How Agricultural Biotechnology Can Help Avert Looming Food Crisis

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LAGOS  – Underlying causes of food insufficiency in Nigeria and other countries of sub-Sahara Africa (SSA) are drought and conflicts, which are the major factors that have exacerbated the problem of production, distribution and access to food. 

Moreover, high rates of population growth and poverty have also played a part, within already difficult and fragile ecosystems. 

As a matter of fact, in Nigeria, there is high level of food insufficiency for the past four decades as a result of neglect of food production when oil has become the major export product. 

Approximately 70 percent of Nigeria’s population engages in food and agricultural production at a subsistence level. 

Importantly, the agriculture sector contributed about 41 percent of the total gross domestic product (GDP) some years ago, and at the moment contributes about 21 per cent going by the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) report in 2019. 

Food insufficiency or food insecurity is a situation existing when persons or people are undernourished as a result of the physical unavailability of food, or lack of social or economic access to adequate food. 

The global population is predicted to grow by two billion persons by 2050 and with more than half of that growth coming from Nigeria and other SSA countries; addressing food insecurity has become a matter of urgency. 

Experts have argued that it would be a serious challenge to feed ourselves in Nigeria in the future if new agricultural technologies are not adopted and the existing ones improved. 

They also said for Nigeria to adequately feed her ever increasing teeming population, innovations in agriculture must be given a priority. 

Also the recent COVID-19 pandemic that is ravaging the world has also created another challenge to the food industry. 

Dr Ikechi Agbagbu, Lecturer and Researcher at the Department of Agricultural & Applied Economics, Rivers State University, Port Harcourt, at a media parley with DAILY INDEPENDENT, said with food insufficiency on the rise, smallholder farmers, who form the major component of farmers in Nigeria’s agriculture sector, are turning to new technologies to improve food production. 

He said no doubts, COVID-19 pandemic has come with numerous challenges in Sub Saharan Africa especially Nigeria, with the region’s fragile health systems often getting increasing attention. 

“Nigerian farmers must boost food sufficiency or food security and agricultural production owing to the rise in food insecurity status in Nigeria. 

In order words, smallholder farmers are turning to new technologies in improving food production. 

Agbagbu noted that the COVID-19 pandemic is a game-changer in the sense that it is changing a lot with respect to advancing technology in the agriculture sector. 

According to him, during the pandemic, farming has become essential and Nigerian farmers should be empowered to get to their farms and further engage in biotechnology. 

“For instance, as many farmers depend on rain-fed agriculture, smallholders need to get information on whether it will rain, time for early preparations and timely planting of food crops. 

He said climate adaptation researchers have urged countries to ensure systems that address the needs of farmers such as; access to inputs, timely transport of food products in minimising inefficiencies including post-harvest losses. 

In the same vein, enabling people’s access to food and basic elements of biotechnology, such as Genetically Modified (GM) crops and agro-produce. 

He said that the wrong mind-set about farming, agriculture or agribusiness will gradually and definitely be eroded with the advent of agricultural technologies. 

Agbagbu further stated that with food insufficiency on the increase, smallholder farmers, who form the major component of farmers in Nigeria’s agriculture sector are turning to new technologies to improve food production. 

Despite the growing use of genetically modified crops over the years to meet the food demands of man, a lot of concern and suspicion by the consumers affect their acceptability. 

Dr. Helen Onyeaka, Lecturer, School of Chemical Engineering, Department of Chemical Engineering University of Birmingham Edgbaston, Birmingham while reacting to this in a media parley with DAILY INDEPENDENT, said foods produced with the aid of bio-engineering are safe for human consumption because they have been shown not to cause any adverse health effect. 

She added that different regulators such as the United States Food and Drug Administration (USFDA), NAFDAC in Nigeria and other independent bodies have stated that the use of these engineered foods is very important to combat global hunger and make foods readily available in a large scale. 

“These concerns are usually attributed to a lack of understanding of how genetically modified foods are produced, with a lot of people believing that they are grown in the laboratory. This is far from the truth because genetic engineering can be said to have been in practice for a very long time as early farmers selected the biggest crops for planting for the following year and used the strongest and biggest bull for mating, thus ‘selecting’ that particular gene. 

“This is similar to what is done today in genetic engineering,” she said. 

Another major concern by people is that consumption of genetically modified foods may seem to be safe now, but in the future, they may cause some health challenges such as cancers and obesity. 

Onyeaka explained that genetically modified foods have been around for more than 20 years and is consumed worldwide within this period and there have not being any link between their consumption and adverse health effects. 

On the concern that such food items are usually not nutritionally balanced or that they may not be as rich as their unmodified counterparts, she said several research conducted on genetically modified plants shows that they are superior nutritionally as they grow faster and better, and are more resistant to weeds and other chemical agents which generally reduces the growth of plants. 

She, however, advised that more needs to be done in science communication by food producers and regulatory agencies to educate the consumer on how genetically modified foods are produced and why they are important. 

“This can be done through undertaking awareness campaigns, seminars, workshops and simplification of food labelling systems to help consumers appreciate the content and safety of genetically modified foods. 

Meanwhile, as part of effort to ensure that Nigerians are educated and enlightened on the various advantages associated with adopting agricultural biotechnology, Open Forum on Agricultural Biotechnology (OFAB), organised a webinar session. 

Professor Alex Akpa, Acting Director-General of National Biotechnology Development Agency (NABDA), while speaking at the webinar tagged; ‘Media Summit on Status of Agricultural Biotechnology Research in Nigeria’, stressed the importance of biotechnology application for the benefits of man especially in the areas health, agriculture and environment. 

He said the Agency has started impacting massively in the area of agriculture, stressing that in the Agency’s yam multiplication program, last year, it was able to produce one million yam seedlings and that this year, it is targeting five million yam seedlings, and added that all these things are feasible because of Biotechnology. 

Dr Sylvester Oikeh, Project Manager of TELA Maize, said that genetically modified foods that have passed regulatory scrutiny and have been approved are considered safe to eat. 

He said biotechnology remains a strong investment for farmers, that globally for each dollar invested in biotech crop seeds; farmers gained an average of $3.49. 

“In 2016, farmers in developing countries received $5.06 for each extra dollar invested in biotech crop seeds, whereas farmers in developed countries received $2.70 for each extra dollar invested in biotech crop seeds,” Oikeh said. 

Arc Kabir Ibrahim, National President of All Farmers Association of Nigeria (AFAN), said in Nigeria today the options provided by good Science and Technology through the genetic modification of food crops to withstand pests and drought as well as engender high yield is germane and should be embraced fully. 

He said the small holder farmers who are the engine room of Nigeria’s food system should be sensitised to embrace technological advancement in order to avert hunger occasioned by the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Also, Dr. Rose Gidado, Country Coordinator, OFAB, noted that agricultural biotechnology holds the solution to Nigeria’s food security, stressing that the conventional method of agriculture can no longer meet up with the country’s demand. 

According to her, “With the current state of agriculture in Nigeria, it has become paramount to also adopt this technology to improve our productivity and revive our industries. 

“The time is now, let us sensitise people on the potentials of this innovation to aid decision making and adoption in Nigeria,” she added.



Source: Daily Independent

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