Experts say modern biotechnology is a powerful tool to improve agriculture transformation agenda, ATA of the federal government to boost food production, create more jobs, increase exports, reduce food importations and creates more wealth in the country, writes OLUGBENGA SALAMI
Major challenges facing food production capacity include a world population expected to grow to nearly 9 billion by 2050 and a falling ratio of arable land to population. Among the benefits of using pesticides for crop protection is that these products are vital to increasing food production. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation, FAO, some 20 to 40 percent of the world’s potential crop production is already lost annually because of the effects of weeds, pests and diseases.
These crop losses would be doubled if existing pesticide uses were abandoned, significantly raising food prices. Even after harvest, pests or diseases subject crops to attack. In addition to increasing crop yields, crop protection products used in stored products can also prolong the viable life of produce, prevent huge post-harvest losses from pests and diseases, and protect food so it is safe to eat.
The crop protection industry’s primary aim is to enable farmers to grow an abundant supply of food in a safe manner and prevent costs from increasing. Food production processes benefit from continual advancements in agricultural technologies and practices; in fact, a population now nearly twice as large has more food available per capita than 40 years ago.
Tools such as herbicides, insecticides, and fungicides reduce crop losses both before and after harvest, and increase crop yields. A plentiful supply of fresh produce is vital for a healthy population. Numerous scientific studies demonstrate the health benefits of regularly eating a variety of fresh fruit and vegetables and consumers are increasingly aware of these benefits.
Agricultural productivity is vital to ensuring that this demand can be met at an affordable price; and crop protection products help increase productivity and usable crop yields.
It is against this background that expert agreed that biotech can boost food production. They identified application of modern biotechnology as a powerful tool in boosting food production in the country.
According to the Deputy Director, National Biosafety Office, Federal Ministry of Environment, Mr Festus Ebegba, the application could be used to enhance food security and the Agricultural Transformation Agenda, ATA of the federal government.
Biotechnology is the use of modern scientific techniques including genetic engineering to improve or modify plants, animals or microorganisms.
The aim of ATA was to reposition the agricultural sector and increase food production by additional 20 million tonnes. It is driven by a technology know as Growth Enhancement Support, GES scheme through which registered farmers have access to subsidised farm inputs like seeds and fertiliser via mobile phones.
The scheme is being expanded to include access to loan, heavy farm machinery, insurance and extension services.
Ebegba, who spoke on Tuesday in Zaria, Kaduna State at a workshop on ‘Biosafety Reportage’ organised for journalists by the National Biosafety Office, Federal Ministry of Environment, through Monsanto Seed Company, said application of biotechnology was environmentally friendly, adding that it was obtainable in some advance countries of the world.
The training was co-organised by Open Forum on Agricultural Biotechnology, OFAB, in Africa, under the auspices of the National Biotechnology Development Agency, NABDA in Zaria.
“The modern biotechnology is a powerful tool to improve ATA to boost food production, create more jobs, increase exports and reduce food importations and create more wealth in the country,” he said.
He explained that the application of the technology would reduce the use of agro chemicals, which were expensive for farmers and could be dangerous to their health.
Ebegba, however, noted that the technology could only be applicable if the Bio safety Bill was passed and signed into a law.
The expert said if the bill had been signed into law, it would establish and empower the relevant government’s agencies to ensure that the transfer of gene does not affect the environment or human health.
Also speaking, Senior Researcher in the International Agricultural Research, IAR Zaria, Mr. Lawal Umar, said, “Genetically modified food is safe to eat.” He said adoption of the biotechnology was necessary to feed the growing population and boost food quality via addition of extra vitamins to address malnutrition.
Umar also said seeds could be genetically modified to be resistant to extreme weather conditions like drought.
To boost the technological know-how of farmers and food production in Nigeria, the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture, IITA, an international non-profit organisation recently entered into partnership with another world’s leading company, Syngenta.
Executive Director, National Root Crops Research Institute, NRCRI, Umudike in Abia State, Dr Kenneth Nwosu, has said that the adoption of agricultural biotechnology will boost food production, help achieve national food security and ensure sustainability of the sector.
