GMOs: No time for argument

Despite visible benefits, many technologies are not adopted by Nigerian farmers. JULIANA AGBO writes on the need to adopt scientific and technological innovations for sustainable growth of the agricultural sector.

An aged farmer from Katsina State Alhaji Salmanu, Chairman, Nigeria Ginners Association recently stunned an audience at a debate on whether Nigerians should allow Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) or not when he said that the hungry man has no choice of where the food is coming from.”

It has become obvious that Nigeria is one of the countries in Sub-Saharan Africa that have the challenges of food security. It is estimated that more than 50 million Nigerians go to bed without food. This is because in the past few years, the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organisation has predicted that there would be severe starvation due to Nigeria’s inability to produce what the citizens need.

The problem is further exacerbated by an over-reliance on rain-fed agriculture, conflicts that displace farmers and lack of technology.

The country’s population projected to hit 400 million by 2050, will make Nigeria the world’s fourth most populous country. This population is increasingly reliant on food produced by smallholder farmers mostly made up of women and children while also depending on imported food products.

Despite being the highest producer of cowpea, maize, rice and other grains in Sub-Sharan Africa, Nigeria is a net importer of food and major agricultural products.

Every year, Nigeria spends about N16 billion in importing beans from neighbouring countries such as Niger, Cameroon and Burkina Faso.

Bread, semolina, pasta and other wheat flour-based products are staples in Nigeria and the demand for the products has continued to increase.

Currently, the shares of wheat flour for bread, semolina, pasta and others, are estimated at 60 per cent, 20 per cent,10 per cent, and 10 per cent, respectively.

Some 2019 data from the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) and Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) showed that Nigeria spent over N40 trillion on food imports in the last 21 years in order to meet domestic consumption.

The NBS data revealed that from 2016 to the first half of 2019, Nigeria spent N54.51 trillion importing manufactured goods, mostly food, and agricultural goods. Within the period, agricultural goods import gulped N38.24 billion while manufactured goods import gulped 19.51billion.

NBS data in June 2020, showed that Nigeria’s total foreign trade (import and export) rose marginally by 0.8 per cent year on year when compared to N8.24 trillion recorded in the corresponding quarter of 2019.

Nigeria’s wheat consumption is mostly filled by local production augmented by imports valued at about $1.5 billion in 2017 and $1.7 billion in 2018. Local wheat production remained inadequate and domestic supplies of substitute staples within Nigeria and neighbouring countries have not kept pace with demand. USDA forecasts Nigeria’s wheat consumption in MY 2019/20 at 5.26 million metric tons (MT).

United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), forecasts Nigeria’s wheat production in marketing year (MY) 2019/20 (July-June) to reach 60,000 metric tons (MT), unchanged from the production figure for marketing year 2018/19. The area harvested to remain at 60,000 hectares, with yields holding steady at one metric ton per hectare, according to USDA Foreign Agricultural Service (FAS).

Nigeria is Africa’s top producer of maize, followed by Tanzania, according to the International Institute for Tropical Agriculture (IITA). But the country is also a leading importer of the product as demand for animal feed grows in the country.

The country’s annual need for maize is estimated at 15 million metric tons while her local production is 10.5million tons. The balance is imported from countries such as South Africa, Argentina and other South American countries where genetically modified maize is heavily cultivated.

Peter Shema, a plant breeder with the Federal University, Lafia noted recently that “it is funny when I see our brothers argue that GMOs are deadly and bad. What are we doing with the huge volume of maize imported every year? We eat them so what is the ratio of Nigerians dying every year due to the consumption of GMOs?

Many stakeholders across the country, especially those in the agriculture value chain agree with Shema as they continued to harp on the need to adopt agricultural biotechnology to improve the country’s productivity and revive industries.

At a recent meeting, they noted that the adoption of agricultural biotechnology tool, among others is necessary to enable Nigeria to attain food security.

While noting that agricultural biotechnology may not be the only tool to attaining a food-secure Nigeria, they agreed it will play a significant role in ensuring that farmers produce quality food, rich in necessary nutrients as well as enough food to ensure that no Nigerian goes to bed without food.

