WHAT CAN AGRICULTURAL BIOTECHNOLOGY DO FOR A DEVELOPING ECONOMY?

By Opuah Aniekwen, A graduate of Biotechnology and Genetics, University of Calabar

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As a graduate of biotechnology and genetics I am poised to write to authorities in the agriculture sector, policy makers, sister and supporting Ministries departments and Agencies, opinion leaders, well spirited individuals, private sector and students to describe the usefulness and applications of this novel field of agricultural biotechnology and show how it can contribute to the agriculture sector as well as the economy of a developing country like Nigeria. I think these authorities will be interested to know the achievements of this field, the potential estimated market volume, the demand from agriculture and the role of Agricultural biotechnology in meeting this demand, and its impact on National development. Although some in-depth studies have been performed on this topic and literature documented, it is pertinent that I bring some salient features to light. Using information available from other findings, this write up is aimed at bringing the science of Agricultural biotechnology to the attention of busy stakeholders in the agriculture sector and other related sectors in the country and encourage them to understand the potentials that lie fallow in this novel science.

Briefly, agricultural biotechnology is the manipulation of Crops and Animals or their parts for the production of value added goods and services for man use.
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A few of its applications and achievements are discussed below;

Insect resistant crops: These crops have been engineered to express a self-defense for insect pest so as to enhance productivity and reduce crop losses for e.g. Bt cotton (Bacillus thuringienesis). This cotton has DNA (genetic material) from the soil microbe Bacillus thuringienesis incorporated into its genome (Entire genetic make up) which enables it to express resistance for insect pest. This cotton was adopted by Indian farmers and it increased their average yield by 70% between 2001 and 2008 and half of this increase is attributed to the Bt cotton adopted by Indian farmers (James 2009), this also suggest why India is presently the highest exporter of cotton. A decrease in cotton boll insecticide use by 56% between 1998 and 2006, which is cost saving for 6million Indian farmers who grew Bt cotton in 2009 (James 2009). In 2009, 7million Chinese farmers also grew Bt cotton and yield was increased by 10% and insecticide use decreased by 60% (James 2009) other engineered insect resistant crops include Bt corn, rice, etc.

Herbicide tolerant crops: These are crops that have been engineered so that their growth and development is not significantly affected by herbicides used on the weeds growing around them. This will enhance crop yield, reduce wastage, reduce cost and as well help in maintaining biodiversity. Crops such as maize, wheat, sugar cane, rice, onions etc. have been genetically modified to express this trait.

Protein enhanced sweet potatoes: Sweet potatoes is known for its carbohydrate rich content, recently scientist have developed a protein rich sweet potatoes by isolating a gene AmA1 rich in lysine from the amaranth plant and incorporating it into the genome of sweet potatoes and it is well expressed. This protein AmA1 is not known to be an allergen.

Vitamin A enhanced Sorghum, golden rice and Cassava: These are crops genetically engineered to have improved levels of macro nutrient like Vitamin A, Iron and Zinc. These crops being staples are modified to serve malnourished women and children especially those in the rural areas.

Cheese Making: Because of the insufficiency in rennet production from animals, and other natural sources, rennet which is an enzyme which produces chymosin which curdles milk in cheese production is now been mass produced by isolating the gene for rennet production from animal stomach and insert them into certain bacteria, fungi to make them produce chymosin during fermentation. The genetically modified microorganism is killed after fermentation and chymosin is removed from the fermentation broth so that the fermentation produced chymosin does not contain any GM component or ingredient.

ROLE OF AGRICULTURAL BIOTECHNOLOGY IN DEVELOPING ECONOMIES

According to Wikipedia (2006) a developing society is one with relatively low standard of living, undeveloped industrial base and moderate to low human development index (HDI)

Chassy (2003) reported that 800 – 850 million people are malnourished, more than 200 million of these are children, many of whom will never reach their full intellectual and physical potential, another 1-1.5 billion humans have only marginally better access to food and often do not consume balanced diet containing sufficient quantities of all required nutrients and majority of this nutritionally at risk population live in developing countries and this number will grow as human population growth is ever on the increase. The question now is how will Agriculture carter for this pending problem of food shortage and the expected increase in nutritionally at risk people while maintaining a healthy environment and biodiversity? Will it be by expanding cultivated land area? Or by increasing the use of inputs? How friendly are these practices to the environment? It can only be achieved through crop and livestock improvements (Biotechnology).

