The use of biotechnology in agriculture has resulted in benefits such as increased yields, reduced production costs, and improved nutritional content of food. Gilbert Ekugbe takes a look at the use of biotechnology to boost food production in Nigeria amid its inherent risks
There is no better time than now for Nigeria to boost food production in the midst of skyrocketing food prices, insecurity, farmers-herders conflicts, climate change and the likes. According to reports, Nigeria has spent over N7.8 trillion in the past six years on food imports, a figure that is more than the budget of some of its neighbouring countries. Reports have also shown that Nigeria has the ability to be an exporter of food against being a net importer food if it could successfully implement brilliant agricultural policies that have been formulated by successive administrations in the past.
Nevertheless, all hope is not yet lost as governments across the globe are investing in agricultural biotechnology to meet their food needs. Biotechnology, which is widely used around the world to improve plant growth, yields, resistance to pests and diseases and enhance nutritional content, has been projected to hit a Compound Annual Growth Rate (CAGR) of 8.0 per cent by 2025.
Evidently, Nigeria cannot afford to miss this trend to meet its food needs. Also, the country must outgrow its dependence on hoes and cutlasses to meet its demand for food. Nevertheless, as efficient as this model might seem, biotechnology also come with risks.
Agric biotechnology benefits
Just like other sectors of the economy, the application of technology is the surest way to achieve rapid development in any industry. Proven in developed economies, the advancements in biotechnology have led to increased productivity, reduced environmental impact, and improved food quality in agriculture. With the help of biotechnology in agriculture, scientists have been able to produce Genetically Modified Crops (GMCs). Fortunately, Nigeria is among the African countries leading in the adoption of genetically modified (GM) crops, alongside South Africa, Ethiopia, and Malawi.
THISDAY had reported that in 2019 that Nigeria has approved two GM crops, pest-resistant BT cotton and cowpea, which are important to the country’s economic development and food value chain. Biotechnology has also been used in improving seed quality in other climes and as shown to be more effective and efficient in improving the crops that have been feeding the global population as well as used in developing herbicide-resistant during harvest period. Courtesy of agri-biotech, biofuels have also been developed with the aim of tackling greenhouse gas emissions and according to crop scientists; biofuel is harmless to the food supply chain.
In September this year, stakeholders in the nation’s agriculture value chain threw their weight behind agricultural biotechnology and emphasised the urgent need for Nigeria to adopt agricultural biotechnology to achieve increased food production in the country.
The Director General and Chief Executive Officer, National Biotechnology Development Agency (NBDA), Professor Abdullahi Mustapha, at a one day editors’ interactive session on navigating biotech’s frontiers for accurate science communication in Lagos, stated that biotechnology is a transformative field that has the potential to address some of the most pressing challenges facing the nation and the world at large, adding that biotechnology is at the forefront of driving positive change from agriculture to healthcare and environmental conservation to industrial innovation.
Mustapha, however, stated that for agricultural biotechnology to reach its full potential, it must be understood, accepted, and embraced by the public. He pointed out that it is a responsibility on the path of the federal government to ensure that accurate and balanced information about agricultural biotechnology is readily available to all Nigerians.
He also stressed the vital role of media to amplifying the benefits of agricultural biotechnology, maintaining that it is the bridge that connects complex scientific discoveries with the broader society, translating technical jargon into understandable language, and fostering informed discussions.
There are number of risks associated with the use of biotechnology in agriculture. Although, yet to be proven, some of the specific risks included the loss of genetic diversity, environmental impact and especially on food safety. It is argued that the loss of genetic diversity could lead to potential replacement of native species and reducing the variety of crops.
Reports also have it that the development of resistance in insect pests to crop-protection poses threat to the environment. The agency in charge of agricultural biotechnology in Nigeria in its defense said Nigerian agriculture is especially vulnerable to climate change and its associated occurrences of higher temperatures, extended droughts, floods, and other circumstances that have been reducing agricultural production across the country, particularly in the northern states.
Also speaking at the interactive session, the Director, Agricultural Biotechnology Department, National Biotechnology Development Agency (NABDA), Dr. Rose Gidado, said that biotechnology offered new tools for increasing agricultural productivity and protecting food crops from climate changes such as heat, floods, and drought.
Gidado pointed out that the use of biotechnology tools in Nigerian agriculture is now necessary due to the current state of emergency in the country’s food and agricultural sector, adding that to date, no evidence of safety or health risks has been linked to the two commercial biotech crops: cotton and PBR Cowpea, which are already available on the market.
On her part, the Director General and Chief Executive Officer, National Biosafety Management Agency (NBMA), Dr. Agnes Yemisi Asagbra, emphasised that modern biotechnology has advanced quickly, saying that creating new regulatory requirements is vital to protect human health and the environment while also utilising the potential that biotechnology presents to the country.
Asgbra said: “In order to address the various global and national concerns and challenges in the fields of human health, agriculture, environment, and industry, modern biotechnology application inside a legal framework can be a beneficial instrument,” she stated.
Agricultural biotechnology has generated lots of debates about its ethical implications. There are various scholars that have raised concerns over its ethical implications while some have supported the model to boost food production, security, improve crop quality while also reducing the use of synthetic pesticides, benefiting farmers and consumers.
On the other hand, others raised concerns about overproduction, unnatural biological diversity, and the dominance of multinational agribusiness corporations.
Despite the conflicting opinions, agricultural biotechnology has a long history and has been used to improve agriculturally important organisms through selection and breeding. The ethical debate surrounding agricultural biotechnology reflected broader concerns about societal norms, beliefs, and values, and the need for understanding and tolerance to prevent social conflict
Ultimately, the ethical considerations of agricultural biotechnology involve balancing the pursuit of the greatest good for farmers and the environment with the concept of sustainability.
At this point, the Nigerian government is at cross roads as to whether to invest massively in initiatives that would drive agri-biotech development or choose to ignore due to the perceived risks associated in deploying agriculture biotechnology