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