By Rose Gidado, PhD

During the Twenty Third Ordinary Session of the Africa Union Assembly in Malabo, Equatorial Guinea, the heads of States and Governments of Africa undertook to eliminate hunger on the African continent by the year 2025. Put in simple terms, the Malabo Declaration states that by 2025, no African should go to bed hungry.

Nigeria is a signatory to this declaration but as at date, 10 percent of the nation’s population is still unable to meet their daily calorific needs due to affordability, effective mass food production, storage and distribution. Nigeria tops the list of eleven ECOWAS countries that have over one million people affected by hunger and undernourishment while 63 per cent of the population lives below the poverty line of less than one dollar per day.  The challenges are bare. There is no solution in sight other than a very pervasive agricultural practice that will make food abundant and available to the generality of the masses.

Countries of the world faced with similar challenges have attempted to address them using new technologies especially biotechnology.  Countries under pressure to produce more food for their growing population have started growing genetically modified (GM) crops.

In 2014, a record 181.5 million hectares of biotech crops were grown globally, an increase of more than six million hectares from 2013, according to a report released by the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA). With the addition of Bangladesh, a total of 28 countries grew biotech crops during the year. The 20 developing and eight industrial countries where biotech crops are produced represent more than 60 percent of the world's population.

"The accumulated hectarage of biotech crops grown in 1996 to 2014 equals, roughly, 80 percent more than the total land mass of China," said Clive James, ISAAA Founder and report author. "Global hectarage has increased more than 100-fold since the first plantings of biotech crops."

The US continued to be the lead producer of biotech crops globally with 70.1 million hectares (40% of global), with an average adoption rate of ~90% across its principal biotech crops. Brazil ranks second only to the USA in biotech crop hectarage in the world with 40.3 million hectares (up from 36.6 million in 2012) and is emerging as a strong global leader in biotech crops. Canada grew 10.8 million hectares of biotech crops in 2013.

In Europe, insect-resistant biotech maize is grown since 1998. In 2008, 107,719 ha of land were dedicated to insect resistant maize in seven EU countries with Spain having the largest cultivation area of GM maize (approximately 20% of its total maize area), followed by Czech Republic, Romania, Portugal, Germany, Poland and Slovakia.

It is therefore a mis-representation to aver that European countries are rejecting GM crops. Applications for GM field trials in the EU in 2013 alone (European Commission Joint Research Centre 2013) have come from Spain, Poland, UK, Finland, Belgium, Sweden, Slovakia, Romania, France. These applications have come for trials in maize, wheat, poplar, sugar beet, cotton, and cucumber.

Significantly, the entire 11.57 MH GM crop area in India in 2014 consisted of Bt cotton. Nearly 96 per cent of the country’s cotton area is now covered by Bt hybrids. Bt technology has helped India to increase its cotton output from 13 million bales in 2002 (when it was introduced) to 40 million bales in 2014. Dr. C. D Mayee, a former director of the Central Institute for Cotton Research, Nagpur, said India achieved a historical milestone, overtaking China as the world’s No. 1 producer of cotton in 2004. The India’s success story from Bt cotton calls for proper interrogation of the Burkina Faso’s situation as bandied in some quarters.

South Africa was the continent's sole cultivator of GM maize, cotton and soya beans in Africa but at date more African countries are adopting the Bt technology.

The five leading developing countries in biotech crops in the three continents of the South are China and India in Asia, Brazil and Argentina in Latin America, and South Africa on the continent of Africa.

In Nigeria, the adoption GM products is a step in the right direction. Nigeria must promote and support this technology that is efficient, inclusive, climate-smart, sustainable, nutrition- and health-driven, and business-friendly in order to ensure that no Nigerian goes to sleep hungry by 2025. This is in line the vision of President Muhammadu Buhari administration who has declared that:

 “Agriculture must cease from being treated as development Programme; Agriculture must be treated as business.”

“We will intervene in mining and agriculture, and we will upgrade the country’s physical and social infrastructure, which will broaden our revenue base and significantly improve the level of employment, especially among the youth.’’…………President M. Buhari.

