Biotechnology: A Key Platform For Sustainable Economic Growth (1)

(By Chizoba Aninwoya)

I do not agree with those who see biotechnology as an alien technology. This is because most of our traditional methods of fermenting local foods such as ‘gari’, ‘ogi’, ‘dawadawa’ etc. involve the activities of microorganisms although not initially isolated and characterized. These old methods, which could be referred to as “traditional biotechnology” differ from “modern biotechnology” in that the latter involves the bioengineering of living organisms i.e. plant, animal or microbial cells to give products with improved qualities.

SINCE the advent of biotechnology, the number of countries that cultivate genetically engineered (GE) crops continues to increase globally. While fast-developing economies such as China, India, Brazil and South Africa have for a long while joined the global group of countries that are growing GE crops and increasing agricultural productivity, Nigeria the most populous country in Africa, is yet to begin to reap the benefits of modern biotechnology. Although the Federal Government, as part of its transformation agenda, has continued to make tremendous effort in the development of agriculture in the country, some issues such as the low crop yield and high level of losses due to pests, diseases and flooding, continue to pose serious challenges to attaining food security and sufficiency in our country. Biotechnology, which is the most rapidly developing science around the world, has thus been strongly recommended by experts as the needed springboard for Nigeria to meet the increasing needs of its burgeoning population.

  Governments of many countries through their policies, continue to create enabling environment for the development of biotechnology. The Canadian government, for instance, has as one of its main strategies for sustaining progress in biotechnology development, youth capacity building and support for youths in the biotechnology sector. The Nigerian government, I must say, has made giant strides in empowering youths and women through initiatives such as the YouWIN programme. However, much more needs to be done to encourage the youths in the area of science and technology particularly biotechnology, if Nigeria is to achieve sustainable economic development.

   The pertinent question, however, would be: what is the level of awareness of the Nigerian youth about biotechnology? To enable me examine the level of awareness of the Nigerian youth on biotechnology, I embarked on a survey, which involved 108 students from two secondary schools – one private and one public, in Ikeja, the state capital of Lagos. Science students in the SS2 class were selected for the survey. This survey aimed at finding out the dream profession of each student as well as his/her level of awareness of biotechnology and understanding of the topic.

   The result of the survey shows that the pupils’ choice of future career was mainly either medicine (33 per cent) or engineering (32 per cent) while the remaining 35 per cent of the pupils had interests scattered across various disciplines with none (0 per cent) choosing biotechnology. About 47.2 per cent of the respondents had heard of the term “biotechnology” with greater awareness (54 per cent) amongst pupils in the private school than in the public school (39 per cent). However, only 26 per cent of the respondents were aware of any biotechnology activities in Nigeria. Only about 15 per cent of the pupils had heard about biotechnology innovations such as Golden Rice although about 35 per cent of them had heard about modern biotechnology methods such as recombinant DNA technology and tissue culture.

  Several factors could be responsible for this low level of biotechnology awareness among Nigerians and the youths in particular. These include lack of commitment of the government to the development of science, technology and innovation evident in the poor infrastructure and inadequate funding for the numerous research institutes and universities in the country.

  Another factor could be the negative propaganda by anti-GMO or anti-biotechnology campaigners. It is quite obvious that there is much media reportage on the dangers of biotechnology by these opponents of the technology who in most cases are not scientists and lack accurate information. These anti-biotech activists, who have been against the signing of the Biosafety bill by the President, lay much emphasis on fears about the safe application of Biotechnology some of which are genuine concerns that require attention however; these activists fail to highlight the numerous benefits that will accrue from the development of Biotechnology in Nigeria.

  I do not agree with those who see biotechnology as an alien technology. This is because most of our traditional methods of fermenting local foods such as ‘gari’, ‘ogi’, ‘dawadawa’ etc. involve the activities of microorganisms although not initially isolated and characterized. These old methods, which could be referred to as “traditional biotechnology” differ from “modern biotechnology” in that the latter involves the bioengineering of living organisms i.e. plant, animal or microbial cells to give products with improved qualities.

  Modern biotechnology can give rise to a wide range of products such as vitamins, amino acids, enzymes, flavours, additives, antibiotics, vaccines, therapeutic proteins, monoclonal antibodies, biofuels or to whole recombinant organisms such as transgenic animals and crop plants which are bacteria, insect, drought, flood or herbicide-resistant. Thus, areas of modern biotechnology application range from agriculture, food processing, medicine and pharmaceuticals; to waste management and renewable energy.

  Current efforts in biotechnology development in Nigeria have largely been in the aspect of agricultural biotechnology. The aim of modern breeders which is to increase agricultural productivity is no different from that of our local farmers who for many centuries have practiced domestication through the selection and crossbreeding of crops and livestock with desirable characteristics to achieve superior products and higher yield.   However, the process of traditional breeding is slow, laborious and expensive in terms of both time and money and has been widely replaced in many countries by sophisticated but more efficient and precise breeding methods through the application of biotechnology.

  Using techniques such as genetic engineering, tissue culture, genomics and bioinformatics, agricultural biotechnology has led to crop improvements that are not possible with traditional crossing methods. Some of these genetically modified crops now commercially available include Herbicide-tolerant soybean and Insect-resistant maize grown in many countries especially USA, Canada and Argentina; Herbicide-tolerant Canola grown mainly in Canada and USA; and the Bt-Cotton grown mainly in China, India and South Africa. South Africa is ahead of the rest of us Africans in agricultural biotech with over 0.4 million hectares cultivated with genetically-improved cotton, maize and soybean.

  Nigerian scientists have also been involved in agricultural biotechnology research. I came across a study done in 2005, by Irefin, I.A and his colleagues to assess the nature and extent of agricultural biotech research, development and innovations in Nigeria. According to their findings, 48 Nigerian scientists were involved in agricultural biotechnology research particularly in eight of our nation’s research institutes and had made some progress with improvements in crops such as wheat, cotton, groundnut, sorghum, cassava, maize, rice, cowpea, kenaf, oil-palm, coconut, cocoa, kola, cashew, coffee and tea, pepper, tomato, okro, plantain, banana and mango.   However, the study showed that about 60 per cent of these crop improvements were carried out using conventional crossbreeding techniques since only a small number of the scientists (less than 15%) were trained in recombinant DNA technology while most of the institutes lacked the necessary equipment and facilities for modern biotechnology research. Thus, the need for capacity building and adequate funding of research institutes and universities involved in biotechnology research cannot be overemphasised.

 To be continued.

Aninwoya is a Masters Graduate of Biotechnology, Bioprocessing and Business Management from the University of Warwick, United Kingdom; and is based in Lagos.

“Opinion pieces of this sort published on RISE Networks are those of the original authors and do not in anyway represent the thoughts, beliefs and ideas of RISE Networks.”

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