Genetically Modified Crops: Nigeria, Africa must join the rest of the world to ensure food self-sufficiency [Pulse Contributor's Opinion]

Genetically modified crops (GMCs) are food crops that whose genes have been altered in some ways in order to improve them. Alternatively called genetically modified foods (GMFs), these food plants have been tinkered with in ways which improve their yields, make them resistant to droughts, pests and diseases, increase their nutritive value and survive on soils and climate that would have once been impossible.

Nigeria must explore GM options for food self-sufficiency [John Lambeth/Pexels]

Pulse Nigeria

The ability of scientists to modify the genes of living systems is not only one of the most incredible things to have happened in science but also one of the most important, as humans now have the ability to tweak any living system the way they want. Of course, this has led to continuous debates about the morality of these practices, and modifying animal genes, especially humans', has been greatly regulated because of that.

Most genetically modified organisms (GMOs), either plants or animals, are created by using what are called transgenes, which are genes removed from a specific species of living thing to a completely different species of living thing. For instance, genes which made fishes in the arctic regions of the world survive the extreme cold have been successfully transmitted into some plants to make them survive harshly cold areas. Gene coding for human growth factor has also been successfully transferred into rats to increase their sizes. These experimentations readily came with backlashes, with questions being asked about the morality and longevity of such modifications.

Nevertheless, there is much more freedom to practice genetic modification when it comes to plants and crops and foods than in animals and many nations have aggressively pursued these areas so as to overcome, drought, famine, starvation and malnutrition. The researches that have gone into areas such as food improvisation through genetic modifications are unprecedented, with attempts being made to give some qualities to plants in order to make them better for human consumptions. For instance, the ability to add and increase the nutritive values of some crops, which had hitherto lacked those nutrients, has now gone a long way to reduce malnutrition around the world.

However, while the whole world seems to have been caught in the frenzy for GMCs/GMFs, Nigeria and other African countries have largely invisible, partly due to tangible reasons and incredulous reasons as well. For instance, at the height of extreme famine and drought in some African countries in the past, these countries rejected GMFs as aids from developed countries under the fear that they might be targeted at either controlling their populations by sterilizing them or harming them somehow.

Another somewhat genuine reason, which wasn’t stated though, was the issue of allergies suffered by certain individuals against the products of the gene being transferred to other crops. And even those claims have been resolved in recent years as more and more researches have uncovered the ways things could be done better. Yet, Nigeria hasn’t fully grasped with both hands the advantages offered by introduction of GMCs to the market of the country, despite the extreme difficulties being experienced in farming in Nigeria. The recent diseases that hit our tomatoes landscapes two years ago is a vivid example of what could have been prevented if tomatoes that have been made resistant to those diseases had been planted.

A friend recently informed me that some regulatory agencies have been finally granted permission to import GMCs into the country with plans to plant and observe them for reproduction. However, I believe we should do more than that. Molecular science in Nigeria, which should be the bedrock of locally producing our own GMCs in the country instead of importing them, has largely been undeveloped. Only 5% of research institutes and academic institutions in Nigeria can boast of having the prerequisite equipment to carry any of these experimentations out.

The last experimentation carried out by Nigerian scientists on chicken was done in faraway India and Malaysia. And as could be deduced, it isn’t because of a lack of knowledgeable personnel or brilliant researchers here in the country. We have those in abundance. It is simply because of infrastructure and equipment deficit. Most laboratories and facilities which focused on these areas around the world require heavy investment either from the government or bodies with huge financial backings. Most of the equipment needed are very expensive, and they constantly need maintenance and frequent upgrades. It is something that government can help set up through the various qualified institutes and academic institutions that we have in the country.

The recent drought that we briefly experienced in the country has led to farm produces being either unavailable in the market or very scarce, making them available ones very expensive. Farmers and agriculturists are also still facing extreme difficulty in preventing pests and diseases from ravaging their crops. Most of the foods we consume in the country are lacking in even their own nutritive values, where arable lands are becoming scarce and lacking in fertility due to frequent usage.

All these can be solved through embracing GMCs, especially our own production of them in the country. And it’s never too late to start. The fields keep expanding and evolving every day. We can still benefit immensely from this revolutionary idea.

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Pulse Contributors is an initiative to highlight diverse journalistic voices. Pulse Contributors do not represent the company Pulse and contribute on their own behalf.

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About the author: Tayo Fasuan is a virologist, molecular scientist and writer. He runs an applied microbiology and bioscience company and has written about disease management for many years. He was recently part of the COVID-19 surveillance and testing in Nigeria.

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