Biotech in Nigeria: The journey so far

IITA scientist in Biotech Lab. Photo by O. Adebayo
IITA scientist in Biotech Lab. Photo by O. Adebayo
Nigeria, the world’s largest grower of cassava, producing over 40 million tons per year, is seeking to adopt the use of modern biotechnology tools in agriculture, but efforts are stymied by the absence of a biosafety law.

The passage of the bill by the Nigerian Parliament will launch the country into the production and commercialization of genetically modified organisms (GMO) with the capacity to increase crop production, ensure food security, and improve rural livelihoods.

“The passage of the bill will be great,” said Dr Oyekanmi Nash, Program Director, West African Biotechnology Workshop Series. “Biotechnology holds the key to some of our problems in agriculture and health, and the earlier we tap into it, the better,” he added.

Background
Currently, Nigeria’s population of more than 140 million with an annual growth rate of 2.9% demands increased agricultural production to guarantee food security.

This means traditional agricultural practices, characterized by the use of poor seedlings, must give way to modern tools to allow agriculture to grow by double digits from the current average of about 6%. Such a growth will conserve government revenues from being used in importing food items.

According to government figures, the country spends about US$3 billion annually on food importation. The situation was worse in 2008 when food prices hit the roof, aggravated by the negative effects of severe drought on agricultural production in the northern parts of the country, and high energy costs when crude oil reached $150 per barrel.

“With the turn of events now and for us to meet our food demand in the future, we should apply modern biotech in crop production,” Nash said.

He commended IITA for setting up a modern biotech laboratory in Nigeria, saying that the establishment of such a multimillion dollar laboratory in Nigeria was a reflection of the institute’s commitment to fight poverty in Africa and improving rural livelihoods.

Fluorescence-based genotyping for DNA fingerprinting of plants and pathogens. Photo by IITA
Fluorescence-based genotyping for DNA fingerprinting of plants and pathogens. Photo by IITA
Challenges in introducing GMOs
If the biosafety bill is passed, Nigeria will join other African nations, such as Burkina Faso, Egypt, and South Africa in cultivating GMO crops.

It is expected that the entrance of GMOs will increase crop productivity, lower the cost of production, guarantee food security, and improve both the health and livelihoods of resource-poor farmers who make up more than 70% of the rural population.

The absence of a biosafety law is the problem. In addition, research and development in GM crops are indeed in their infancy in Nigeria as very few establishments in the national agricultural research system have developed the critical mass of human capacity and the infrastructural requirements that would lead to the accelerated development of transgenic materials.

A communiqué issued last year by stakeholders, including the National Biotechnology Development Agency (NABDA) said that other limitations in the commercialization of GMO crops included poor capital equipment, irregular energy, inadequate water supply, and ineffective use of information and communication technology, among others.

The meeting further noted the obvious deficiencies in both the teaching and learning curricula at all school levels and accordingly recommended vibrant and dynamic curricula to generate appropriate labor to meet research and development needs in biotechnology activities.

biotech-milestonesBiotech and Nigeria’s vision 2020
In the next 11 years, Nigeria intends to be ranked among the top 20 economies of the world. Achieving this goal requires adopting policies and options that will lead to improved agriculture and food security among other benefits.

For Nigeria, experts say this will include genetic improvement in the priority crops such as sorghum, cassava, cotton, yam, banana, plantain, maize, wheat, gum arabic, cowpea, and soybean that are of critical importance to the nation.

Prof. Bamidele Solomon, Director-General of NABDA, which has the mandate to promote, coordinate, and regulate biotechnology across the country, said his agency would ensure that the cutting-edge technology of biotech promotes a healthy environment, ensuring national food security and providing affordable health care delivery as well as the alleviation of poverty.

While 2020 appears rather far away, not taking proactive steps toward tackling the present challenges facing the full implementation of biotech will certainly make Vision 2020 a mirage, as far as food security is concerned. This is indeed a wake-up call. The earlier we act, the better.