Odimegwu Onwumere writes that hundreds of Nigerians are malnourished two years after the National Biosafety Agency Bill was signed into law, because of the authorities' lackadaisical approach to the innovation
Some four years ago, attaining the Genetically Modified Organism (GMO) was what occupied the mind of many Nigerians but especially that of a chief scribe of All Farmers Association of Nigeria (AFAN), Arc Kabiru Salman.
Nigeria had signed and ratified the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety in 2000 and ratified it in 2003 in obligation to Global Biodiversity Management, but was yet to sign it as a law in Nigeria. International bodies believed that countries that adopt a better approach to biotechnology, genetic engineering, biomaterials and informatics being the four novel technologies in using agriculture to fight malnutrition would not lag in economic and social capacity development.
It was in October 2014, and Nigeria was faced with tremendous food questions just as she is faced with today. The country was under strain to produce added food for its mounting population. The GMO was needed. Countries like Kenya, Togo, Tanzania and Mali had their Biosafety laws. Also, Republic of South Africa, Burkina Faso and Egypt already had Biosafety laws and were growing and consuming GMO crops.
Salman was showing uneasiness that what was remaining of Nigeria to boost her agricultural production that was staying behind on an infinitesimal dimension and chiefly reliant on rainfall which at most periods was not foreseeable was to imbibe GMO. Salman wanted a law regulating biotechnology in the country so that farmers in the country would not be deprived of GMO which was reliant in most African countries.
"As farmers, we embrace biotechnology and the passage of the bill will make whatever we do legitimate. GMO will lead to high yields and safety of what we do," Salman said.
It was believed that Biosafety would help address hunger on the continent of Africa by the year 2025, when the Heads of State and Governments of Africa gathered in Malabo, Equatorial Guinea, during the Twenty Third Ordinary Session.
Hunger on the increase
It was believed that the Biosafety would address hunger in Nigeria when on Monday, April 21, 2015, the then President Goodluck Jonathan signed the National Biosafety Agency Bill into law after the National Assembly passed the bill. But this is yet to happen.
Only in 2016, Doctors Without Borders (Médecins Sans Frontières), MSF, in a declaration, alerted that about 24,000 Internally Displaced Persons, IDPs, were in calamitous health conditions of which 30 people, who were children, were dying every day in their camps due to hunger. That was coming after two weeks the Borno State Governor, Kashim Shettima paid a visit to Bama camp leading to reports that hundreds of malnourished persons recently rescued from Boko Haram confinement were dying in a camp in Bama.
Those who know better said that without a doubt, Nigeria still gaps for breath to curb her indices of malnourished persons with available statistics indicating that over two billion people in the world undergo diverse forms of malnutrition.
According to an April 2016 statement by Dr. Rose Gidado, the Coordinator of the Open Forum for Agricultural Biotechnology (OFAB), Nigerian Chapter, "Nigeria is a signatory to this declaration but as at date, 10 per cent of the nation's population is still unable to meet their daily calorific needs due to affordability, effective mass food production, storage and distribution."
Dr. Gidado added, "Nigeria tops the list of 11 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."
Experts worried of malnutrition
Nutrition experts GA Nkwocha, KU Anukam, ON Oguoma, and VI Nkwocha were worried that the fundamental causes of malnutrition in Nigeria were poverty, inadequate food production, inadequate food intake, ignorance and uneven distribution of food, poor food preservation techniques, improper preparation of foods, food restrictions and taboos, and poor sanitation of which the Biosafety was supposed to address, but the authorities have not been serious to give the innovation the attention it needed.
In an analysis, they relayed that there's an increase of mild to moderate symptoms of malnourished persons in Nigeria, making the country to be suffering from a near crumple of nutrition health freedom services. Different surveys, according to them, of nutritional evaluation in Nigeria divulged low intakes of protein, energy, iron, calcium, zinc, thiamin, and riboflavin in almost all age groups and in both sexes.
