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Re-On the genetically modified rice

By Alex Abutu
22 November 2016   |   3:47 am
Government’s decision was based on the fact that farmers in the country and across Africa are experiencing low yields resulting in high rice imports in SSA where over 40 per cent of the rice consumed is imported.
Genetically modified rice. PHOTO: irri.org

Genetically modified rice. PHOTO: irri.org

Last year, the Federal Government approved the research for the Nitrogen-use-efficiency, water-use-efficiency and salt tolerant (NEWEST) rice variety project at the National Cereal Research Institute (NCRI), Badeggi, Niger State as part of the overall strategy to end rice importation by 2017 and promote food security in the country

Government’s decision was based on the fact that farmers in the country and across Africa are experiencing low yields resulting in high rice imports in SSA where over 40 per cent of the rice consumed is imported. The average grain yield in Africa (2.2 t/ha) is below the world average (3.4 t/ha) by 49 per cent and several factors account for this low yield.

Soil nitrogen deficiency has been cited as a major constraint to rice production. Nitrogen deficiency is mostly acute in the highly weathered upland areas where an average yield of only one tonne per hectare, which is about 25 per cent of yield potential, has been recorded. Also, nitrogen is difficult to retain when applied in lowland areas due to floods and flowing water that characterise such areas.

A major concern that constraints rice production in nitrogen deficient soils is the inability of farmers to buy fertilisers to address this constraint, and when they buy, they can hardly afford the required rate for optimal yield. Improving the nitrogen use efficiency (NUE) of rice is one means of overcoming these limitations.

Similarly, drought has been identified as a major limiting factor in rice production in SSA where about 80 per cent of rice farms traditionally depend on rainfall. The farmers are often resource constrained, and cannot afford irrigation systems. With the utilisation and application of water use efficient (WUE) component, the rice will require less water and this will offer an appreciable coping mechanism against drought.

Also, high salinity is increasingly becoming a major problem in rice growing areas of the coastal lowlands and mangrove swamps.

So principally, the ongoing rice research at Badeggi is to address the above stated constraints which over the years, conventional breeding methods have not been able to tackle.

The editorial has raised questions on the absence of the critical mass of qualified scientists to undertake genetic engineering as well as their ability to handle such high level technology.

But the question to ask is whether genetic modification is more of a high level science than stem cell or other form of science that researchers at Nigerian universities have attained accolade and honour for their works in such areas.

Yes it is right to say Nigeria is not like America that is so versed in research but that was the same kind of argument presented when Nigeria ventured into nuclear technology, a technology that one accident can kill every living thing within certain radius, but 10 years after we have forged on and their fears have not come to pass.

What were the nation’s manpower potentials when our first satellite, NigeriaSat 1 was launched? We all remembered that after the launch, Nigerian scientists were able to build, launch and control NigeriaSat X in orbit.

The Guardian can send its reporters to the research centres across Nigeria and investigate their capacity. It is denigrating to question the patriotism of loyal and dedicated researchers who in view of all odds have not only continue to thrive but challenge and contest all honours and awards with their counterparts in other parts of the world.

The good thing about science and technology be it GM, nuclear or satellite is that, it is universal. Yes agreed that we may not have all the facilities but that does not mean we should not do what we can with what we have.

The Director-General of the National Biosafety Management Agency (NBMA), Dr. Rufus Ebegba did not threaten to shut the research institute if it fails the next round of preliminary trials, because he does not have such powers. He can only stop the research which is just one of the many researches the institute is undertaking.

Ebegba did not say the statement below attributed to him. “GMO rice is a strain that has been modified genetically to increase micronutrients like vitamin A, accelerate photosynthesis, resist pests, tolerate herbicides, increase grain size, generate nutrients or flavours and produce human proteins.”

Your editorial also raised so many questions including: Is such genetically modified rice, therefore, safe, since the modification already alters its composition? Like irradiated food, that doesn’t expire, the question is whether such product is still safe for human consumption. How long then would the rice last? Or would it last forever? Are GMO products biodegradable? These are critical questions that should be answered.

These questions may not even arise if we understand what the NEWEST rice is all about but for the avoidance of doubt, it has nothing to do with the fears expressed as it won’t differ from the rice in the market currently. The only difference is that its genetic composition is altered to accommodate or withstand drought, high soil salinity, Nitrogen deficiency among others.

There is no possibility of horizontal gene transfer and it is not possible for gene transfer between rice and millet as the editorial noted.

The fears about altering the natural process of degradation does not even arise as before a GMO product is released it must meet health, environment, ecology and other standards which are observed worldwide.

Nobody has ever said that GM will solve Nigeria’s food problem, emphasis had also been on the fact that GM is a tool that can assist in the provision of safe and healthy food for Nigerians.

The statement on whether Nigeria is prepared to do the necessary research as far as genetic modification is concerned can only be postulated by someone who lacks basic knowledge of the human capacities in our research institutes. The GM beans project had progressed successfully in the last 10 years in the country under the supervision of Nigerians scientists at the Institute for Agriculture Research, ABU, Zaria. The introduction of genetic engineering may be one of the antidotes capable of reviving most of the research institutes said to be comatose.

The essence of the whole exercise was reinforced by the former Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Science and Technology, Mrs. Winifred Oyo Ita at the inauguration of the research that “the main role of science in agriculture has been to help generate novelties that allow us to produce more with less land and less effort’’.

Abutu is of the Programme for Biosafety System.Abutu is of the Programme for Biosafety System.