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Dissecting alternative paths to mitigate looming food crisis in Nigeria

By Murtala Adewale, Kano
03 September 2021   |   2:55 am
Nigeria is endowed with fertile land suitable for all seasons’ agricultural production. With arable land areas of about 70.8 million hectares, which is rich in soil veritable for vegetation

Photo/Facebook/Atiku Abubakar

Nigeria is endowed with fertile land suitable for all seasons’ agricultural production. With arable land areas of about 70.8 million hectares, which is rich in soil veritable for vegetation, crop production and animal grazing, the country is among the most blessed.

Needless to say Nigeria’s capacity to remain self-sufficient in food security has never been in doubt. Besides, the nation leads among its peers globally in many crops production sufficient enough to fetch the country significant revenue in foreign exchange.

For instance, Nigeria was the second-largest producer of Cocoa in the world with an average of 420,000 tons annually in the mid-1960s. The Cocoa is deposited and grows in commercial quantities mainly in the South West and few other places in the country. The situation now, however, is not the same because of the decline in production.

Similarly, Nigeria produced an average of 70 per cent of the world yam yield. According to Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) reports, Nigeria Yam surplus hits about 18.3 million tonnes annually, a figure that represents 73.8 per cent of total yam production in Africa.

The country equally occupied top height in cassava production next to Thailand, globally. Incidentally, the law of diminishing return is fast catching up with these past glories. Also, Nigeria ranked the 14th largest rice producer in the world and first in Africa with an average production volume of 4 million metric tons as of 2019, the nation’s potential in rice production cannot be eclipsed in a hurry, even when the much-celebrated local production is still far below increasing demand.

Local production of maize stood a little above 10 million metric tonnes annually according to the 2020 FAO report. Nature has equally endowed the country with a tremendous record of growth and bumper yield in the production of other food crops including roots and tubers, sugarcane, legumes and tomatoes to mention but a few. However, agricultural production in Nigeria now faces a severe threat of climate change with a grievous impact on the nation’s food security.

According to scientists, “climate change is the utmost ecological menace that harmfully affects the yield of crops and animals globally”. Scientists say “the primary cause of climate change is the accumulation of greenhouse gases (GHGs) in the atmosphere resulting in increased greenhouse effect”.

The rising change in temperature around the world is becoming alarming. The devastating implication of climate change has further reduced the potency of soil fertility which invariably, reduced agricultural production in the country. Apart from global warming, population explosion in Nigeria may also worsen the looming food crisis in the country. Despite the declining production capacity, the birth rate in Nigeria continued to multiply at a geometric level widening the shortfall.

Available statistics released by the United Nations recently predicted that the world population will rise from the present 7.7 billion to 9.7 billion by the year 2050. Of this estimation, the UN put Africa share of the growth at 2.4 billion from the present 1 billion.

Apparently, Nigeria has the largest population in Africa with estimated figures ranging between 206 million and 220 million. With the UN prediction, the country’s population may double by 100 percent.

While struggling to cope with the impact of global warming and population explosion, the protracted menace of insurgency, kidnapping, and banditry ravaging almost every part of the country constituted a huge challenge to food security. From the insurgency attacks on rice farmers in Kebbi, Zamfara, and Katsina to kidnapping in the southern region, agricultural production is at a lower ebb.

The challenge is becoming difficult with the recent rejection of over 20 agric products in the international market, especially European countries because of low-quality standards. Groundnut is one of such crops on the ban list due to the large content of aflatoxin infection. Nigeria presently produces over 3 million metric tons of groundnuts annually. The adverse effects of all these are obvious in the portion of agriculture in the nation’s revenue. Between January and March 2021, the portion of agriculture in the total Gross Domestic Product GDP stood at 22.35 per cent.

An agronomist with the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture IITA, Kano office, Dr. Abdullahi Ibrahim Tofa, identified poor attention to agricultural research institutions and inconsistent policies on agric as part of challenges degenerating into a food crisis in the country.

“I think the problem starts from weak input of research institute to agricultural growth. And what do you expect a poorly funded institute to contribute to food security. For any problem to be identified, and managed, we need functional research institutions in place. Unfortunately, the research institutes we have around the country are given less attention. Research centres need strong financial support to carry out evolution and develop technologies that will produce a high yield. Incidentally, few institutes produce hybrid technologies but at very expensive farmers will find it difficult to afford.

