By Marcus Fatunmole (Abuja)
By November 2021, genetically-modified beans developed by plant breeders and other experts at the Institute of Agricultural Research, Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria in Kaduna State will become a major part of the meals on the table of most Nigerian homes.
The institute is also on the verge of developing new a maize variety that is resistant to pests and tolerant to drought, its Executive Director, Professor Mohammad Ishiyaku, has revealed exclusively to AfricaSTI.
Prof Ishiyaku, a renowned plant breeder said the institute has successfully developed a genetically modified cowpea variety, for the first time in the world that is resistant to a recalcitrant insect called ‘Maruka’ or forbearing insect.
The release of the GM beans for sale in Nigerian markets is sequel to the release of genetically-modified cotton variety that is resistant to cotton insects in the country.
He said the innovation was to mitigate farmers’ reliance on heavy dose insecticide spray to protect against this insect. He said the insect causes up to 80% yield loss in the farm and farmers has to spray from between five and eight times to be able to effectively control the insect.
He said this could save Nigeria as much as 16 billion naira spent annually on chemicals by deploying genetically-modified beans planted on 100,000 hectares, yearly.
He said the release of the GM cotton variety will ‘hopefully’ add to efforts towards revitalizing Nigeria’s textile industries.
He also explained that the GM beans, like the currently available versions in the market, is harmless, except that the new cowpea is pest-resistant and more delicious.
Prof. Ishiyaku explained that IAR has developed several technologies in the area of crop improvement, adding, “We have developed several improved varieties of maize, cowpea, groundnut, cotton, sunflower and we’re in the stage of developing technologies for Artemisia and jatropha.”
“Over the years, when our research mandate covered horticultural crops, the institute had developed improved varieties of heat resistant tomatoes. We had also developed improved varieties of hot pepper as well as the ‘Tatase’ type,” he told AfricaSTI in an interview.
The expert explained that the best way to producing the crop is by developing host plant resistance so that the plant itself will be able to withstand pests on its own naturally without using any insecticide or chemical.
He said spraying of insecticide chemical, unless if it is desirous, is very harmful to the environment and in many cases lethal to farmers.
“Having that in mind, we kept on trying many things in order to develop a host plant-resistant improved variety; a variety that will not need or will need very minimal spray of insecticide,” Prof Ishiyaku said.
“Over the years, that has not happened. Up to 15,000 different types of lines were screened for resistance by many other scientists but none of them turned out to be effectively resistant against this insect until when came the opportunity in genetic engineering to work out resistance from another source outside cowpea, and that is how the trial which is called a gene was cloned.
“Cloned means it was detected, then successfully brought out of the donor organism. The donor organism is an ordinary day to day bacteria in the soil which farmers, some 200 years ago, used traditionally to protect their vegetable crops and the gene from the bacteria was used in providing and developing a gene through a scientific technique and put into the cowpea before a new variety was developed,” he added.
He explained that until the product from this type of research is approved to be safe for public consumption by the National Biosafety Management Agency, it is never allowed to go into the market.
“These researches were conducted successfully according to international standards and eventually from the laboratory, we had to move to the field. We have to expose the new improved variety to field conditions. We tested and evaluated it together with our conventional cowpea material and the performance was even better than the conventional varieties and while testing, we infested the new-to-be variety with the insect to ensure that it is not escaping from insect infestations,” he said.
“Right now, we are multiplying the seeds. We have gotten up to about 10 tonnes now, and within this rainy season, we hope to multiply it to about 100 tonnes from which companies can start selling the seeds to farmers in Nigeria.
Allaying peoples’ fear
While addressing the concerns of people with regards to safety of the widely consumed food crop, Prof Ishiyaku said, “We have had to do food test according to international standards. We also compared the composition of this new variety as compared to other conventional cowpea varieties. There was no difference in terms of all the biochemical components that is known to a conventional cowpea variety. And then, the taste of its moin-moin, danwake, kose, and so on is not different, if not better in some of the instances, as far as utilization is concerned.
He stressed that the GM beans is cheaper to grow by farmers because it will require lesser protection in the field.
To further allay fears, he said the beans will be labelled according to the Nigerian Biosafety law whenever it gets to the market, so buyers can choose whether they buy genetically-modified beans or the ones currently in the market, he stated.
“All the over world, there has been research on the biochemical integrity of the genetically-modified products and scientifically, there isn’t any proven evidence that suggests that there’s any difference in terms of health,” he said.
Why Cowpea and not other staples?
Prof. Ishiyaku averred that the institute focuses more on cowpea than other staple foods in the country such as cassava, yam, rice and others because of government’s determination to halt excessive use of chemical insecticides from which farmers suffer from mishandling.
He pointed out that other institutions such as the National Cereals Research Institute are also leveraging on genetic modification technology to develop other foods in the nation.
He however differentiated between planting seeds and grains by farmers. According to him, farmers who re-plant the yields of their previous farm only plant grains while those who buy what they plant from agencies or markets licensed to sell such products buy seeds. The differences between the two are that yields kept at home and re-planted by farmers will have low quality, low germination, gaps and the productivity will be lesser.