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In April this year (2019) at a training organised for some journalists in Lagos, an acclaimed professor of food science and technology in one of the universities in South West Nigeria, made some startling revelations. Notable in his presentation was the assertion that Nigerians have been consuming GMO food for decades, and it has already evolved into our primary food production, thereby suggesting there is hardly non-GMO food being cultivated again. Shocking it sounded, as journalists took turns to gasp in surprise, and at other times, chorused their sounds of surprise in unison.
According to the professor, said to have a wealth of knowledge in Biotechnology, “have you noticed tomatoes nowadays no longer contain as much water and seeds, like the ones available when we were growing up.” To conclude this, he said “don’t you all know it is because GMO seeds had been introduced at some point, and that is why our tomatoes contain more pulp and little to no seeds.”
He did not stop there, other instances (and insinuations) included Maize, but not the bio-fortification aspect of it, rather, the fact that the “colour of maize has evolved from white to yellow.” The professor, with his years of research and wealth of knowledge is supposed to know a lot, perhaps, better than most people. However, some of the claims seemed not just far off, but also like excerpts from a conspiracy theory book published to scare food-loving people.
Elementary agriculture taught grafting and budding, one of several ‘less-invasive’ techniques used to improve plant varieties. A plant with desirable attributes in taste, appearance or even disease resistance, when grafted or budded onto another, is expected to ‘transfer some of this desirable DNA’. There could also be good old selection, like in the case of white or yellow maize, to pick out cobs with the desired colour, and plant repeatedly until a critical mass has been formed for a ‘new variety’.
“The importers of grains have been bringing in genetically modified grains over the years without them even knowing they are genetically modified,” said Rufus Ebegba, director general, National Biosafety Management Agency (NBMA) in an exclusive interview last month. “Working with the Nigerian customs service, we have been able to determine that some of these grains are genetically modified.” This detection is not something achievable with the human eyes; trained or untrained. As Ebegba explained during the interview, the agency prides itself with the establishment of the genetically modified detection and analysis laboratory. The lab is where tests are conducted to detect GMO traits, which cannot be physically examined.
There is no doubt some GMO foods would have found their way into the diets of Nigerians, but two things that are of importance are; 1- did they (i.e. GMO food) get to the table through conventional cultivation done within Nigeria, or were they imported, and by escaping scrutiny, made it into meals without express consent of consumers? 2- Are there ways GMO crops can help Nigeria meet industrial needs? Pending when there is ‘an agreement’ for those who wish to consume it to do so, and those who do not, being able to make choices through clearly labelled packaging.
The industrial imperative – Cassava’s untapped potentials
“All processors in Nigeria are still struggling to produce two percent of starch the country needs,” said Nike Tinubu, president, Industrial Cassava Stakeholders Association of Nigeria, in a phone interview. Yet, Nigeria is the world’s largest producer of cassava, responsible for an estimated 20 per cent of global output, which in 2017 was 285 million metric tonnes in the global cassava processing market report.
The irony is, whereas there is abundance of cassava in Nigeria, the value extraction is extremely low. Even though Nigeria ranks as the world’s largest producer of cassava, the yield is low (at five to ten tonnes per hectare against global average of 25 tonnes per hectare). More importantly, for industrial usage, the starch content derived from the best of cassava tubers is between 18 and 22 per cent. Whereas, in countries like India and Malaysia, starch content of between 38 and 40 per cent is derived, and there are possibilities of doing even better.
“We need to differentiate between Cassava for food security, and cassava for industrial prosperity,” said Segun Adewumi, national president, Nigeria cassava Growers Association (NCGA). Adewumi explained he has been advocating for Genetically Modified cassava, which will be cultivated purely for its starch content, describing it as the only way Nigeria can transform the volume of cassava production into industrial and financial value.
While the regular cassava tubers can be cultivated for food; human and animal consumption, there is a need to think beyond Garri, Fufu, and the other pedestrian applications of cassava.
Cassava has some major Industrial Products among which are Ethanol, Industrial Starch, Cassava Flour, Glucose Syrup, Sweetner etc. These products are also raw materials to numerous Industrial items with limitless domestic and export market potentials. “This means Cassava can trigger massive Industrial Revolution in Nigeria to the extent that every Nigerian Village will have viable Cassava Industries,” according to NCGA. However, these remain dreams as long as productivity is abysmally low in Nigeria, a possible fix according to experts will be through adoption of genetically modified varieties.
Industrial Starch, a major product from Cassava, is used in the Gum/adhesives, Textiles, Pharmaceuticals, Book binding, Paper and packaging, Confectionery, Chemical and household products manufacturing, Batteries, Drinks, beverages, Baby foods, and Wood finishers etc. Despite these potentials, Nigeria imports over 95 per cent of the Industrial starch used in the country.