“So I feel concern authorities need to come in this regard to subsidise input so that the technologies will be available for farmers and doing this will increase our production. Our policies on agric also need to be consistent. We don’t need another government another policies method. This is most case obstruct existing good programme.

Dr. Ignatius Angarawai, a seed breeding research program officer on Dryland cereals with International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-ARD Tropics, ICRISAT, Kano, believed lack of planning, security challenges, and misplacement of intervention as part of the food crisis in Nigeria.

“We have lost the change to put in place proper agricultural plan ahead of the population explosion we have today and that is the major cause of emerging food crisis in the country. Unlike in the past, the population today is on the increase and the land that produces incidentally is reducing. More so in the yesteryears, we do shift farming when the land will be left fallow of season cultivation and the farmer will come back after some years to resume plantation.

“Today the land is cultivated 100 per cent and all year round thereby reducing the land nutrient that would improve land productivity and the fertiliser that should be used to further replenish the land are not affordable to the farmers. So with little production, there is more mouth to feed, this is the reason for the food crisis.

“Security challenge is another major problem because farmers cannot go to the farm in most places where large agricultural production takes place in large quantity. So government must be serious in dealing with security challenges to enable farmers to go to the farm. Government should also ensure a proper evolution of the agricultural intervention because there are so many occasions where interventions fall in the wrong hands,” Angarawai suggested.

Unfortunately, the looming food crisis seems to have defied quite a number of Federal Government interventions targeted at reviving the lost glory in the agric subsector. As part of the government policy on diversification of the economy and improved food security, the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) injected over N996.5 billion intervention funds into agriculture in the last six years.

Incidentally, the successes recorded since the deployment of these facilities are still not visible enough to avert the looming food crisis in the country. Addressing journalists recently during the routine Monetary Policy Committee (MPC) meeting in Lagos, the CBN Governor Godwin Emefiele said the apex bank has released “N631.4 billion for smallholder Farmers through Anchor Borrower Programme, N111.7 billion on Targeted Credit Facility while the Agric Business Small and Medium Enterprise Investment Scheme got N253.4 billion”.

Despite the interventions, Nigeria’s foreign expense on agricultural importation has hit over N3.1 trillion in the last two years. The National Bureau of Statistics on foreign trade report indicated Nigeria imports increased by 140 per cent in the last year. The huge resources which are taking a toll on the nation’s foreign reserves already are closely connected to the acute food shortage in Nigeria. Data released by the Central Bank of Nigeria in March 2021, shows $34.74 billion of the nation’s foreign exchange reserve, after a fall of $632.9 million within 11 months.

However, experts say Nigeria’s spending on food importation may further skyrocket because of the low level of local production, population growth, the impact of global warming, and insecurity unless the country adopts biotechnology to mitigate the aforementioned challenges and enhance agricultural yield.

Speaking on the potential options available to mitigate the food crisis in Nigeria, the country coordinator Open Forum Agricultural Biotechnology (OFAB) Nigeria Chapter, Dr. Rose Maxwell Gidado, suggested the adoption of Genetic Modification and Genome Editing, a biotechnology solution that would, over time, bring about agricultural revolution.

Gidado, who explained the scientific method of biotechnologies and how developed countries used the solutions for food sufficiency, contended that adoption of biotech agriculture will upscale the country’s food production, improve farmers’ economic margin and reduce foreign exchange on agric import products.
“We have more than two options actually in addition to the traditional breeding method that could be used to improve agricultural activities and food security in the country. Even though it is common knowledge that productivity is still very low, less than 3 per cent is not appropriate to what we actually need, coupled with challenges of high temperature, drought, flood, erosion, unpredictable raining patterns as well as diseases like insects attack and not to talk of the security challenges. So Nigeria needs to think out of the box to find solutions to mitigate all these predicaments.

“Some of these solutions are already functional in developed countries like Brazil, China, Argentina, and the rest. With the technologies in place, these countries can conveniently feed their citizens, give out, and export to other countries. The solutions include modern biotechnology GMO and Genome editing.