He said that the institute had recorded positive results through the application of modern biotechnology on some crops. “The use of biotechnology will be a success story in Nigeria because any technology that is tested globally and approved as suitable for human beings, can be applied in any part of the world.
“Nigeria’s case should not be different and I hope the country will not be left behind in the scheme of things,” Nwosu said.
He further said that more than 3,500 farmers across the six geo-political zones of the country had benefitted from the institute’s products.
According to him, the application of biotechnology enabled Nigeria to become the world’s largest producer of cassava and yam with production at about 33.1 million tonnes and 19 million tonnes annually respectively.
“Cassava production is now 33.1 million tonnes annually and yam is 19 million tonnes annually. This track record which has placed Nigeria on the world map, was achieved through the application of biotechnology,’’ he said.
The executive director noted that the development of mini-set technique, which helped to reduce the production cost of yam, cassava, sweet potato and cocoyam, was one of the notable achievements made by the institute.
The institute, he said, had released 17 varieties of cassava, adding that six improved varieties of yam would soon be released.
Speaking during the official signing of the agreement between the IITA and Syngenta at Shika Farms of the Ahmadu Bello University, the deputy director general for partnerships and capacity development, Dr. Kenton Dashiell said the joint efforts by both leading organisations will improve and promote cost effective production for maize, tomatoes, sweet pepper and cabbage and also increase yields and incomes from cultivating the crops.
The partnership, he said is to identify, adapt and make available to Nigerian farmers high-yielding and superior maize and vegetable hybrids.
According to him, “We are working on six crops, maize, soya bean, cabbage, yam, cassava, plantain, banana, and in each of these crops, we have programme to develop and improve varieties of hybrids towards the farmers.”
“Under the agreement, variety trials will be conducted at IITA sites in Nigeria using Syngenta’s hybrid seeds for the selected crops, crop protection packages and standard crop production protocols”, he added.
The federal government is intensifying efforts to make Nigeria one of the mechanised farming countries in the world to achieve food sufficiency and boost industrialisation through the agricultural sector.
Nigeria has unlimited opportunity to invest in food production, but unfortunately, it used to spend billions of naira on food importation every year. Hoes and cutlasses remain the tools being used by peasant Nigerian farmers to produce food, which hardly sustain the family let alone for export.
There is no denying the fact for the country to achieve sustainable and profitable food production, the emphasis must be shifted to mechanised farming. This is the only way Nigerians and other people in the country could have abundant and cheap food to eradicate hunger and more importantly poverty.
Despite decades of huge investments in the agricultural sector, as well as input by the states and federal governments, coupled with support from international agencies, the average Nigerian farmer still don’t have access to modern tools, especially tractors. This development has made Nigeria to be one of the least mechanised farming countries in the world, with less than three tractors per thousand hectares.
To reverse the trend, the President Goodluck Jonathan administration introduced agriculture transformation agenda, ATA placed ban on the importation of some food items, particularly rice into the country. To ensure food abundance and raw materials production, which is one of the pivots on which industrialisation rests, the federal administration has not been leaving any stone unturned to make agriculture a serious business rather than the old practice of development programme.
According to the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, Dr. Akinwumi Adesina, Nigerian farmers need proper and regular training in order to change their mentality from crude methods of practicing agriculture so that they could embrace commercial agriculture and earn better income. He said the government was committed to help the farmers embrace mechanised agriculture with use of machinery to increase their productivity.
In 2013, President Goodluck Jonathan set up a committee to vet the long awaited biosafety bill as passed by the National Assembly before he could sign it into law, participants at the 10th anniversary of African Agricultural Technology Foundation, AATF seminar say Nigeria’s dream of achieving food sufficiency in 2015 will be a mirage, unless the country adopts biotechnology in the agric sector.
To achieve these goals, they called on the President not to further delay signing into law the biosafety bill currently before him, which they believe would open a new vista for massive production of food for local consumption and export.
Agricultural biotechnology is the application of technology to agriculture to make, modify or improve on a product for the benefit of mankind.
When the bill is signed into law, it is expected that Nigeria with vast arable land and so many agricultural potentials would benefit more, as it would make a significant economic impact on the populace by contributing immensely to job creation, wealth creation, eradication of hunger and malnutrition.