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By Gabrial Agbeja, The Nigerial Observer
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.