“Genetic modification is a technologically advanced method through the selection of desirable traits in crops and enhanced with genes to withstand common problems that confront farmers. For instance, you can have strains of wheat that are more resistant to drought and maize that can withstand the threat of pesticides.

“Besides the biofortification against the strains, the GM crops produce a high yield with potential to strengthen farmer’s productivity. The difference between the two solutions is that while GMO involves taking a gene from unrelated species to another unrelated species to solve a problem under a process which is otherwise known as transgenic, Genome editing is used to complement the traditional breeding method.

“In editing, the gene removes the bad thing and leaves the good ones within the plant. You are not bringing or taking away any gene. It involves identifying the gene that is causing for instance drought or any form of the disease in a crop and silent or deletes them immediately.

“After carrying out such a process the challenge has technically been terminated almost from the origin such that subsequent progeny of that plant will never grow with the disease anymore. In that manner, farmer’s productivity is enhanced and even multiplies to have a bumper harvest. Food will be available, affordable and you will be adding value to your economy.

“Besides, this process also has nutritional enhancement. The technology is biofortified with minerals and implanted with micro-nutrient and vitamins. The technology is nourished with iron and zinc needed for the human body such that when you are eating your yam, cassava, maize, etc, you are also eating a balanced diet. So with biotechnology, you are combining food and nutrient security.

“When we have enough it is a win-win solution for everybody. The country produces enough, gradually our spending on food importation will reduce, there will be a profit margin for the farmers and food will be available and affordable. The technologies allow farmers to spend less in terms of input because if the production cost is high, it will definitely reflect on the price of food but when farmers spend less, people will buy more at an affordable price,” Gidado explained.

Also, at the forefront of mitigating the food crisis in Nigeria and Africa as a whole is the Africa Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF). The foundation is providing farmers in Nigeria and sub-saharan Africa with practical technology solutions capable of addressing farm productivity constraints and improving their livelihoods.

Founded in 2003 to address Africa’s food security prospects, AATF’s goal is to reach 16 million smallholder farmers by 2022 with access to transformative technologies directly or through the partnerships that the organization is building with other stakeholders in the agricultural value chain.

A programme officer at AATF, Dr. Ijeoma Akaogu, explained the impact of the organisation in the support of food security through especially in the provision of technology solutions.

According to Akaogu, AATF has finally developed through a partnership a new maize variety that combines resistance to fall armyworm, stem borer as well as drought tolerance.

“Farmers who abandoned their maize fields due to fall armyworm infestation will have a variety that can withstand the pest. Secondly, the use of chemical pesticides which are not sustainable and environmentally friendly is drastically reduced. This means that farmers are able to save the money they are supposed to use in buying pesticides. This has contributed to food and nutrition security and increased income for farmers in Nigeria.

“AATF is partnering with the Institute of Agricultural Research (IAR), Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria to develop a cowpea variety that is resistant to Maruca, a major pest of cowpea. This has reduced the number of spray times from 6- 8 to only 2 to control other pests of cowpea such as aphids, pod sucking insects, etc. This has translated to increased income for farmers in Nigeria and the cowpea market.

“Nigeria will earn foreign exchange through exporting cowpea to other countries and also attain food sufficiency. Also, we have contributed to the cassava transformation agenda through CAMAP in collaboration with the National Center in Ilorin,” she said.

Nevertheless, activities and a series of campaigns are being mounted against the application and adoption of biotechnology in agricultural development in Nigeria, citing possible environmental and health implications. Although, those behind the campaign have failed to scientifically justify their claims with relevant case studies where such damage was recorded in countries where the GMO already yielding positive impact.

Nonetheless, the National Biosafety Management Agency (NBMA), an agency mandated to ensure the safety of modern biotechnology products and strict regulation of Genetic Modified Organic products, for human health and the environment in Nigeria has declared that bio-agriculture is safe.

In a recent interaction with the Director-General of NBMA, Dr. Rufus Ebegba, said Nigeria is “fortified with institutional capacity and policy framework to ensure application of modern technologies especially on agricultural production which has potential to accelerate food security and reduce high dependency on importation”.

Ebegba, who declares that GMO is safe for human consumption and encourage farmers to adopt modern technologies to increase their yield, also challenged those campaigning against the technologies to back their claim with the scientifically proven claim.