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Sunday, October 1, 2023

Role of biotechnology in ensuring food security, sustainable agriculture

By most accounts, low agricultural production is one of the prevailing factors behind the high incidence of poverty and food insecurity across the world.

Professor Lucy Ogbadu
Professor Lucy Ogbadu, Director General, National Biotechnology Development Agency (NABDA). Photo credit: economic confidential.com

However, concerned observers note that most poor and food insecure people in the world live in developing countries and rural areas.

They say that one of the most important challenges facing the developing world nowadays is how to meet the current food needs of a growing population without undermining the ability of future generations to survive.

Therefore, issues relating to food security and sustainable agriculture have been on the front burner in the national discourse at all levels of government, as innovative plans are always made for a changing global climate and the increasing global population.

Some experts, nonetheless, insist that crop production through biotechnology applications should be encouraged to meet the increasing dietary needs of the world.

One of the experts, Mrs Edel-Quinn Agbaegbu, the Secretary of National Biotechnology and Biosafety Consortium (NBBC), called on Nigerians to embrace the use of agricultural biotechnology to transform agriculture and enhance the country’s food security.

Agbaegbu told News Agency of Nigeria (NAN) that application of modern biotechnology in agriculture was central to efforts to attain food security in the country.

She said that Nigeria, with a population of over 180 million, needed more food to feed its citizens, while the potential of biotechnology, as a tool for facilitating the achievement of food security, had yet to be fully exploited.

“Food, like shelter and clothing, is very important as one of the three most essential ingredients of life.

“The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) recently stated that global production of food ought to double by 2050 in order to meet the demands of a growing global population,’’ she said.

According to her, Nigeria is one of the countries of the world where the percentage of the population suffering from malnutrition, hunger and starvation is still high.

Agbaegbu, therefore, said that science, modern agriculture and crop cultivation through biotechnology were required to deal with the rising challenges of food security.

She said that advances in science had resulted in accelerated development, including the application of biotechnology in agriculture, to improve overall livelihood, productivity and food security.

“The promises of biotech crops can only be unlocked if farmers are able to buy and plant these crops, following a scientific approach to regulatory reviews and approvals.

“Advances are also being realised in many African countries. In 2016, South Africa and Sudan increased the planting of biotech maize, soybean and cotton to 2.66 million hectares from 2.29 million hectares in 2015.

“In 2016, Brazil increased biotech production of maize, soybean, cotton and canola by a remarkable 11 per cent, maintaining its ranking as the second largest producer of biotech crops after the U.S.

“Brazil’s biotech soybeans account for 32.7 million hectares, out of the 91.4 million hectares grown worldwide.

“Also in 2016, 26 countries, including 19 developing and seven industrial countries, grew biotech crops,’’ she said.

Agbaegbu, however, conceded that there were certain challenges facing Africa and Nigeria, in particular, adding that the challenges included the degradation of land and water resources.

“There are myriads of other critical challenges that also affect the continent, especially Nigeria, where key crops, which are cultivated for consumption and commerce, are still facing attack of diseases.

“For instance, Cassava Mosaic Disease (CMD) and Cassava Brown Streak (CBSD) are still the most challenging constraints to cassava production in Sub-Saharan Africa,’’ she said.

Agbaegbu said that biotechnology, which was also genetic modification, would address the challenges relating to plant pest and diseases as well as the vagaries of weather, among other challenges facing crop growing.

She said that the new generation of biotech crops, developed via the increasing use of stacked traits, did not only address the farmers’ concerns but also addressed consumers’ preference and nutritional needs.

“The use of improved varieties is expected to contribute to improved health, environment and income, while drastically reducing the need for frequent spraying with insecticides.

“Today’s global development and sustainability are based on science.

“Fortunately, GM crops so far produced and globally commercialised are for herbicide-tolerance, insect, disease and drought-resistance, including bio-fortification.

“There is no doubt that advancement in any technology also goes with some potential adverse impacts and modern biotechnology is not an exception in this regard,’’ she said.

Agbaegbu stressed that scientific, technological and innovative advancements were crucial for the industrialisation and socio-economic development of Nigeria and Africa in general.

She said that biotechnology would boost crop yield via the introduction of high-yield varieties that were resistant to biotic and biotic stresses.

“In addition, biotechnology would reduce pest-associated losses and increase the nutritional value of foods, which are very important factors in rural areas or developing countries,’’ she said.

Prof. Benjamin Ubi, the President of Biotechnology Society of Nigeria (BSN), said that biotechnology research and development had already produced significant products.

He added that the products would play a pivotal role in plans to encourage and boost food production, considering their safety and environmental quality.

Ubi noted that the safety and potential impact of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) on human health had been a subject of serious concern and public scrutiny.

He, nonetheless, said that the future of biotech crops looked encouraging, as the global production of biotech crops continued to increase.

All the same, Ubi emphasised that the adoption of biotechnology would facilitate sustainable agricultural production in the country.

His words: “The adoption of biotechnology applications is the panacea to the current food challenges facing the country.

“Biotechnology, including genetic engineering and production of GMOs, provides powerful tools for the sustainable development of agriculture, fishery and forestry, as well as meeting the food needs of the population.

“GMOs currently account for about 16 per cent of the world’s crops, particularly crops like soybean, maize, cotton and canola, and there are indications that the growing trend will continue.

“So, we must eat what we grow and grow what we eat. This means we ought to produce more and agricultural biotechnology is a tool for achieving this.’’

Ubi guaranteed the safety of biotechnology in agricultural production, saying that global certification bodies had confirmed the safety of GMOs.

“All the same, informed criticism is good for checks and balances but it should not be allowed to be a cog the wheel of progress,’’ he added.

Sharing similar sentiments, Dr Abdulrazak Ibrahim, a university lecturer, emphasised that the use of modern biotechnology enhanced sustainable agricultural development, while boosting food production and alleviating poverty.

Ibrahim, who is of the Department of Biochemistry, Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, said that modern biotechnology was one of the best means of achieving sustainable national development and tackling the challenges of food insecurity.

“Modern biotechnology is becoming increasingly important in addressing emerging challenges with regard to food security and renewable energy demand.

“Agriculture is everyone’s business and our nation’s independence depends on its development, as it will enable us to escape from the scourge of food insecurity which undermines our sovereignty and fosters sedition.

“Agriculture is a driver of growth, whose leverage is now acknowledged by economists and politicians, and it is the sector that is offering the greatest potential for the reduction of poverty and inequality.

“It also provides sources of productivity from which the most disadvantaged people working in the agricultural sector should benefit,’’ he added.

Ibrahim noted that GMOs, which were a product of modern biotechnology, so far had no negative impact on humans, animals and the environment.

“The coming of modern biotechnology and GMOs will facilitate our efforts to make Nigeria a nation that is self-sufficient in food production.

“We should promote the use of available modern farming methods and technologies that would solve the problems of poor agricultural productivity, health and nutrition.

“So, we should not run away from the benefits of the application of modern biotechnology and the use of genetically modified foods and feeds,’’ he added.

All in all, the general consensus of opinion is that Nigeria should make pragmatic efforts to develop its biotechnology sector and exploit the potential of the sector to develop its agricultural sector and boost its food security.

By Ebere Agozie, News Agency of Nigeria (NAN)

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