Biotechnology has prospects to remedy the problem of food shortage as research in this field aims to develop plant varieties that provide reliable high yield, at the same or lower costs by breeding in qualities such as resistance to diseases, pest and stress factors which will contribute gainfully to food production while maintaining a healthy environment by reducing the amount of fertilizer, pesticides, herbicides used in farming. These shows clearly that biotechnology seeks to improve Agricultural practices by making it cost effective, increase productivity and bridging other gaps which pose serious challenges to Agriculture. These gains will lead to capacity building, create numerous jobs, and reduce poverty as well as ending malnutrition. Annon (2002) reported that the United Nations Economic and Social commission for western Asia Cooperation with International Labour Organization (ILO) sought to identify the best approach for regional capacity building in new technology to improve employment rate, sustainable development and poverty alleviation in developing Arab Nations came to a conclusion that identifying new technologies, adopting, regulating and implementing them will serve the purpose for national economic and social development. In the report, it was emphasized that countries that adopt a better approach to the four novel technologies of biotechnology, genetic engineering, bio materials and bioinformatics will develop a better capacity for economic and social development than their counterparts.

It becomes very pertinent in this era of dwindling oil prices and mass unemployment that Nigeria incorporates biotechnology into its agricultural programme as the Present administration seeks to savor the economy by diversifying it to Agriculture which promises to be the best substitute. It should however be noted that for Agriculture to be worthwhile, appropriate technologies (Biotechnology) must be employed rather than relying on the very crude techniques that will not carter for the present day challenges posed to Agriculture e.g. Climate change, erosion and leaching of farm lands, arid and infertile lands etc.

LIMITATIONS/PUBLIC PERCEPTION

It is obvious that to meet the food demand in a developing economy like ours using a novel technology like biotechnology requires meeting a number of social, political, economic and technical challenges.

We are thankful to the Nigerian Government for passing the biosafety bill into law, establishing the National Biosafety Management Agency; however we still experience a major problem of social acceptability, which I know is a misconception a majority of the Nigerian populace holds about biotechnology and GM products. In a survey carried out in my 4th year in 2012, it showed that 85% of Nigerians don’t know what biotechnology entails but have their own personal philosophies in the best ways it appeals to their knowledge, and their knowledge is only associated with the negatives of biotechnology . It should however be stressed that biotechnology is a household name for everything that has to do with manipulation of living things ranging from the very simple process of alcohol fermentation to cloning of plants and animals. It should also be known that genetic engineering; transgenic organisms are quite different from cloning and cloned organisms. It should also be known that they is no innovation that lacks disadvantages, just like cars, airplanes, electricity had their advantages and disadvantages so also is biotechnology. Owing to the fact that the advantages of this innovations outweighs the disadvantages, policies, regulatory bodies are constituted to regulate this innovation within the confines of its advantages while on the other hand greatly reducing the disadvantages, this is no exception with biotechnology as the National Biosafety Management Agency (NBMA) was constituted to regulate the activities of biotechnology, and they will deliver on this core objective. In criticizing biotechnology and its products, we should offer a hard-look rather than our personal philosophies as the problem of social acceptance is a major setback to the proliferation of this technology in Nigeria.

CONCLUSION
Agricultural biotechnology will be a major part of the solution to the problem of increasing food demand while at the same time conserving biodiversity. It has been shown to improve yield around the world especially in developing countries and this increased yield will spare land for natural ecosystems to co-exist with agro ecosystems, improve GDP, generate income, create employments and consequently greatly reduce poverty and malnutrition which is the bane of developing countries. We implore Nigeria to join other developing and developed nations who have resorted to biotechnology on the basis of their needs and empirical based reports on biotechnology products by open minded, well-meaning scientist rather than taking queues behind developed countries who don’t have the need we have, who don’t suffer what we suffer, who have adopted the technology with respect to their own needs and claim the entire technology is not safe. We therefore call on everyone to partner with the National Biotechnology development agency to achieve its objectives of promoting and implementing evidence based science and technology of which agricultural biotechnology is cardinal.

