Using Biotechnology Applications

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By Gabriel Agbeja

The United Nations (UN) Convention on Biological Diversity defines biotechnology as any technological application that uses biological systems, living organisms or derivatives to make or modify products or processes for specific uses.

Biotechnology is a field of applied biology which involves the use of living organisms and bio-processes in engineering, technology, medicine and other fields requiring bio-products.

Biotechnology also utilises these products for manufacturing purposes.

The concept encompasses a wide range of procedures for modifying living organisms for human purposes. Biotechnology can be used in the domestication of animals, cultivation of plants and for improvements to these activities via breeding programmes that employ artificial selection and hybridisation.

Experts say that biotechnology has applications in four major areas, which are health care, crop production and agriculture; industrial uses of crops and other products (biodegradable plastics, vegetable oil and bio-fuels), and environment.

The experts note that one application of biotechnology entails the direct use of organisms in the manufacture of organic products; while the other involves using organisms to extract metals from their ores through a process known as bioleaching.

Biotechnology is also used for recycling or treating waste, while it can similarly be used for cleaning up sites that are contaminated by industrial activities (bio-remediation).

In the military field, biotechnology can also be used to produce biological weapons, which have very lethal effects.

Going from the general to the specifics, experts insist that Nigeria ought to give priority attention to the development of science and technology in its efforts to attain meaningful development.

For instance, Prof. Sam Ale, the Director-General of the National Mathematical Centre in Abuja, stressed that some targets of the Vision 20:2020 programme of the Federal Government could only be attained if considerable emphasis was placed on science and technology.

Other experts, including Dr. Femi Adaralegbe, a chemical engineer, argued that Nigeria could only transform into one of the 20 largest economies in the world by 2020 if tangible efforts were made to develop the science and technology base of the national economy.

In more specific terms, Prof. Bamidele Solomon, the Director-General of National Biotechnology Development Agency (NABDA), stressed that Nigeria ought to utilise the applications of biotechnology for development purposes if she truly wanted to attain the goals of Vision 20:2020.

He recalled that the Federal Government developed a biotechnology policy in 2001 to promote biotechnology activities in the country and harness the benefits of modern biotechnology applications.
Solomon described modern biotechnology as an advanced form of biotechnology from which Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) and products were derived.

He noted that as part of the Federal Government’s biotechnology policy, NABDA was set up in 2001, under the aegis of the Federal Ministry of Science and Technology, to further strengthen the promotion of biotechnology activities in Nigeria.

He said that NABDA had since been leading efforts to domesticate modern biotechnology in Nigeria and use it to engender the production of improved crop varieties and animals in the country.

Solomon said that the agency’s efforts were aimed at empowering Nigeria to start benefiting from modern biotechnology applications like other countries such as Burkina Faso, South Africa, Kenya, India and Brazil.
At a recent workshop on bio-safety regulation in Abuja, the Minister of Environment, Mrs. Hadiza Mailafia, underscored the need to meet the food requirements of the increasing Nigerian population via the application of modern biotechnology, which entailed the use of (GMOs).

The minister, who was represented by Mr. Adedoyin Simon, the Deputy Director, Department of Forestry, said that the framework of bio-safety was to protect the people’s health and the country’s environment when using GMOs.

Mailafia said that the framework had benefited from the input of technical stakeholders and from internal discussions within relevant agencies.

She pledged the Federal Government’s readiness to put in place sustainable mechanisms and institutional structures for the effective implementation of the Bio-safety Framework (BF) in the country.

She stressed that the bio-safety programme was aimed at preventing large-scale loss of biological integrity, while focusing on ecology and human health.

The minister noted that the bio-safety framework that was developed in Nigeria covered the administration and regulation of all modern biotechnology activities, including GMOs and their products.

Mailafia said that the framework also sought to facilitate the establishment and development of a national capacity to assess and manage potential risks associated with modern biotechnology applications and products.

She stressed that modern biotechnology applications could address the challenges in food production, genetic improvement of crops and animals, as well as health, environment and industry.

She, nonetheless, asserted that Nigeria could not afford to delay efforts to establish of a holistic bio-safety framework which would facilitate safe activities in the country’s biotechnology industry.

Mailafia pledged the commitment of the environment ministry to ensuring compliance with national and international standards and regulations in efforts to guarantee a successful bio-safety project in the country.

“All bio-safety cases shall be treated in line with our national and international standards and regulations,” she said.

She reiterated the determination of the environment ministry to ensure the utilisation of modern biotechnology via a safe approach.

Mr. Ademola Usman, the Head of Bio-Safety Unit, Federal Ministry of Environment, nonetheless, said that all bio-safety efforts required the active collaboration of some government agencies.

“For instance, the Nigeria Customs Service is expected to detect the genuine Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs), while NAFDAC is expected to guarantee the safety of genetically modified products on human beings and animals.

