Crop biotechnology has been utilized to enhance food production since the Flavr Savr tomato, the first GMO product, was approved for human consumption in 1994. This is according to Genetic Literacy Project (GLP), an organization dedicated to promoting public awareness and discussion of biotechnology, evolution, science literacy, and genetics. However, it was expensive and not as flavorful as other tomato varieties despite it being extra firm. Due to technological advances and genetic engineering, scientists produced a variety of GMO plants that resist pests, enhance nutrition, and more.
However, the GMO revolution has been criticized due to the fact that crop engineering caters more to farmers and multinational agro-chemical businesses rather than the consumers. In a 2018 survey conducted by GMO Answers, a website that helps users understand more about GMOs, it found that 69% out of 1,213 of US consumers age 18 and above are not confident they know what GMOs are. GMO Answers also found that 32% or less than a third of Americans said they are comfortable with using GMOs in their food products.
Roughly 3 in 5 US consumers are interested in learning more about GMOs. For example, 74% of respondents want to learn more about the impact of GMOs on their overall health, while 67% want to broaden their knowledge about the overall safety of GMOs. This shows that consumer curiosity about crop biotech is forecasted to grow as gene-editing equips farmers and scientists with tools like CRISPR-Cas9. Controversies lay ahead, but opportunities will also arise to discuss critical issues.
Biotech Crop Highlights 2018
Marking the 22nd year of commercialization of biotech crops in 2018, 191.7 million hectares of biotech crops were planted by 17 million farmers in 26 countries, up from 1.7 million hectares in 1996 when the first biotech crop was commercialized, according to the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA). The global biotech crops market was valued at $17.2 billion in 2017, signifying a 9% increase from 2016’s $15.8 billion.
Out of the 26 countries that planted biotech crops, 18 were considered as biotech mega-countries, growing at least 50,000 hectares. The USA planted 75 million hectares in 2018, comprising 39% of the global biotech crop plantings. The country was followed by Brazil, planting 51.3 million hectares or 27% of the global output.
Developing countries planted more biotech crops than developing countries for the past seven years. 21 developing countries planted 54% or 103.1 million hectares of the global biotech hectares, while five countries had a 46% (88.6 million hectares) share. his will continue in the upcoming years as more countries in the southern hemisphere adopt biotech crops and commercialize new biotech crops like rice, which is commonly grown in developing countries.
The most planted biotech crops were soybean, maize, cotton, and canola. Planting biotech soybean maintained its high adoption rate of 50% of the global biotech crops or 95.9 million hectares even it had a 2% increase. Biotech maize covered 58.9 million hectares globally, comprising 31% of the global maize production in 2018, down from 1% from 2017 due to unfavorable weather conditions in Latin America, low market price, lesser pest incidence, high year-end stocks, and counterfeit seeds in the Philippines.
In 2017, biotech canola was planted in 24.9 million hectares, indicating a 3% decrease from 2017. The 3% increase in the global total biotech cotton area was attributed to the improved market value and high adoption rate of insect resistant/herbicide tolerant cotton in 2018. In the same year, biotech canola declined by 1% from 10.2 million hectares in 2017 to 10.1 million hectares.
Closing In On Nigeria’s Prowess in Crop and agricultural Biotechnology
Nigeria took significant steps in agricultural biotechnology in 2019 as it approved two GM crops: pest-resistant Bt cotton and cowpea, reported Nikechi Isaac of GLP. These GM crops are important to Nigeria’s economic development and food value chain. Presently, it is gearing up these plants for the 2020 planting season. Adopting Bt cotton is said to help revive the country’s comatose textile industry, which has declined from employing more than 450,000 in over 180 mills and contributing about 20% of Nigeria’s GDP. Only 25 firms remain in Nigeria, leading to huge economic losses.
Popularly known as the “poor man’s meat,” cowpea is one of the most important stable food crops in Nigeria because it has high protein content at a lower cost than meat, poultry, or fish. Nigerians are the largest consumer of cowpea in the world, but farmers struggled to meet the demand due to pests. Hence, the African country needed to import 500,000 tons a year to meet the annual consumption of around 3.6 million tons.
Nigerian scientists managed to introduce the Bacillus thuringiences (Bt) gene into cowpea, protecting it against the Maruca insect. On the other hand, Bt cotton provides inherent resistance to the bollworm, which is known to cause yield losses of up to 60%. This planting season, expectations are high for growing Bt cotton and cowpea commercially.
Preparing Nigerian Farmers for Growing GM Crops
Minister of science and technology Dr. Ogbonnaya Onu noted that the approval and adoption of the new varieties showed that the country has joined other nations in the transgenic crop development and adoption field, highlighting that Nigeria is ready to develop its agricultural sectors. He added that the government will implement policy measures to enable farmers to further access the products and technology to aid in facilitating immediate and scale adoption.
The Nigerian government and civil organizations are educating farmers by equipping them with the right information and skills so that they can grow the crops during the planting season. Acting director-general of NABDA Dr. Alex Akpa explained that the farmers were directly involved in the field trials, allowing them to grow GM crops along with conventional ones to see the difference in yield and to learn the process. For example, more than 2,500 farmers were trained in growing Bt cotton in 2019. The figure is forecasted to increase to 5,000 this 2020 and 7,500 to 10,000 by 2021, Dr. Akpa said.
Regulations Are In Place
Director-general of the National Biosafety Management Agency (NBMA) Dr. Rufus Elegba reassured that all GM crops that were examined and approved by the biotech regulatory agency were safe for adoption and commercialization. However, the NBMA will continue to monitor the process to guarantee the safe application of the technology.
Nigeria implemented regulations requiring all GM products to be labeled to give the customers the free will to choose the products they want to purchase. This is done for informational purposes and in no way does it stigmatize the product, Dr. Elegba stated.
Prof. Bamidele Solomon, former director-general of NABDA and chairman of Ife Biotechnology Group (IBG) at Obafemi Awolowo University, argued that modern biotechnology offers tools for trait improvements in crop germplasm to boost grain yields that are “compatible to human and environment welfare.” He added that GM crops could feed hungry people, rationalizing that it would be a shame if “well-fed Westerners’ issues” like trade hinder agricultural technologies from benefitting the poor.
More consumers are curious about GM/biotech crops, especially when it comes to health and safety. Developing and developed states alike are growing GM crops, but the latter is expected to plant even more in the future. Overall, biotech crops have the potential to increase yields but regulations must be in place to ensure that safety is not compromised.