Food Security in Nigeria: Is Biotechnology the Panacea? – By Prof.MK Othman

In the last fifty years, the Nigerian population has escalated at geometric proportion. Data available in the 2012 revision of the World Population Prospects by the Population Division of the Department of Economic and Social Affairs of the United Nations Secretariat, indicates that Nigerian population in 1950 was only 37,860,000 compared to 159,708,000 in 2010. The proportion of children below the age of 15 in 2010 was 44.0% while between 15 and 65 years was 53.2% and above 65 years was only 2.7%. In my article of 15th July, 2016, published on this page, I quoted a brilliant demographic analysis made by Sanusi Abubakar, an ace columnist of Daily Trust Newspaper, published in its edition of Tuesday 28/6/2016. His analysis shows that Nigeria has an average birth rate of 850 babies per hour and an average death rate of 280 people per hour giving a population increase of 570 people per hour, 13,491 people per day and 4.92 million people per year. At this rate, Nigeria will reach 263 million by 2030 and 400 million by 2050, which will make the country to be the third most populous in the world. Currently, the population of Nigeria represents 2.35 % of the world´s population. This arguably means that one out of 43 persons on this planet is a Nigerian. With this exponential rate of population increase, the question; how can Nigeria be food secured? This question should disturb every responsible Nigeria; a leader or led, a rich or pauper a resident or nonresident, an able or disable.

The challenge of making Nigeria food secured is a herculean one, considering the current trend in food production, which has made the country to resort to massive food importation. Food imports in Nigeria have been growing at an alarming rate of 11% per annum since the 1980s. From recent government statistics (ATA documents), Nigeria was reported to be the world largest importer of wheat from USA with an annual import of N635 billion. It was also the second largest importer of rice (N356 billion), sugar (N217 billion), fish (N97 billion) and many other staple food items. These agricultural commodities have great local production potentials nationwide. In addition to these potentials, Nigerian arable land is estimated to be 79 million hectares of arable land out of which 32 million hectares are cultivated. The cultivation is done by smallholders, mostly subsistence producers, which account for 80% of all farm holdings. Again, about 90% of crops production in Nigeria is under rain-fed condition making the cultivated land a mere 100 % cropping intensity. This is currently the picture of Nigerian population and food (in) security. With more population, more foods will be needed on the table as there is no alternative solution to hunger except food. How can Nigeria produce sufficient foods to meet the requirements of this teeming population?

There are several challenges militating against food production in Nigeria. These problems are diverse and interlinked with each other. This column lacks space and time to list and analyze all the problems of agriculture in Nigeria. Some of the problems can be addressed by good government policy formulation and implementation to provide clear direction on agricultural development. However, scientific approach to address some of the challenges on sustainable manner is pertinent and timely. Challenges such as pests, diseases, inadequate rainfall for some agricultural commodities or early cease of rainfall can be scientifically addressed using biotechnology. Exponential increase of yield per unit land, reduction of maturity time of crops and animals and increase of products quality are easily achieved using biotechnology. what is biotechnology?

Wikipedia defines biotechnology as the use of living systems and organisms to develop or make products, or “any technological application that uses biological systems, living organisms or derivatives thereof, to make or modify products or processes for specific use” Depending on the tools and applications, it often overlaps with the related fields of bioengineering, biomedical engineering, bio-manufacturing, molecular engineering, The wide concept of “biotech” or “biotechnology” encompasses a wide range of procedures for modifying living organisms according to human purposes, going back to domestication of animals, cultivation of the plants, and “improvements” to these through breeding programs that employ artificial selection and hybridization.

The use of the biological processes of microorganisms to make useful food products, such as bread and cheese, and to preserve dairy products have been in existence for centuries. These biological processes are simple form of biotechnology. Over the years, biotechnology has grown to provide breakthrough products and technologies to combat debilitating and rare diseases, reduce our environmental footprint, feed the hungry, use less and cleaner energy, and have safer, cleaner and more efficient industrial manufacturing processes. Recent information shows more than 250 biotechnology health care products and vaccines available to patients, many were hitherto untreatable diseases; diseases that were considered “end of the road”, are today vaccinated courtesy of biotechnology. In the areas of agriculture, more than 13.3 million farmers around the world use agricultural biotechnology to increase yields, prevent damage from insects and pests and reduce farming’s impact on the environment. And more than 50 bio-refineries are being built across North America to test and refine technologies to produce bio-fuels and chemicals from renewable biomass, which can help reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

In the last centuries, as we continued to receive more satisfying results from the use of biotechnology, more efforts were made to elevate it to includes genetic engineering as well as cell and tissue culture technologies. Genetic engineering, also called genetic modification, is the direct manipulation of an organism’s genome using biotechnology. It is a set of technologies used to change the genetic makeup of cells, including the transfer of genes within and across species boundaries to produce improved or novel organisms. An organism that is generated through genetic engineering is considered to be a genetically modified organism (GMO). The first GMOs were bacteria generated in 1973 and GM mice in 1974. Insulin-producing bacteria were commercialized in 1982 and the sale of genetically modified food commenced since 1994 in United State. Genetic modification involves the mutation, insertion, or deletion of genes. Inserted genes usually come from a different species in a form of horizontal gene-transfer.

Genetically modified crops (GMCs, GM crops, or biotech crops) are plants used in agriculture, the DNA of which has been modified using genetic engineering techniques. In most cases, the aim is to introduce a new trait to the plant which does not occur naturally in the species. Examples in food crops include resistance to certain pests, diseases, or environmental conditions, reduction of spoilage, or resistance to chemical treatments (e.g. resistance to a herbicide), or improving the nutrient profile of the crop.

Globally, farmers have widely adopted GM technology. Literature reveals that between 1996 and 2015, the total surface area of land cultivated with GM crops increased by a factor of 100, from 17,000 km2 (4.2 million acres) to 1,797,000 km2 (444 million acres). It was also reported that 10% of the world’s arable land was planted with GM crops in 2010. In the US, by 2014, 94% of the planted area of soybeans, 96% of cotton and 93% of corn were genetically modified varieties. Use of GM crops expanded rapidly in developing countries, with about 18 million farmers growing 54% of worldwide GM crops by 2013. A 2014 meta-analysis concluded that GM technology adoption had reduced chemical pesticide use by 37%, increased crop yields by 22%, and increased farmer profits by 68%. This reduction in pesticide use has been ecologically beneficial, but benefits may be reduced by overuse. Yield gains and pesticide reductions are larger for insect-resistant crops than for herbicide-tolerant crops. Yield and profit gains are higher in developing countries than in developed countries. What are the progress made in using biotechnology to develop Nigerian agriculture? who made them? What are the challenges and implications? (To be continued) 


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