BIOTECHNOLOGY REVOLUTION: Nigeria in Perspective by Dr. Rose Maxwell Gidado

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The practical use of biological processes in industrial production is no more a new science. Experts and historians alike are of the opinion that biotechnology has actually been around for a very long time, because its early examples include the making of cheese, wine and beer. The later developments in science and technology widened its scope to include vaccine and insulin production; and its latest globally controversial product; Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) also called transgenic organisms. It is understandable that this phase of biotechnology gave it its contemporary definition which has raised the issue of risk factors in some quarters. The field wields an undeniable power in the fact that it continues to be the pivot of global socio-economic and political revolutions since it came to the scene in the 1980s.

A DNA Testing Machine

The rapid growth and application of biotechnology is widely attributed to the development of genetic engineering (the alteration of genetic materials) in the 1970s. Some of the products developed in this manner include human insulin, and human growth hormone. The techniques of genetic engineering also offer the opportunity for a number of heredity disorders to be corrected by manipulation. This has led to successes in the treatment of various diseases and the popular breakthrough in the genome project. Biotechnology revolution promises a future of unprecedented health and longevity. The DNA screening could prevent many diseases while the gene therapy could cure diseases. Thanks to lab grown organs, the human body could be repaired as easily as a car, with spare parts readily available. Ultimately, the ageing process itself could be slowed down.
According to the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), biotechnology holds great promise for agriculture in developing economies such as Nigeria. This has provided the opportunity for basic food crops of the poor such as cassava, potato, rice and wheat to receive more attention by scientists. This simply means that a poor country like ours must concentrate on biotechnology based researches to improve its food and cash crops in order to eradicate hunger. To this end, simple and cheap scientific methods of plant breeding and disease prevention could be introduced in our agricultural activities to improve annual yields, supply better stocks for planting and make available large quantities of seedlings for farmers.
A typical waste dump

Given the challenges of population increase and its attendant problems of pollution increase, biotechnology remains the most reliable means of environmental sustenance. The world is currently endangered; government and experts are concerned about the danger posed by pollutants (most of which are recalcitrant). Human activities in his environment involve a lot of chemical synthesis in the process of converting the natural products in his environment into other forms convenient for his consumption. In the quest for converting raw materials into finished goods and products for example, conversion of petrochemical substances into polythene products, the environment correspondingly becomes littered with substances not needed in the course of production.
Waste conversion

In the process of creating products, man has created problems either consciously or unconsciously vis-à-vis pollution. As a result, the most acceptable solution to the generated wastes in the environment is such that will conveniently integrate them back into the environment. That method involves the use of microorganisms such as yeasts, bacteria, or fungi as whole cell usage production system or in the form of industrial enzymes. In many cases these microorganisms or their products are integrated into the substrates which give us the products, desired in the industries.
Biotechnology tools have long been used in many developed countries in the world such as the United States, Finland, Sweden, Germany, Japan, and others. Africa is still lagging from being integrated into these environmental sustainability best practices. Africa generally and Nigeria in particular have not imbibed maximally the benefit of using biotechnology in addressing issues associated with environmental degradation and maintenance of sustainable environment. In the oil rich Niger Delta, the lingering problem of environmental degradation from crude oil productions has remained a dominant issue of public discuss and concern. Crude oil spill affects germination and growth of plants which in turn affects the overall production of crops due to its negative impact on the chlorophyll content which is a marker of the yield of plants. Severe crude oil spill in the oil rich Niger Delta has forced some farmers to migrate out of their traditional home, especially those that depend solely on agriculture. The negative impact of oil spillages remains the major cause of depletion of the Niger Delta vegetation cover and the mangrove ecosystem.
The Nigerian major cities such as Aba, Enugu, Onitsha, Port-Harcourt, Kano, Ibadan, and Lagos are characterized by huge mounds of solid waste dumps (both bio-degradable and non bio-degradable) generated from households, industries, markets, schools, and street trading. This can be attributed to migration, population increase, urbanization, constructions, and industrialization coupled with inefficient and improper disposal of wastes.
Biotechnological techniques to treat waste before or after it has been brought into the environment are components of environmental bio-tools. Bio-tools for the sustenance of the environment are those biotechnological processes that make use of bio-products as well as microorganisms for pollution reduction, production of environmental friendly products as well as general maintenance of the natural environment for the benefit of man and other ecosystem components. It is an aspect of environmental biotechnology concerned with prevention of processes capable of causing an unsustainable environment for man and eco-components.
Biotechnology can also be applied industrially for use in developing products and processes that generate less waste and use less nonrenewable resources and consume less energy. In this respect, biotechnology is well positioned to contribute to the development of a more sustainable society through a sustainable environment. Environmental biotechnology is therefore futuristic and limitless in application and usage. Examples of these Bio-tools which can be applied as remedy to environmental pollutions and environmental sustenance include bioleaching (bio-mining), bio-detergent, bio-treatment of pulp, bio-treatment of wastes (bio-remediation), bio-filtrations, aquaculture treatments, bio-treatment of textiles, biocatalysts, biomass fuel production, bio-monitoring, and so forth. The products arising from the application of these bio-tools when discarded easily go back into the ecosystem. As such, they become reconverted into organic components of the environments. Moreover, their production is strictly biological instead of chemical which is largely responsible for introduction of pollutants.
Nigeria is the focus on how to begin to make use of biotechnology as well as these bio-tools for enhanced agricultural productivity and improvement of the badly degraded environment. Agricultural and Environmental Biotechnology holds a lot of promise for the development of the agricultural/ industrial sector as well as ensuring environmental sustainability in Nigeria. Its role in national development includes providing the technology to transform the agricultural/environmental sector to enhance food security, ensure industrialization and sustainable environment, create jobs, reduce poverty and create wealth.

