First Food Crop GMO in Nigeria: Commercial Release of Pod Borer Resistant Cowpea (III), by Prof MK Othman

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Prof. IU Abubakar

As a conclusion to the release of the fist food crop GMO in Nigeria, it is pertinent to enlighten the general public on the genetically modified product as one of the important feats achieved through scientific process. As mentioned in the first part of this article that GMO connotes dreadful fear to some people because of unscientific and unsubstantiated allegations that GMO is harmful to people, the contribution of Dr. Rose M. Gidado in the second part of this article adequately addressed safety of PBR cowpea for human consumption. Still, the question is ‘does Nigeria need the Genetic Modification (GM) Technology?’

This question is germane considering the results of the Fifth Multiple Indicators Cluster Survey (MICS5) that was discussed in the second part of this article. Dr. Onyeka Nwosu, an Abuja based Scientist amply tackled the subject of GM technology and the Nigerian quest to achieve food security and diversify the economy through agriculture. Happy reading.

Does Nigeria Need The Genetic Modification (GM) Technology?

Agriculture today accounts for about 25% of GDP in Nigeria and is the sector that offers the greatest potential for poverty reduction and job creation, particularly among vulnerable rural populations and urban dwellers with limited job opportunities. The growing population in Nigeria is expected to cause an exponential rise in the demand for food, a warming climate, water scarcity, and arable land shrinkage that will make the challenge more difficult. In recent years, Nigerian and non-Nigerian scientists and experts from different fields are increasingly focusing on the challenging and threatening projection that in the next 30 years, Nigeria will need to produce as much food as has been consumed over our entire human history.

Growth generated by agriculture in Nigeria is believed to be effective in reducing poverty and mortality than GDP growth in other sectors because it is certain that increased GDP growth will bring food security and job opportunities to the country through a coordinated effort between the public and private sectors. However, the agricultural sector has suffered sustained neglect and as a result, Nigeria has gone from being an exporter of agricultural and food products to importers today.

Considering the increased level of poverty, malnutrition, hunger, unemployment and low level of agricultural productivity in Nigeria, Genetic modification (GM) technology has great potential to offer solutions.

Genetic modification technology, which is also known as genetic engineering, a method of modern biotechnology is the term given to the technology through which a gene from one organism is transferred to another. The inserted gene may be from the same species (transfer of a desirable gene from an organism of specie into another organism of same specie). This is called Cisgenics. The inserted gene can as well be from another species (transfer of a desirable gene from an organism of specie into another organism of different specie). This is called Transgenics. In some cases, an inserted gene may govern one particular trait, such as an organism’s resistance to disease or pest, while in other cases; many inserted genes may determine characteristics. It was the understanding of DNA that paved the way for the technology. The knowledge gained has allowed researchers to transfer genes between the cells of different organisms. In other words, agricultural modern biotechnology enables improvements that are not possible with traditional crossing of related plant species alone.

The modification in plant genes, through this genetic engineering, is of enormous advantage to all the stakeholders i.e. benefits the farmer, the consumer and the government. The genes are modified to introduce newer or improved desirable traits or even eliminate undesirable ones. Some of these traits include improved resistance to pest and diseases which eventually benefits the farmers through yield increase, improved adaptation to extreme environmental stress like drought and flooding conditions which promotes better crop protection and improved nutritive value which benefits the consumer through high nutritional enrichment. This success from farm to the consumer undoubtedly positively changes the economy of Nigeria through increased exportation, industrialization and food security.

The power of this modern breeding biotechnology is further augmented because biotechnologists can add a gene conveying useful characteristics from virtually any other organism, thus stressing the very real value of wild biodiversity and solidifying the arguments for its conservation. By contrast, conventional breeding can only use genes already existing in the crop variety of interest or in closely related, sexually compatible varieties. In other words, the truth about modern biotechnology in agriculture and its products is the opposite of what the public think. They are produced with methods that are more precise, predictable and controllable than historical methods long accepted as safe.

According to ISAAA 2016, planting of genetically modified crops has increased 100-fold from 1.7 million hectares in 1996 to 185.1 million hectares in 2016, planted by up to 17 to 18 million farmers making it the fastest adopted crop technology in recent times. This global adoption rate speaks for itself in terms of its sustainability, resilience and substantial benefits it delivers to both small and large-scale farmers as well as consumers.

The most commercially available genetically modified crops in the world are Maize, Cotton, Soybean and Canola which are either engineered to be herbicide tolerant, insect resistant or both. Nigeria’s textile industry suffered a serious setback that affected the economy of Nigeria due to the severe attack of bollworm that reduces the yield of cotton production on the field. Today through genetic modification technology, genetically modified (GM) cotton that has an improved characteristic of resisting the attack of bollworm have been successfully developed and planted. This insect and pest attack is also likened to the low production of other cash crops that are used as both human and animal feed such as Maize and Soybean.

Commercialization of these crops in Nigeria will economically improve the GDP via improved textile using the GM cotton and the agricultural industry using GM maize, soybean etc. for food, feed and processing.

The Nigerian government has already taken care of the ill-fated public concerns of this technology like environmental concerns, human health concerns, socio-economic concerns, cultural issues, religious issues among others through the provision of a strong biosafety regulatory system. According to reports of Council on Science and Public health, there is no evidence to support the idea that the consumption of approved GM food has detrimental effect on human health. This is actually because of Biosafety regulation that comprehensively assesses the process and the products of the technology. This makes genetically modified products the most extensively regulated products all over the world. Biosafety regulation is intended to diminish or eradicate the possible harmful effects of modern biotechnology on the environment, biodiversity and human health using, policies, laws and guidelines. It also helps to determine in advance when hazards to human health and natural systems will result if any particular Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) is released into the environment, anticipate when a given GMO or any of its product(s) will be harmful if it becomes part of human food, and detect whether a GMO will actually yield the benefits it was designed to provide.

Nigeria developed her biosafety system, which is consolidated legally through the assenting of the National Biosafety Management Agency Act, 2015 bill into law. This Act led to the establishment of the only competent Authority in Nigeria, National Biosafety Management Agency (NBMA) that has the responsibility for providing regulatory framework for safety measures in the application of modern biotechnology and its products like GMOs with the view to preventing any adverse effects on human health, animals and the environment and as well as sustaining the biodiversity.

Indeed, considering the enormous economic importance of agricultural genetic modification technology in Nigeria and also bearing in mind the existence of a legally and technically equipped institution (National Biosafety Management Agency) that ensures the safety of the technology, Nigeria without doubt needs the full adoption of genetic modification technology.

This concludes my three series article on the release of the first food crop GMO developed in Nigeria for Nigerians and beyond.

Professor Othman is the Executive Director of National Agricultural Extension and Research Liaison Services (NAERLS), ABU Zaria.

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