, with a population of over 300 million people.
At its current population of over 180 million people, Nigeria is currently battling with the challenge of feeding its people, with some states especially in the north east where insurgency had thrived said to have the highest risk of malnutrition and hunger. Hunger is closely linked with the inability to produce enough food to feed the people.
However, the signing of the biosafety bill into law in 2015 presents the nation with an opportunity to utilize the new modern agricultural technology tools like biotechnology to improve agriculture and feed the people.
Though modern agricultural biotechnology is a relatively new foreign technology, Nigerian scientists seem to be cutting their teeth on it by taking the initiative to look for ways of improving staple crops in the country to improve agriculture and feed the nation.
For instance, we have the Pod-bearer Resistant Cowpea (Beans) Project initiative, whose aim is to develop and disseminate to farmers preferred and locally adapted Maruca resistant cowpea varieties in sub-Saharan Africa. This project is being developed in Africa by African scientists in public institutions and not by biotech companies.
The project has been designed to promote technological interventions that will optimise cowpea productivity and utilization and provide farmers with an alternative to the costly and hazardous insecticide spraying. It entails transferring the Bt gene which confers resistance to the pod of the improved cowpea varieties and this method is consistent with international standard.
Speaking exclusively to our correspondent, the principal investigator of the pod borer resistant (PBR) cowpea project in Nigeria, Institute of Agricultural Research (IAR), Zaria, Prof. Muhammad Ishiyaku, said the home-grown initiative had successfully conferred 100 per cent protection against Maruca on cowpea by introducing the Bacillus thuringiences (Bt) gene through genetic modification.
Ishiyaku, a plant breeder, explained that the team of researchers working on the project in the institute had successfully developed cowpea that is resistant to the pod-borer pest, which caused yield losses of about 80 per cent in severe infestations, assuring that Bt cowpea would help cowpea farmers cut down severe losses associated with Maruca infestation.
He pointed out that the genetically modified cowpea, which is due for commercialization in 2018, does not only address farmers’ concern about yields but also could help double the production of the staple food to address the needs of our growing population.
Similarly, there are other agricultural biotechnology projects being carried out by Nigerian scientists in various research institutions across the nation in collaboration with the biotechnology agency, the National Biotechnology Development Agency (NABDA).
Throwing more light on the projects, the deputy director of the agency, Dr Rose Gidado, said scientists were developing homegrown solutions to improve other staple crops to benefit people in various mandate institutions across the country.
Gidado said the scientists are currently carrying out confined field trials on some crops to determine the viability of the research in their various institutes.
According to her, the crops of study include the nitrogen use efficient, water use efficient and salt tolerant (NEWEST) rice; African bio-fortified sorghum (ABS); BT maize; Herbicide tolerant soybeans and virus resistant cassava enhanced with iron and zinc.
She said: “The CFT for Cassava would be in collaboration with the National Root Crops Research Institute (NRCRI), Umudike, Abia State; Maize with the Institute for Agricultural Research (IAR), Samaru, Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria while soybean would be with the National Cereals Research Institute (NCRI), Badeggi, Niger State.”
The deputy director said the projects were aimed at helping the nation to produce high yield varieties of seedlings that are also disease and pest resistant and which could also withstand harsh and adverse weather conditions in view of the current climate change being experienced everywhere.
“By cultivating high yielding seed varieties, farmers will increase their productivity and earn more money for themselves; adopting these crops which are products of genetic modifications will be contributing immensely in the fight against poverty, this will now enable the technology to become an important tool of agriculture.
“It will help to reduce labour input in farming through modernization, attract young Nigerians to participate actively in agriculture which will help the nation to solve a very important problem which had remained unsolved for a long time as many young people were reluctant to go into farming because of the outdated technologies that had hitherto been deployed,” she added.