Potential off-takers for Ethanol in Nigeria include SKG-Pharma Ltd., PZ Industries Plc., Emzor Pharmaceuticals Industries Ltd., Unilever, Daily Needs Industries Ltd., Mopson Pharmaceuticals Ltd., Drugfield Pharmaceuticals Ltd., New Heathway Co. Ltd., Neimeth International Pharma Plc., Therapeutic Laboratories Ltd., Vitabiotics Nig. Ltd.
Others are Guinness Nig. Plc., Nestle Nig. Plc., Nigerian Breweries Plc., Pharma–Deko Nig. Plc., and UAC Nig. Plc. among many others.
The market of Ethanol in food grade and Biofuel is limitless. However, to achieve this, starch content needs to go up very significantly, and current varieties are unable to achieve it without genetic modification.
Reviving the moribund textile industry through BT Cotton
Millenials in Nigeria today often hear of a ‘great past’ where amongst other things, the textile industry was in good shape. Locally made fabrics rolled off the textile machines from Afprint in Lagos, to Unitex in Kaduna, but from being a major employer of labour in the 1970s and the 80s, the textile industry is regrettably a shadow of its former self.
The Central Bank of Nigeria recently intervened in the cotton value chain and textile industry, with the distribution of seeds in Katsina state to over 100,000 farmers cultivating an estimated 200,000 hectares of farmland. According to Godwin Emefiele, the CBN governor, the farmers are also to benefit from extensive training on proper farming techniques, which is expected to translate into production of high grade cotton lint at much improved yields of up to 4 tonnes per hectare. These measures, as projected by the CBN, will help to improve cotton production from 80,000 tonnes produced in 2018 to 300,000 tonnes by 2020.
Even with this projection, Nigeria will lag its African peers such as Burkina Faso, previously Africa’s largest cotton producer, with 436,000 tonnes, trailing Côte d’Ivoire (455,000 tonnes), Mali (653,000 tonnes) and Benin (675,000 tonnes).
Burkina Faso’s production has declined consistently in three years by more than 40 percent, since the country decided to stop the use of GM seeds. However, embracing it in Nigeria can help the country ramp up production and revive the scores of textile companies that have become moribund.
In South Africa today, almost 100 percent of the cotton produced is Bt, while in Australia, the figure is 97 percent. In the USA, it is 80 percent, and 42 percent in Brazil, according to an article by Alliance for Science.
The Poultry industry may better feed the birds too
In 2017, the Nigerian poultry industry suffered a tumultuous period, with a number of poultry farms shutting down as most farms found it difficult to feed their birds owing to difficulty in access to feed and other inputs.
“A lot of farms are being closed down because so many people cannot afford to feed their birds,” said Onalo Akpa, who was director general, Poultry Association of Nigeria (PAN), in a phone interview with BusinessDay at the time. “If you have a (poultry) farm and you cannot feed your birds then you better shut it down!” said a rather agitated Akpa.
The price of maize and soya bean which are the main components of poultry feed increased by over 100 percent. The situation at the time, worsened the country’s poultry deficit which has been estimated at 60 million birds. The Agriculture Promotion Policy document released by the Federal Ministry of Agriculture indicates that Nigeria’s annual chicken consumption is 200 million birds, while supply is 140 million birds.
The 2017 crisis, which still exists mildly though not as bad as two years ago, was precipitated by the armyworm invasion that plundered Nigeria’s maize output by more than half. According to the Agriculture Promotion Policy, Nigeria’s maize deficit as at 2016 was 500 thousand metric tonnes, however, the bulk of this goes into direct food consumption, leaving the poultry industry continually battling high cost of feed. Importation has often been cheaper, particularly from countries like the United States. As Ebegba of NBMA explained, a lot of the imported grains are actually genetically modified.
As disclosed by Ebegba, about 12 permits have been granted for the importation of genetically modified grains notably maize and soybeans. The permitted GM grains, as he explained are basically used to produce feed for poultry and other animals. Also, the soybean is used for production of vegetable oil.
The ability of armyworms to reproduce quickly and in millions, underscores the threat to Nigeria’s maize production if adequate plans are not put in place to contain any possible reoccurrence. With cultivation of GM maize, even if not for direct consumption by humans, threats from pests and diseases can be effectively mitigated. Furthermore, with the appropriate regulatory scrutiny also in place for the imported GM grains, the poultry industry may finally get a new lease of life. It is time for Nigeria to actually open constructive dialogue on how GMO can be used to achieve food security. If conservative tendencies stall the discussion, it could surely be explored as a way to drive industrial revolution in Nigeria, by ramping up production of high quality agricultural raw materials for the ailing manufacturing sector.