What role for genome editing in Nigeria’s food security drive?

“The growing population strains available resources and raises food consumption. Rising demand exacerbates inflation, worsening people’s living conditions.

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What role for genome editing, Nigeria’s food security driveBy Sylvester Thompson

The Heads of States and Government of t African Union met in June 2014, in Malabo, Equatorial Guinea and adopted two decisions and two declarations which are directly related to Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme (CAADP).

The CAADP signposts Africa’s ambitious agriculture transformation and food security agenda in the 2015-2025 decade.

It is Africa’s policy framework for wealth creation, food security and nutrition, economic growth and prosperity.

The African Union Development Agency (AUDA-NEPAD) prioritised the integration of science-driven innovations into its programmes and initiatives throughout Africa, supported by solution-focused research and development.

The AUDA-NEPAD Centre of Excellence in Science, Technology, and Innovation (CoE-STI) is leading an endeavour to harness the potential of genome editing, a rapidly evolving suite of biotechnology tools.

Food security experts say the primary objective of the initiative is to promote the widespread adoption of genome editing tools among AU Member States.

They say it will focus on effective science communication and advocacy to drive viable and competitive agricultural and agro-industry transformation.

According to crop genetic experts, genome editing comprises a group of technologies that give scientists the ability to change an organism’s DNA.

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These technologies allow addition, removal, alteration of genetic material at particular locations in the genome.

President Bola Tinubu has declared state of emergency on food security to underscore his administration’s recognition of agriculture as a key element in national development and wealth creation.

Biotechnologists and other experts speak favourably about the efficacy of the technology when applied in agriculture, attesting to its ability to revitalise productivity by developing crops and livestock with high nutritional qualities.

“The growing population strains available resources and raises food consumption. Rising demand exacerbates inflation, worsening people’s living conditions.

“As the population grows so will the demand for food. An increase in demand that is not balanced by an increase in production will demand exceeding supply, resulting in food insecurity,’’ Say Tersoo Tavershima and his team of researchers in a study.

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The study on `Food Security and Population Growth in Nigeria` was published in Direct Research Journal of Agriculture and Food Science

Apart from economic downturns and conflict, it is believed that climate change is also a key driver of food insecurity and genome editing is said to be a climate smart technology.

Recently, Tinubu launched a national agriculture extension policy document targeted at driving increased food production and development.

However, in the bid to boost food production, the government would do well to also consider leveraging CoE-STI genome editing initiative.

In December 2022, in collaboration with the National Biotechnology Development Agency (NABDA), CoE-STI hosted a six-day writing workshop and policy dialogue on genome editing technology.

Dr Adeleke Mamora, former Minister of Science, Technology and Innovation, who was represented by the Minister of State, Chief Henry Ikoh, said Africa is positioned to benefit from the technology of genome editing.

He said it was the responsibility of governments to strengthen capacities to keep up with the dynamism of the technology.

Prof. Olalekan Akinbo, Supervisor at the CoE-STI told the News Agency of Nigeria (NAN) that the initiative was meant to increase crop productivity and engender economic growth on the continent.

He said that agriculture would play a crucial role for the Agenda 2063, Africa’s development blueprint, to be achieved.

In July 2023, the CoE-STI of AUDA-NEPAD with NABDA, convened another workshop to review and validate genome editing communication strategy for Nigeria.

Akinbo told NAN that the technology has been accepted by some African countries such as Burkina Faso, Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, Mozambique, Eswantini and Ethiopia.

“We believe that innovation leads to a prosperous nation, hence it is paramount that policy makers should be able to identify and acknowledge the benefits of innovation.

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“The mandate of the Centre of Excellence is to drive the implementation of Agenda 2063 which has the slogan `The Africa we want.’ Africa is tired of policies without implementation,’’ Akinbo said.

Akinbo said Nigeria has lots of experts in the field, adding that all they required was to be given the enabling environment to contribute their quota to food security.

He said with Nigeria’s estimated 200million population and the growing food need Nigeria should key into the technology.

He advised that Nigeria should take advantage and opportunities offered by agriculture to grow its GDP instead of over dependence on the oil sector.

Similarly, Dr Shakirat Ajenifujah -Solebo, acting Director, Genetics, Genomics and Bioinformatics Department, NABDA, and Facilitator of the CoE-STI genome editing initiative, said Nigeria needed the technology.

“The efforts that we are putting in it is because it is important that Nigeria does not miss out of this technology.

“We have started well and this workshop is to crown our efforts in ensuring that we are able to adopt and adapt this technology at all levels.

“If we are successful, it is going to have an impact on the development in Nigeria, especially when it comes to food security because this technology is precise,’’ Solebo said.

She further said that genome editing would improve crop productivity by enhancing the characteristics and traits that were giving farmers problems.

She expressed optimism that the successful domestication of the technology in Nigeria would translate to enhanced agricultural productivity.

In November 2023, the CoE-STI of the AUDA NEPAD held the first series of its virtual regional engagements: Genome Editing to Optimise Agriculture in Africa, which was to enhance genome editing and produce development.

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The meeting, which was moderated by Akinbo, served as a platform for uniting diverse stakeholders, fostering collaborative learning, and advancing genome editing in agriculture.

During the technical and practical considerations, a participant, Prof. Charles Adetunji, Director of Research and Innovation, Edo State University, highlighted the successful role genome editing played in effective management of pests and diseases.

Prof. Steve Runo of Kenyatta University expanded on the broader spectrum of genome editing products currently under development, encompassing maize, sorghum, teff, and rice.

In addressing the overarching landscape of genome editing, he underscored the critical necessity of harmonising legislation and guidelines.

He also advocated leveraging regional blocs to facilitate the harmonisation of guidelines and legislation, thereby streamlining the genome editing process across diverse African nations.

In December 2023, again, the AUDA- NEPAD CoE-STI in collaboration with the NABDA, via a two-day workshop, further sought to promote the inclusion of genome editing into Nigerian university education curriculum.

The workshop was organsised to strengthen institutional capacity in genome editing and biotechnology through strategic alliances with Nigerian Universities and agricultural research institutions.

Prof. Abdullahi Mustapha, NABDA Director-General, said the workshop marked a pivotal moment in the collective efforts to propel Nigeria’s agriculture sector towards sustainable development.

He said genome editing and biotechnology were at the forefront of scientific advancements, offering unprecedented opportunities to revolutionalise agriculture.

Prof. Lawal Bilbis, Vice-Chancellor, Uthman Dan Fodio University, Sokoto said the technology had continued to advance knowledge and urged canvassed its introduction into the curriculum of Nigerian universities.

Prof. Julian Osuji, Director, Regional Centre for Biotechnology and Bioresources Research, said: “f or the desired results to be achieved, government should be prepared to equip the programmes.

“Government should be ready to provide the equipment because having it done theoretically without practical knowledge would make it redundant’’.

News Agency of Nigeria.