OPEN LETTER TO THE EU PARLIAMENT FROM A GROUP OF NIGERIAN FARMERS: LET US MAKE THIS CHOICE FOR OURSELVES

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We (a group of Nigerian farmers) are so much concerned about this demand that the G8 should not support GM crops in Africa and want to state how important it is that agricultural biotechnology be applied to achieve a sustainable development of agriculture in Nigeria.

As Africans and Nigerians, we appreciate the efforts of the EU to make a decision on our food system but then, we can do this for ourselves. We need the opportunity to make our own choices; also we need to have variety of options to choose from.

Our farmers have heard and seen testimonies from other African farmers in Burkina Faso, Sudan, Egypt and South Africa. We know that Spain, one of the European Union countries as of 2014 has been the largest producer of GM crops in Europe with 137,000 hectares (340,000 acres) of GM maize planted in 2013 equalling 20% of Spain’s maize production. We also Know that over 70% of the crops grown in the United States is genetically modified and Nigeria Imports majority of its food from these countries.

If the EU Members really want to take a good decision for us, they should know Nigeria is tired of importing so much and exporting less. You need to also consider what we stand to gain from commercializing these products.

The adoption of Genetically Engineered crops is very critical for us because we can no longer afford to depend so much on oil or neglect what agriculture can do for our economy. Our Population is on the increase and is expected to be the 3rd largest population in the world by 2020. Conventional agricultural practices are strictly inadequate to feed us. Our crop yield is majorly affected by insects, at the same time climate change issues are making our land less fertile due to drought, flooding and other harsh condition. We do not have luxury of debating so much on genetically engineered crops because we have limited options to solving our food crisis.

Our cowpea (which the EU has stopped us from exporting because of Pesticide residue) is the next staple crop after rice in Nigeria and Maruca insect reduces its yield by 60%. We spray a lot to enable us get enough yield and are tired of spraying. If we commercialize Bt. Cowpea, it can reduce spraying for us and also pesticides residues to enable us to export cowpea. Our Cotton industry has been in comatose because of lack of improved seeds resistant to pests. We know commercializing Bt. Cotton can increase our yield thereby generating more income for us. Our hungry and malnourished women can get more nutrients from consuming bio fortified Sorghum enriched with extra vitamin A, Iron and Zinc.
We hereby want to state categorically that we do not want another form of colonialism from this decision you are about to make for us. Let us have options to the seeds we can grow. Even though we know Agricultural Biotechnology is not the only solution to the challenges we face in the farm, we need to embrace it as an efficient, inclusive, climate-smart, sustainable, nutrition- and health-driven, and business-friendly technology to help us produce more food in order to ensure that no Nigerian goes to sleep hungry by 2025.

We hope you make the right decision at the Session.

Abdallah Yaya is a Member of Cowpea Association of Nigeria, Abuja chapter.

Status of GMO adoption in Nigeria- AN Interview with DG NBMA

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Sir Rufus Ebegba, the Director-General and Chief Executive Officer of the National Biosafety Management (NBMA) at a meeting held in Abuja to review two applications submitted for the release of genetically modified Cotton and Maize, said Nigerians should prepare to see more GM products in the market to serve as alternative to consumers choice. In this interview with ETTA MICHAEL BISONG, the agriculturist and environmental biologist spoke on the benefits of adopting safe biotechnology practice to Nigeria’s national development goal.

What are the two GMOs applications about?

We have two biosafety applications which we are reviewing to ensure that the products are safe for human consumption and to environment. These applications are submitted by Monsanto Agriculture Nigeria Limited. The first one is to register the gene of cotton that has been genetically modified to resist against a pest, while the other is maize that is encoded with two genes for confined field trail – herbicide-tolerant and insect-resistant.

So, the essence of this meeting is to inaugurate the National Biosafety Committee (NBC) in addition to the existing National Biosafety Technical Committee (NBTC) to check the hereditary materials that have been put into the maize and cotton to ensure that they do not cause any allergy to man or animal as well as negative environmental impact. The committees are working and expected to conclude soon.

