Biotechnology: A Renewed Hope For The Nigerian “White Gold” Industry
Our basic understanding of life, matter and energy has improved significantly in the past decades, due to the tremendous advances made in science. As a result, today we experience intensive technological changes and advancements, stimulating a new era of development in many parts of the world. One of such technological advancements we have today is Biotechnology. Biotechnology can be defined as any technological application that involves the use of a whole biological system or parts of living organisms to produce useful products for medical, agricultural or industrial use.
Agricultural biotechnology through a fusion of vast knowledge obtained from Crop science, Biochemistry, Microbiology, Genetic engineering and Gene editing allows the production of crops that are resistant against biotic stressors such as pests and insects diseases or abiotic stressors like drought and soil salinity. Countries like USA, China, India, Brazil, Argentina, and Mexico and in Africa Ethiopia, Burkina Faso and South Africa have adopted science and technological innovations to boost agricultural production and drive economic growth. However, in Nigeria lack of government commitment and the “recalcitrant status quo” has slowed down the pace in the adoption of biotechnology in Nigeria for a long time.
Cotton, a major cash crop in Nigeria, is nicknamed “white gold” by farmers alike due to its huge financial and economic benefits. The major cotton producing states in Nigeria are Zamfara, Kano, Kaduna, Katsina, Sokoto, Kebbi, Ogun, Ondo and Oyo. Cotton is uniquely versatile with a large and diverse agricultural value chain that creates many jobs and wealth opportunities, particularly in the textile industry. However, the textile industry in Nigeria is seemingly dead due to a decline in cotton production, which has led to the closure of the cotton mills and textile industries in Nigeria. Among other factors, pests and insects attack mainly contribute to the decline in cotton production in Nigeria. Sucking pests such as Aphids, Jassids, Thrips attack cotton plants and suck their sap. Bollworms from the Lepidopteran species attack cotton plants at different growth stages and cause considerable yield damage of about 60% if nothing is done to mitigate them in time.
Bt Cotton is "armed" to resist Bollworms
Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) is a soil microbe that produces "Cry Proteins" which are specifically toxic to many insect species. Through Biotechnology methods, the “insect-resistant traits” of Bt have been transferred into cotton to produce a transgenic cotton plant with an inbuilt defence mechanism to protect itself from lepidopteran bollworms. Bt Cotton contains specific “Bt-genes” which are expressed as "Cry Proteins" in the form of a protoxin, using the plant's cellular mechanisms in different parts of the transgenic cotton. When the insect feeds on the plant it will ingest some of the plant tissues containing the protoxins or "Cry proteins" which becomes active in the alkaline (ph=9.6-12.5) midgut of the insect via enzymatic proteolysis. The toxin molecules bind to specific receptors on the gut membrane; the toxin-receptor interactions ruptures the insect gut membrane. This allows the nutrient containing insect fluid (haemolymph) to flow into the digestive tract of the insect and disrupt digestive processes. The sequence of events leads to paralysis of the insect larvae and eventually death within 1 or 2 days.
Benefits of Bt Cotton to farmers in Nigeria
Recently, Bt Cotton has just become the first genetically engineered crops to be adopted in Nigeria. Two Bt Cotton varieties MRC7377 BG ll and MRC7361 BG ll were released and officially registered by the National Committee on Naming, Registration and Release of Crop Materials at its 26th meeting in Ibadan. This is a landmark in the history of modern Nigerian biotechnology. The newly released Bt Cotton varieties have the potentials of revamping the comatose textile industry by boosting cotton production in Nigeria. Some of the potential benefits of Bt Cotton to Nigerian farmers include:
The use of Bt cotton will lead to a significant reduction in the increasing use of pesticides/agrochemicals by farmers including the cost of cultivation and hazards on human, animal health and the environment during application.
Bt cotton technology is friendly; it is available in the seeds. Farmers will only plant the Bt cotton seedlings, and the resulting plant will have the capacity to grow in areas that are infested by bollworms.
Bt cotton will improve profit for farmers. Taking into considerations the cost of purchasing cotton seedlings, pesticides/agro-chemicals, and the average cost of cotton production on 1 hectare of land is estimated at 125,000naira depending on factors like inflation and exchange rates. Bt cotton will increase yield by 37% and improve profit by 50% for farmers.
In countries that cultivate Bt cotton and GE crops, No adverse, toxic or any allergic effects of Bt cotton on human or animal health have been reported. The Bt “Cry proteins” require certain specific conditions to be activated, for example, it has to be ingested into the gut of the organism, no contact effects. When ingested into the gut of humans, the Bt Cry proteins cannot be activated because the human gut is acidic and lacks the specific receptors for the Bt toxins to bind and initiate the structural and physiological changes that lead to death in insects.
The release of Bt cotton in Nigeria is such good news. The new cotton varieties have the potentials of raising thousands of farmers from extreme poverty particularly in northern Nigeria where poverty is endemic since the northern states have the largest share of cotton production in Nigeria. However, research should be intensified to complete the unfinished business of the transgenic Bt cotton. For example, the Bt cotton is not resistant to sucking pests and other abiotic factors like drought.
Abdullahi Tsanni is a Biochemist, essayist and budding researcher with keen interest in Biotechnology in the context of Agricultural Research for Development (AR4D), Climate Change and Sustainable Development. He is a contributing writer at Your Commonwealth (correspondent) and Genetic Literacy Project (GLP) USA covering issues on science, climate change, health, agriculture and sustainable development. He can be reached via @abdultsanni
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of SciComNigeria