Obviously, the high adoption rate of GM all over the world is testimony to the trust and confidence of millions of small and large farmers in crop biotechnology in both industrial and developing countries, despite pockets of opposition at very insignificant local level. There is the need to avoid ideological arguments and stick to strategies to benefit from GM products potential to increase food security in Nigeria.

 Many public-private partnerships in Africa, where companies donate their technologies for free, disprove the anti-GM lobby's arguments that poor African farmers are being exploited by the big multinationals. The arguments about the safety and health concerns around GM products are unfounded. For instance only healthy dosages of chemicals and pesticides are used in genetic modification. This technology reduces the use of chemicals and pesticides. For example, in Bt cotton the number of chemical spray reduces from 9 to 2.

The fears around glyphosate being carcinogenic have been allayed by the European Food Security Authority (EFSA) when in November, 2015 it published the EU’s peer review of the active substance, glyphosate.

“The report concluded that glyphosate is unlikely to pose carcinogenic hazard to humans. This is a direct contradiction to the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), which classified glyphosate as ‘probably’ carcinogenic. The IARC classification has caused widespread media attention…”  EFSA.

It is known that there are many kinds of foods, cosmetics, etc that can cause cancer or kidney diseases. In fact any food taken in excess can cause cancer. For example cyanide in cassava, aflaxtoxin in groundnut, mould growth in dry fish among others cause cancer.

Nigerian government has laid solid foundation for application of modern biotechnology in the country. First Nigeria signed the United Nations Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety (CPB) in 2000, which was ratified 2003 and came into force on 11th September 2003. Secondly, the Nigerian government signed the National Biosafety bill into law in 2015 after the bill had scaled through the two chambers of the National Assembly since the anti GM groups had no solid arguments to convince the Senators and the House of Representative members to discard the bill during the public hearings. The National Biosafety Act provides for the establishment of the National Biosafety Management Agency (NBMA). NBMA is saddled with the responsibility of ensuring adequate level of protection in the field of safe transfer, handling and use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) resulting from modern biotechnology that may have adverse effects on conservation and sustainable use of Biodiversity taking into account risks to human health, animals, plants and environment. The Federal Government appointed a seasoned scientist, Mr. Rufus Ebegba, a professionally qualified Agriculturist and Environmental Biologist/Biosafety specialist to head the agency. He has garnered over 25 years working experience in various areas of Biosafety Management, Biodiversity Conservation and sustainable utilization of renewable natural recourses. True to expectations, Mr. Ebegba had in January 2016 called on all owners of
Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) suspects that are already in Nigeria
to formalize them as the six months moratorium given them has expired. He announced that the enforcement of NBMA will commence in 2016 and has left no stone unturned in achieving this. The stakeholders have been fully sensitized and the security agencies have pledged their support and cooperation to the NBMA s enforcement drive.

 Nigerians are assured of safety of their health and environment with NBMA in place. Nigeria should join the league of nations of the world that are transforming the lives and fortunes of their people using this technology. It is heart warning to hear the Nigerian Textile Manufacturer’s association express their readiness to adopt Bt cotton to revive the ailing textile sector. The Nigerian Textile Manufacturers Association (NTMA) has expressed its support for ‎the environmental release and commercialization of genetically modified Bt Cotton, which is known to be resistant against pests for Nigerian farmers.

A position paper signed by the Acting Director General of the Association, Alhaji Hamman Kwajaffa noted that while the Nigerian
textile industry was a strategic non-oil sector and the largest after oil and agriculture, it was also the largest in Sub-Saharan Africa.

It is estimated that about 30,000 Nigerians are employed in the textile industry and an additional one million small farmers and labourers are both in direct cotton production and within the value chain, probably supporting five million more people. This is a sharp contrast from over 400,000 people employed across over 250 textile mills in the country in the 80s”.

The Minister of Science and Technology, Dr. Ogbonnaya Onu who recently said the government has interest in utilizing the potentials of Bt Cotton to revive the industry.

Globally, markets for GMOs are swelling. Nigerian GM products can be exported US, Canada, Japan, Brazil, India, South Africa, Argentina, Mexico among others.

With GM technology already in place, there is no doubt that Nigeria will indeed find a pot of gold at the end of the transgenic rainbow.

Dr. Rose Gidado is the Coordinator of the Open Forum for Agricultural Biotechnology (OFAB), Nigerian Chapter.