Already, there are publications in three national dailies informing members of the public of these applications in accordance with the Act establishing the agency. We have done these publications and expect comments or responses within 21 working days either by writing or visit to the agency. We have also deposited these applications and necessary documents at two other locations in addition to our office (NBMA). We have one at the Institute for Agricultural Research (IAR), Zaria and the other at the National Biotechnology Development Agency (NABDA). The essence is for those within the areas of means to be able to access and review these applications.

How is Nigeria expected to benefit from this?

What this means is that now that we have a law and an agency to implement this law, “it means Nigerians should be expecting new products in addition to others we already have in the market for consumers choice.” Nigerians should be expecting biotechnology products that definitely will be certified safe before any release. And the farmers should also be expecting better harvests, healthy seeds, more income for their labour and inputs into agricultural activities. Apart from that the farmers can also produce enough for export and through these processes jobs are created, as well as revenue generated through payment of permit fees to enhance economic growth.

Aside maize and cotton, what other crop is Nigeria expecting to release soon?

There is another crop that may likely come up very soon and that is the Bt cowpea modified to resist a pest known as maruca which has being on experimental field trail since 2009. The institution that was given the permit is doing multi locational trail across various regions of the country to ascertain the performance of the product.

What is your position on media’s role and various campaigns in Europe against GMOs?

The media is the voice of the nation; it is a means to ensure social equity and ensure that our nation is brought to the public so that everyone is aware.

I want the public to know that there are attempts by some individuals to cause unnecessary panic over matters surrounding genetically modified organisms (GMOs). GMOs are not synthetic or manufactured materials; it’s the swap of gene to achieve particular aim.

Europe should not be use as model for the adoption of biotechnology or GMOs. Europe is a self satisfied continent; we shall adopt technologies that are safe for Africa and our nation. Nigeria as a country has planned its programmes and will not be panicked, dissuaded or misled to abandon a safe technology like modern biotechnology. The establishment of the NBMA is not in error, it’s an attempt for Nigeria to diversify the economy and broaden the scope of our national development under a safe technology practice. The agency has come to give Nigerians hope that the adoption of modern biotechnology will be done in safe manner.

And I want to urge the media that it is not everything that is sensational that should be printed or reported. Journalists should not make themselves available for information that is not good for the nation because if misinformation is not published, it will not circulate. “Your conscience is where God lays and you will be an accomplice if you join those that don’t want to make Nigerians prosper.” Nigeria will adopt modern biotechnology that is safe for our national development.

I have said it severally that a safe biotechnology practice under a legal framework has ability to generate minimum of 25, 000 jobs annually. Nigeria is a country with diverse activities and if oil is failing us we must move to other sectors that can help our nation grow. Posterity will not forgive journalists if they connive with those who carry out misinformation, distortion of facts that are not scientific base and dissuade Nigerians from benefiting maximally from this technology. America, Argentina, Mexico, South Africa, Burkina Faso are among countries that have prospered from this technology. We will take what is good about the technology and abandon what is not good.

You must take note that GMOs are not meant to be imported into the country alone; Nigeria scientists have the competence and opportunity to develop varieties that are meaningful to our environment. One thing you must know again when we talk about GMOs is that it is not for food alone, it’s also for environmental sustainability and avenue to move the economy round mostly now that the world is on edge. If our conventional methods of doing things are failing us, we must move for advanced methods of doing that.

Europe is not the best model for Nigeria. Nobody should quote Europe in the adoption of genetic engineering. Go to Europe 60 per cent of their products are GMOs and they have the capacity to diversify their economy beyond Nigeria. How many countries in Europe are producing oil? How do they survive? Ask yourself these questions. We will not listen to those countries that have failed to adopt technologies that have moved on and want to continue with obsolete technologies and try to delay others until they meet up.

I want to assure you that the NBMA has what it takes to ensure that any product that is derived from modern biotechnology is safe before any release into the market.

What is your advice to Nigerians regarding the adoption of this technology?

Nigerians should trust the judgement of the NBMA; the Federal Government is doing everything possible to diversify the economy and everybody must support the government to achieve this for better today and future Nigeria.