Move to Boost food production through biotechnology

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Nigeria has the largest population in Africa, and it is growing at 3.2 per cent a year.According to the United Nations’ (UN) projections for West Africa, Nigeria will be the world’s third most populous country by 2050. Similarly, the United States Census Bureau said there will be an estimated 402 million people in Nigeria in 2050.

For analysts, it is going to be a serious challenge feeding an amazing growing population if new agricultural technologies are not adopted to boost production.

Agricultural experts have recommended that the government should be more proactive in using science, technology and innovation—especially biotechnology—to address food security challenges facing the continent. Hence, there has been increased campaign for biotechnology.

Experts believe biotechnology innovations can enhance productivity and boost food security.

Commonly, biotechnology involves the use of tools and techniques involving biological or chemical processes to boost food production. It is a broad category involving many types of technology and science, including breeding, genetics, microbiome research, and animal health and nutrition.

Agribusinesses have been innovating in biotech for many decades to increase and protect crop yields with fertiliser, crop protection products such as pesticides and improved seeds

One of the farmers pushing for safe use of biotechnology is Innocent Mokidi. He is Chief Executive, Brote Urban Vegetable Farm and Processing Limited. He runs large farms in Abuja and Nassarawa State.

He has managed farms where improved soya beans and maize varieties have outperformed conventional seeds per hectare. He has seen maize yielding 10 tonnes per hectare.

While  he has made a huge  success in agriculture, he  is  concerned about  many Nigerian farmers that  eke out a living from small plots of poor soils.  Also, crop yields from such farmlands are stagnant and poor .

The only way they can grow more food and have a surplus for sale, according to him,   is for the government to promote safe biotechnology in form of improved plant seeds.

As staple foods provide vital nutrients and health benefits, making up close to two-thirds of the nation’s food intake, Mokidi urged the government and the private sector to tackle food insecurity through improved nutrient-rich, high-yielding varieties and sustainable agronomic practices, ensuring that those who most depend on agriculture have enough to make a living and feed their families.

He wants scientists to develop technologies that can contribute to food security and prosperity among farmers.

In addition to achieving higher yields and reducing pesticide use, farmers such as Mokidi want maize free of the mold that produces aflatoxin, a naturally occurring cancer-causing toxin frequently found in grain products.

A  senior lecturer, Department of Crop Science and Biotechnology, Faculty of Agriculture & Veterinary, Imo State University (IMSU) Prof. Martin Onuh, said there was need to deploy biotechnology innovations to make life better for farmers through seeds that produce higher than usual yields with fewer inputs.

He advocated the adoption of responsible breeding technologies to meet most of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) targets linked to hunger, food security and nutrition.

In Nigeria, biotechnology tools have been used to improve crops. Maize, sorghum, cowpea and groundnut are the major crops covered by plant breeding activities.

A senior scientist at the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA), Dr Chiedozie Egesi, is leading a research team developing and releasing several improved varieties of cassava, including one fortified with vitamin A. They are part of the Next Generation Cassava Breeding project (NextGen Cassava), an initiative funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and UK Aid from the United Kingdom.

Researchers engaged in the project, which began in 2012 and runs through 2023, have made major strides in understanding cassava’s genome and flowering. This has allowed them to shorten the time it takes to develop hardier new cassava varieties that improve yields.

All over Africa, experts are calling for investment in biotechnology.  One of them is the President of Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) Dr. Agnes Kalibata .She has urged intensification of collective efforts towards the eradication of hunger and malnutrition by 2025.

Kalibata  said AGRA’s  mission is to develop practical solutions to significantly boost farm productivity and incomes for the poor while safeguarding the environment, working across all key aspects of the African agricultural ‘value chain’ — from seeds, soil health and water to markets and agricultural education.

AGRA’s work primarily focuses on smallholder farmers – men and women who typically cultivate staple crops on two hectares or less. In the new strategy for 2017-2021, AGRA is supporting 11 African countries and 30 million smallholder farm households (150 million individuals) to increase their incomes and improve their food security.

This year, AGRA, Syngenta and Syngenta Foundation for Sustainable Agriculture (SFSA) have signed an agreement to work together towards their shared vision of transforming Africa’s agriculture.

Specifically, the three institutions will work to give farmers access to: yield-enhancing technologies including high-quality seeds, good agriculture practices, and post-harvest management.

Another crusader on the continental front is the Director, Agriculture School, UM6P Agriculture School, and Prof Aziz Yasri. He  said there  was  a need for  universities  in Africa  to work  together to  build capacities  in  agricultural technology  and  to  support skills development for employability and entrepreneurship.

He said UM6P is willing to work with other universities to promote business prospect in agriculture while applying and utilising science, technology and innovation (STI).

To promote increased use of biotechnology to boost food production, the university has received funding for agriculture research to help farmers on the continent.

UM6P and OCP, Morocco’s phosphates and Fertiliser Company, have signed an agreement with Spanish company Fertinagro Biotech, part of the Térvalis Group to use biotechnology to grow more food.

The goal is to train researchers who subsequently serve in companies that provide sustainable solutions for the development of African and world agriculture and livestock.

The agreement will involve the training of researchers who will seek and develop innovation projects in fields such as sustainability and development, based on actions that promote the circular economy and, at the same time, lead to a well-being for the environment and sustainability.

The collaboration between the institutions also includes connections with Spain’s leading universities in the fields of agriculture, recycling economy and agro-biosciences.

Under the agreement, OCP will support the project by providing opportunities for practical experience and on the ground testing.

UM6P Secretary-General, Hicham El Habti explained that university’s pioneering role among world-renowned universities in the field. “Our objective is to consolidate Morocco’s frontline position in R&D, in a unique partnership-based approach and boosting skills training, relevant for the future of Africa,” he said.

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