“Besides, the Consumer Protection Council (CPC) is also expected to ensure that GMOs and products do not cause any harm to the consumers,” he said.

Usman gave the assurance that the environment ministry would work with other ministries and agencies to properly disseminate information on GMOs to the citizens.

He said that a specific agency that would handle bio-safety issues would soon be established whenever President Goodluck Jonathan signed the Bio-safety Bill into law.

He also said that a technical review panel would be set up to examine the salient issues, prior to the importation of GMOs.

He, therefore, appealed to the citizens to have faith in the efficacy of the government policy on bio-safety issues.

Beyond that, Usman noted that there were ongoing efforts to develop a risk-management strategy on GMOs, adding that it would aim at protecting human health, biological diversity and the environment from the potential risks associated with GMOs.

He emphasised that a laboratory analysis would also conducted on samples of crop products or materials to determine whether they contained GMOs and to ensure strict compliance with the provisions of the emerging law on bio-safety.

“Under the law, no person, institution or body shall import, transport or commercialise GMOs that are intended for direct use as food or feeds or for processing without the prior approval of the agency.

“Penalties for the law’s contravention include a fine of not less than N2.5 million or a minimum of five years’ imprisonment or both.

“In the case of a corporate body, the penalty is not less than N5 million, while the directors or officers of the organisation shall each be liable to a fine of not less than N2.5 million or imprisonment for a term of five years or both,” Usman said.

However, Prof. Paul Onyenekwe, a Director at Sheda Science and Technology Complex in Abuja, expressed optimism that the President’s assent to the bill on bio-safety would prevent Nigeria from becoming a dumping ground for illegal GMOs and allied products.

“The bio-safety bill, if passed into law, will give a holistic approach to the practice and regulation of modern biotechnology activities in Nigeria, while preventing contrabands from coming into the country,” he said.

Onyenekwe noted that the private and public sector contributed to the formulation and development of the bill before its submission to the National Assembly for consideration and passage.

The director said that the bill defined procedures for risks’ assessment and management, with an overall objective of providing a regulatory regime and guidance for the sustainable development of modern biotechnology and its applications.

He said that the bio-safety bill was also in consonance with the country’s biotechnology and environmental protection aspirations as well as global concerns. NAN

Onyenekwe stressed that the bio-safety bill, which was developed under UNEP’s Global Environment Facility on National Bio-safety Frameworks NBFs) project of 2002-2006, had been passed by the National Assembly and was only awaiting the President’s assent.

Mr. Emmanuel Chinedu, an Assistant Director at the National Root Crops Research Institute (NRCRI), Umudike, said that the institute had been conducting a research on genetically modified cassava (Bt-cassava) that was rich in protein.

Chinedu, who is also a Plant Breeder/Geneticist at the institute, said that the research was necessitated by the fact that cassava was a staple food that was widely consumed by majority of Nigerians.

He said that although cassava was rich in carbohydrate, it lacked vitamins, minerals and protein, adding that the Bt-cassava variety contained a reasonable amount of proteins.

“Bt-cassava will serve as a substitute to sources of protein such as eggs, meat and fish, which many Nigerians cannot afford nowadays,” he said.

Chinedu said that the institute’s scientists were working on the research which, he noted, had made substantial progress.

Prof. Ado Shehu, the Director of the Institute for Agricultural Research, Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, said that the institute had started conducting confined field trials on improved sorghum and cowpea that were pest-resistant.

Shehu said that the institute’s scientists had been able to achieve natural resistance to pest in all cowpea families via bacteria that were capable of killing the insect, adding, however, that the bacteria were harmless to human beings.

He disclosed that scientists had been able to identify the genes responsible for the insecticide property, which was incorporated into the cowpea variety.

“That research was carried out in a laboratory in Australia but they are not growing a lot of cowpea in that country.

“Arrangements have been made to enable us to use the genes in our local cowpea variety to see whether the resistance can be transferred genetically,” he said, adding that pests which fed on the cowpea would die.

Shehu said that trials on the adaptation were carried out inside the institute’s containment facility for three consecutive years, adding that the results so far obtained were positive.

He said that efforts were underway to fortify sorghum with micronutrients such as zinc and iron, which were some of the minerals deficient in many children across the West African sub-region.

He said that the sorghum’s bio-fortification would allow the human body to digest and use those materials from the improved sorghum variety.

Shehu said that fortified sorghum would enhance the people’s health conditions, while reducing the incidence of malnutrition-related diseases in the country.

He said that that one-year research work had been successfully concluded.

He, nonetheless, said that paucity of funds had been a limiting factor in the project, in spite of the availability of manpower and land for the project.

Shehu said that the cowpea project was undertaken in collaboration with the Nairobi-based Africa Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF), while the sorghum bio-fortification project was carried out in concert with Africa Harvest Biotech Foundation international, also in Nairobi, Kenya.

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