Africa’s quest for food security attain a major milestone in the week under review as Nigeria and Kenya approved the release of genetically modified crops for planting in the next cropping season.
The two countries, Nigeria, in West Africa and Kenya in the East are two major economic blocks on the African Continent that have decided to deploy the GM technology in addressing food insecurity, poverty and malnutrition.
Both countries are following the footsteps of South Africa who deployed the technology over a decade and Sudan who is one of the leading producers of GM cotton.
At the end of its 28th meeting in Ibadan, Western Nigeria, the National Committee on Naming, Registration and Release of Crop Varieties approved for commercialization, PBR Cowpea, a beans which was genetically modified to withstand Maruca pest.
Cowpea, also known as “poor man’s meat,” is an important staple food and source of protein for millions of people in Nigeria and West Africa. But cowpea farmers can lose up to 90 percent of their crop to the pod borer (Maruca vitrata) pest and typically apply pesticides six or seven times within a planting season to control the destructive insect.
This new variety has been genetically engineered to provide built-in resistance to the insect. It will significantly decrease pesticide use to just two applications per cropping cycle, primarily to control other insect pests, researchers said. The crop is also resistant to striga and alectra, two parasitic weeds that contribute to yield losses.
The pod borer-resistant (PBR) variety will also increase yields by about 20 percent, helping Nigeria to reduce its reliance on imports and achieve food security. Nigeria, the world’s largest producer and consumer of cowpea, currently imports about 500,000 tonnes of cowpea annually to meet demand.
Sampea 20-T, the world’s first GM cowpea variety — was developed after nearly a decade of research by Nigerian scientists who introduced a gene from Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), a natural occurring, soil-borne bacteria long used in organic agriculture, into local varieties of cowpea. Their field studies confirmed it confers near complete protection against the pod borer.
Dr. Abdourhamane Issoufou, country director of the African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF), said Nigerian scientists worked with institutions in Ghana, Burkina Faso and Malawi to develop the Bt cowpea. Scientists in Ghana have completed field trials on PBR cowpea and are expected to soon seek commercialization of the crop.
The GM cowpea tastes just the same as conventional varieties and has the same protein and nutrient content, said Prof. Mohammad Ishiyaku, principal investigator in the cowpea project at the Institute for Agricultural Research (IAR) at Ahmadu Bello University in Zaria. “The legume does not have any killer gene,” he said, and farmers can replant the seeds if they wish.
“The Bt cowpea has gone through the necessary, relevant, vigorous experimental confined field trials since 2009,” Ishiyaku said. “It has undergone multiplication trials for gene stability in other ecological zones, demonstration field trials for farmers to appreciate its performance and multilocational trials.”
Ishiyaku emphasized that Bt cowpea will provide farmers with an alternative to costly and hazardous insecticide spraying and reduce the expense of applying pesticides on their farms.
“In trying to deal with the maruca infestation, farmers are forced to use heavy doses of insecticides, which are expensive and come with myriad disadvantages, such as being unaffordable to resource poor farmers, using up precious foreign reserves, being unsafe to health and the environment, causing death, sickness, disability, killing beneficial organisms, leaving residues on crop, etc.”
While in Kenya, the Cabinet, chaired by President Uhuru Kenyatta, approved the commercial planting of Bt cotton after the 5-year field trials showed positive results.
The biotech crop is expected to increase the cotton production of Kenyan farmers and thus boost the manufacturing pillar of the Big 4 Agenda where it is stated that Kenya aims to be at the forefront of global textile and apparel production.
Researchers from Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organization had announced that Bt cotton seeds will be available to farmers in 27 cotton-growing counties, by March 2020. The Bt cotton is developed through genetic engineering to confer resistance to African boll worm infestation.
According to the Fibre Crop Directorate, Kenya has about 50,000 cotton farmers who are only able to produce 30,000 bales against a yearly demand of 368,000 bales. Adoption of Bt cotton, which is resistant to the destructive African bollworm, is expected to boost productivity from the current estimate of 572 kg/ha to 2,500 kg/ha, and lower the cost of production by 40%. In 2018, biotech cotton was planted in 15 countries led by India, USA, China, Pakistan, and Brazil.