By Abdallah el-Kurebe
A Professor of Plant Genetics and Biosystematics with the Federal University of Technology Akure (FUTA), Benjamin Akinyele has called for an African initiative that would begin the process of boosting the protein quality of maize and other crops in order for people living in developing countries to have access to quality diet on regular basis.
The don who made the call while delivering the 110th Inaugural lecture of FUTA said maize, as one of the most important food security crops in developing countries, was already losing some of its nutritional benefits, a development that could engender malnutrition.
Speaking on the topic, “Plant Genetics for Nutrition and Food Security”, Akinyele defined Plant Genetics for Nutrition and Food Security as the application of the knowledge of plant genetics to enhance food security.
According to him, “malnutrition is a serious health concern that has been linked to diet deficiency mainly as a result of reduced protein quantity in staple food.
“Maize as a source of protein is not just low in protein quantity, but also low in some essential amino acids such as lysine, tryptophan macin, and this can predispose regular consumers to the risk of malnutrition because these amino acids cannot be synthesized in human body,” he stated.
Describing the situation as dire, Akinyele said more than 300 million Africans depend on maize as their main food source in sub-Sahara Africa, meaning that a large population is prone to protein deficiency and malnutrition.
“The situation is compounded by the fact that the cultivation, consumption and utilization of popcorn, a derivative of maize, is becoming popular especially in developing countries like Nigeria. The advent of cinema, playing grounds, arcade, modern schools and corn popping technology (Microwave) has been a major driver for the increased consumption of popcorn in Nigeria. Maize is therefore used directly or indirectly for human food in many locations in Africa,” Prof. Akinyele further stated.
He said the way out is for farmers in Nigeria and sub Saharan Africa to be encouraged and guided to achieve considerable improvement in crop yields through the adoption of artificial hybridization to produce crops with desirable traits.
“Plant genetic, the process of forming offsprings by cross-fertilization of plants belonging to different genotypes, can play a great role in sustaining food security and improvement of nutrition if properly harnessed.
“Since the life of an individual plant is limited in duration, it has developed certain mechanisms by which it can reproduce itself in order to continue the perpetuation of its kind and also to multiply in number. If the right policies and structures are put in place protein fortified hybrid maize can be developed through plant genetics. This will reduce nutrition related diseases, death and significantly improve nutritional status of individuals who depend primarily on maize for sustenance,” he explained.
The lecturer said he had worked on a research project to develop a variety of maize with high protein quality, particularly in terms of lysine and tryptophon contents.
“This will go a long way to help in mitigating the problem of malnutrition which is a serious health concern that has been linked to diet deficient in protein quantity and quality and some other essential nutrients such as minerals and vitamins needed for the body growth.
“Relevant agencies and organizations should follow the path and use the knowledge and expertise of plant genetics to develop more nutritious crops that will ensure better health and food security.
“There is the need for government to invest heavily in agricultural research that focuses on increased production of food crops and improvement on their quality as doing so would boost the nation’s economy and ensure that there is food for all.
“Government should put in place an efficient body to regulate all genetically modified foods on sale in Nigeria to allay the fears of the public with respect to the potential effects of these bioengineered foods on human health and environment.
“Extension officers who are the link between the geneticist, breeders and the farmers, should be trained consistently to enable them educate the farmers adequately on how newly developed products should be handled to get the desired result,” Akinyele advised.
Advising that plant geneticist and breeders should be motivated to attend conferences, workshops, he added that seminars that are relevant to their research as exposure to modern trends in their areas of specialization would enhance their capacity to do productive research.
Akinyele urged government to evolve a policy that would mandate every viable food processing and manufacturing industry in the country to establish a collaborative relationship with at least one Nigerian University or Research Institute with a view to developing and marketing research products.
In an address, the Chairman of the occasion and Vice-Chancellor, Prof. Joseph Fuwape, commended the excellent delivery by the lecturer, describing him as an erudite scholar, who has contributed to the advancement of knowledge in the area of his core competence at FUTA and beyond.