“Even though we are the largest producers of maize and cowpea that we have been importing, why won’t we enhance what we have to make it better for consumption and export?” they queried.

What is biotechnology?

Biotechnology is a modern science tool used to improve agricultural productivity to eliminate hunger and ensure food security for the populace. It uses Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) as one of its components to engineer the genes of plants and animals to make them behave in ways they are intended to be.

Prof. Celestine Aguoru, President, National Biotechnology and Biosafety Consortium, has emphasised the importance of Genetic Engineering and Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) in achieving food security in the country.

Prof. Aguoru said the introduction will address the national cowpea demand deficit of about 500,000 tons and improve the national productivity average of 350kg/hectare.

He said: “What are the duties of the over 15 agricultural research institutes, the Federal Government-owned and funded universities of agriculture, faculties of agriculture, sciences; vet medicine if they cannot proffer scientific solution to agricultural problems?

“Their duties are simply to work on the improvement of our crops, provide scientific solutions to challenges facing farmers and ensure that crops in which the country has comparative advantage in producing thrive.”

Prof Aguoru, who is with the Biotechnology Department, Faculty of Agricultural Science, University of Agriculture, Makurdi noted that all over the world, countries that had attained appreciable heights in their development strides had relied on their universities of science and technology institutes.

What are GMOs?

GMOs, or genetically modified organisms is a term commonly used to describe crops produced through a plant breeding technique that uses a specific type of genetic engineering.

Essentially, plant breeders take the gene for a specific trait in one plant or microbe and insert it into the cells of a crop plant. The goal is to add “desirable traits” to a crop such as better nutrition; longer shelf life; resistance to pests, diseases and herbicides; faster growth.

 Are GM foods safe for consumption?

A General Practitioner, Rosemary Angah who spoke to The Nation said there is no evidence to show that GM foods are not safe for consumption.

Angah further explained that since the first widespread commercialisation of GM produce 20 years ago, there has been no evidence of ill effects linked to the consumption of any approved GM crop.

Nigeria has been eating imported food for a very long time yet, we have not seen negative cases from consumption of the foods being imported. The fact is that most of the imported processed foods contain one genetically modified ingredient or the other.

“Before any food produced using GM technology is permitted into the market, a variety of tests have to be completed. The results from these tests, including results from animal feeding trials, are considered by the authorities responsible for determining the safety of each new GM product.

“The National Biosafety Management Agency is the organisation in the country vested with the responsibilities of regulating GMOs, currently; NBMA is rated as one of the best and most competent Biosafety regulatory institutions in Africa.

“There have been studies claiming damage to human or animal health from specific foods that have been developed using GM. The claims were not about the GM method itself, but about the specific gene introduced into the crop, or about agricultural practices associated with the crop, such as herbicide treatments. The statistical analysis and methodology of these studies have been challenged. All reliable evidence produced to date shows that currently available GM food is at least as safe to eat as non-GM food,” she said.

An animal feed trial of GM tomatoes modified to produce high levels of antioxidants showed the GM tomatoes reduced the levels of cancer. This is not because the tomatoes are GM, but rather because they produce antioxidants, which are known to reduce cancer.  A nutritionist, Friday Matthew, said farmers have been genetically modifying plants for more than 9,000 years.

“In reality, much of all the foods we eat have been genetically modified. Our ancestors would select and replant the seeds from the best plants, steadily altering the genetic material of crops over time.

“Later, plant breeders started crossing related plant species to introduce more genetic diversity and make better crops. Currently, we are simply using modern tools and technology to modify crops more efficiently and precisely.

“Not a single food safety or health issue associated with GM crops use has been confirmed. That means all of the bad things you’ve seen or read about GMOs aren’t true and aren’t supported by two decades of historical evidence or by credible scientists.

“Even though a genetically modified crop is virtually identical to a non-modified crop, all GMOs nevertheless go through rigorous safety testing at every stage; from research planning to field-test to food and environment safety assessment before going on the market.

Nigerian Academy of Science, an apex body in the country that advises President Muhammadu Buhari on scientific and technological innovations were clear to tell Nigerians that GMOs are safe. Why then should we continue to limit our farmers and deny ourselves good and healthy foods?

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