Nigeria: Addressing Food Security Through Biotechnology

by Jimoh Babatunde

Source: AllAfrica

Today, more than 800 million people around the world are malnourished, meaning they do not get the minimum energy requirements set by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of 1,690 calories per day for an urban adult and 1,650 calories for a rural dweller.

The world's population is projected to grow by 2.3 billion people from 2009 to 2050, to 9.1 billion. To feed this growing population adequately will require a 70 percent increase in food production globally and a doubling of food production in developing countries.

There are natural limits to the productivity increases that can be obtained with conventional farming. Scientifically advanced biotechnology could greatly benefit the world's growing population, but governments have placed severe regulatory restrictions on the use of such technology.

David Weisser, a research associate with the United States based National Center for Policy Analysis, said the most controversial aspect of biotechnology is the development of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) to increase crop yields per acre and to improve the nutritional quality of the food produced.

He argues that restrictions on the development and cultivation of biotech crops have slowed global progress in conquering hunger. Through advanced research and new farming methods, global hunger could be reduced.

Those opposed to biotechnology though have rights to question its role in food security, but they could be wrong to close their eyes to the potential contributions biotechnology can have on agriculture .

Professor Calestous Juma of Harvard Kennedy School also said food security depends on four interrelated factors: quantity of food, which involves increasing agricultural productivity; access to food, which is determined both by income levels and quality of infrastructure; nutrition; and overall stability of the food system, such as resilience to shocks.

According to Prof. Juma, Genetically-modified (GM) crops or any other breeding methods on their own cannot solve the challenges related to food quality, access to food, nutrition or stability of food systems, "but their role cannot be dismissed for ideological reasons."

GM crops already benefit smallholder farmers in several major ways. For example, they help farmers control pests and disease. This leads to higher production and increased income, which in turn provides them with increased ability to consume more nutritious food.

An example is pest-resistant GM cotton. Bt cotton is able to ward off insects and pests without additional pesticides. Reducing the need for pesticides minimizes environmental damage while increasing agricultural yields.

Although GM cotton is not directly consumed, it indirectly contributes to food security by raising household income levels and improving access to more nutritious food.

A recent study published by Plos One found that households in India growing GM cotton consumed significantly more calories. Each hectare of GM cotton increased total calorie consumption by 74 k cal per adult equivalent.

The study also showed that GM cotton adoption led to consumption of more nutritious foods - such as fruits, vegetables and animal products.

The authors estimate that if the households that do not currently grow GM cotton switched, "the proportion of food insecure households would drop by 15-20%."

These studies do not justify the widespread adoption of GM crops to address food security, but they show that under certain conditions, the technology has the potential to contribute to increasing farm incomes which in turn gives farmers the opportunity to raise their food purchases.

Nigeria might not be far away from joining other countries that currently grow BT cotton as the Minister of Agriculture, Akinwumi Adesina , said the country is right now testing biotech cotton.

"The countries that we are competing with like Niger, Mali, Togo, Burkina Faso and South Africa, all of them even India, Pakistan and United States are all into biotech cotton. We are the only country right now in West Africa that is not using biotech cottons.

"So, we have been testing BT cotton and the advantage of BT cotton is that you don't need pesticide, because if you use it, it has negative impact on people's health, but biotechnology allows you to grow your cotton not having problem of the cotton boll worm. You are not spending money as the toxin in the plant addresses the problem instead of you spraying chemicals.

It is this opportunity of giving farmers a chance to make their own choices that is leading Nigerian farmers and other stakeholders to ask for a bill for an act to establish the National Biosafety law for the country. The President of the All Farmers Association of Nigeria (AFAN), Arc. Kabiru Salman did not mince words recently when he told a gathering at the national Assembly that Genetically Modified Organism (GMO) will take his members away from subsistence farming to commercial farming.

Same position was echoed by the representative of the Cotton Association of Nigeria, who said they will become rich like farmers in other West Africa countries and developed countries that have taken to the cultivation of BT cotton.

The Minister of Agriculture, Dr. Akinwumi Adesina, in an interview with this reporter in Arusha, Tanzania said wlive in a modern world and "when you live in a modern world you cannot live in a pre-historic period, you need to modernize; you need to use science and technology.

"We have a rapidly growing population; by 2050 we are expected to be 400million people. How are we going to feed ourselves? Except we use modern tools of science and technology to increase yield, increase resistance of crops to drought and to diseases and pests.

Adesina noted that the application of biotechnology is like the mobile phone technology, "if you like you can still be using NITEL, but we use mobile phone because it is better. In agriculture, we must use modern science and modern technology, of course in a way that human health is protected.