However, the growing concern on the safety of this technology to humans and environment as a result of lack of understanding and fear about what this technology really holds for Nigeria and other developing countries in the future has adversely affected its full domestication and spade of biotechnology revolution in Nigeria. The application of Biotechnology under a legal framework is a valuable tool for addressing these several challenges. A win-win situation could be achieved with effective communication strategy between the scientist and the public. Scientists must be adequately trained in communication and adopt the best strategy to drive their message. This is why we must acknowledge the contributions of the Open Forum on Agricultural Biotechnology (OFAB) in Africa, Nigerian Chapter, to enhancing understanding of biotechnology in agriculture for productivity; promoting targeted capacity development that will improve communication across all sectors interested in Biotechnology and contributing to informing policy decision making processes on matters of agricultural biotechnology through provision of factual, well research and scientific information.

OFAB which is domiciled in NABDA has in collaboration with other relevant stakeholders organized several workshops, conferences and fora designed to increase advocacy and public enlightenment to educate the populace on the benefits of modern biotechnology, use of GM crops and biotech products; and the existence of strong regulatory framework to ensure safe application of modern biotechnology, bring biotechnology to the front burner in the diversification of Nigeria’s economy under a sound bio-safety regulatory framework, create Biotechnology champions that could effectively play advocacy role on biotechnologically related matters, equip stakeholders, including researchers, farmers, mass media practitioners, etc with the requisite skills on effective biotechnology communication to encourage the “pro science” group to be more proactive; among others.
Nigeria as a nation is expected to take advantage of biotechnology to increase the choice of farmers for improved seeds, provide solution to malnutrition; combat issues of food insecurity enhance their financial status, make farming attractive to the young folks, address various environmental degradation related issues and ensure improved bio-diversity. The recent establishment of bio-safety law in Nigeria should allay the fears of the public with regard to modern biotechnology and its products. Nigeria must not lean on Europe or the USA but should move boldly towards ensuring better future through deployment of modern Biotechnology. Having in recognition of the importance of Biotechnology established the National Biotechnology Development Agency (NABDA) and adopted the National Biosafety Management Agency Act 2015 as an appropriate regulatory body, Nigeria cannot afford any longer to miss the benefits accruable from the current global biotechnology revolution especially as it concerns harnessing Biotechnology to enhance agricultural productivity and ensure economic diversification. It is therefore imperative for Nigerian government to fast-track the development of Agricultural Biotechnology by complementing the efforts of OFAB and other relevant stakeholders as well as showing full commitment to its financing.
Dr. Mrs. Rose Gidado, OFAB Nigeria National Coordinator, receiving DG/CEO recognition award of excellence at NABDA 2nd Open Day

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