Hence, they were worried that malnutrition and related diseases such as diarrhea, measles, anemia, and gastroenteritis were the cause of most deaths in infants and young children. The nutritionists opined that their fear was that with the estimated increase of the world's population from six billion to more than 7.5 billion by 2020, Nigeria may be suffering untold malnutrition if increase in meat intake is not taken seriously.
What African bodies were doing
Already, the African Union had ballooned a sculpt Biosafety law to help Member States widen their Biosafety laws.
NEPAD-African Biosafety Network of Expertise project had been launched to bolster the development in member states.
The ECOWAS Commission was as well working a widespread Biosafety Regulation in row with National Biosafety laws/Regulations for the sub-region.
In 2013, participants at the 10th anniversary of African Agricultural Technology Foundation, AATF, seminar had shown anxiety, saying that Nigeria's quest of accomplishing food satisfactoriness in proceeding years could only be hinged on the implementation of biotechnology in the agricultural sector.
Supposed benefits of GMO
Institutions such as the National Root Crops Research Institute (NRCRI), Umudike; Institute for Agricultural Research, Zaria (IAR); the Federal University of Technology, Akure and, the National Biotechnology Development Agency (NABDA), were said to benefit immensely from the development.
"The GMO would ensure Nigeria is self sufficient in the production of rice and would boost the countries revenue in other areas of agriculture," the then Minister of State for Agriculture, Alhaji Bukar Tijani said in his remarks.
Dr. Akinwumi Adesina who was then Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development said in Addis Ababa at the High Level Meeting of AU Heads of State and Government on "unified approach to end hunger in Africa by 2025" that the Nigerian Government had announced plans to swell the use of bio-fortified crops, such as pro-vitamin 'A' cassava and orange-flesh sweet potato to address the hunger situation being faced by some 13 million people.
"Much progress is being made, we are mindful that we still have challenges of malnutrition and micro-nutrient deficiencies to tackle. Nigeria still has 13 million people suffering from hunger, and malnutrition is still high," Adesina said.
The need for biotechnology
It's gathered that biotechnology seeks out to harness agricultural practices by making it cost successful, productivity increment and lessening gaps that are not favourable to agriculture. Views are that the initiative is a gateway to competence building, job creation, poverty eradication and alleviation of malnutrition.
In some views, "In 2014, a record of 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."
Seeing the importance of biotechnology, the United Nations Economic and Social commission for western Asia Cooperation with International Labour Organisation (ILO) were at the forefront in crusading that countries should adopt the technology.
Conviction for GMO
A Director-General of NABDA and Chairman, Open Forum for Agricultural Biotechnology, Professor Bamidele Solomon was of the observation that the development would positively answer the question that the country was looking for to arrest "food security, job/wealth creation, affordable healthcare delivery and sustainable economic environment."
The professor added that with the Biosafety Bill, "The law will also facilitate risk assessment exercises, monitoring and enforcement measures relevant to import, export, trans-boundary movement of the products of modern biotechnology, laboratory, and field testing/use of modern biotechnology including handling, control, monitoring and release of biotech products."
It's understood that not only the development, but also sustaining agriculture through the deployment of biotechnology tools such as culture, molecular breeding and genetic engineering to a wider audience would take the country so far in curbing malnutrition.
According to Tijani, "One of the international bodies' key projects in Nigeria is the development of nitrogen-use, water efficient and salt tolerant rice. This is key, because Nigeria is the second largest importer of rice in the world, about two million metric tons of rice from countries like Thailand and China.
"The project would ensure Nigeria is self sufficient in the production of rice and would boost the countries revenue. Another key project AATF has in Nigeria is the Cassava Mechanisation and Agro-processing project.
"Being the largest producer of cassava in the world, the project would boost farmers' capacity for production thus, showcasing a local product globally and boosting the economic growth for the country."
Nigeria must be serious with GMO
Dr. Gidado was much concerned that the law would foster in the creation of employment, food production if the GMO was given the attention it needed by government. She however advised, saying that in Nigeria, the espousal GMO products, was 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," she advised.