Olubunmi Osoteku, Ibadan
African farmers and scientists now have more cause to smile as the Nigerian Biosafety Management Agency (NBMA) has approved the commercial release of genetically modified, pest-resistant cowpea.
The development is considered a significant breakthrough as it took multiple organisations more than two decades of research, field trials and risk assessment to achieve the feat.
A statement issued by the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) explained that the approval which is valid till the end of 2022, places Nigeria on the path to becoming the first country ever to cultivate biotech cowpea.
It further said that the development added a new crop to the global biotech basket from Africa.
“NBMA’s approval allows the Institute for Agricultural Research (IAR) to commercially release Pod Borer-Resistant Cowpea (PBR Cowpea)-event AAT709A, genetically improved to resist Maruca vitrata, commonly called the maruca pod borer, one of the most damaging insect pests that attack the cowpea plant… The Maruca vitrata causes 70–90% yield loss for farmers,” the statement reads.
Cowpea is an important staple crop on which millions of farmers and citizens in Nigeria and sub-Saharan Africa depend for food, income and for good source of quality fodder for livestock.
The approval therefore comes as a relief for many, as confirmed by the Principal Scientist in Plant Biotechnology at the (IITA), Leena Tripathi, who said with excitement that, “this is indeed good news for IITA and Nigeria at large, as the first GM food crop will be available for commercialisation.”
In spite of the importance of cowpea, the statement said that, “cowpea farmers face a challenge with a traditionally low yield factor due to its susceptibility to many insect pests at different stages of its production lifecycle. As a result, if farmers want to get a good yield they need to apply multiple insecticide sprays during the course of the production in the fields…Due to high costs and, sometimes, unavailability of suitable insecticides, many cowpea farmers resort to harmful cotton insecticides to spray cowpea fields…This has unfortunately led to significant numbers of intoxication and deaths.”
IITA, with support from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) has collaborated with the Purdue University, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisations (CSIRO) in Australia, the IFPRI-facilitated Program for Biosafety Systems (PBS), and IAR. The collaboration led the research in partnership with the African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF), to embark on a project aimed at developing an improved cowpea variety that would be resistant to maruca.
Giving an overview of the project, IITA Legume Geneticist and Breeder, Christian Fatokun explained that after several unsuccessful efforts, “the collaborators on the project decided to adopt a biotech approach that would result in genetically modified cowpea.”
“Previous research using a bacterium called Baccilus thuringiensis (Bt) to confer resistance in maize crop had proved quite successful and some of the Bt gene strains have been found to be effective against maruca,” Fatokun stated.
The result of the research showed that Bt cowpea would reduce the use of pesticides from eight sprays per season to about two targeted sprays and increase yield by up to 20%. This means that Nigeria will record a revenue increase of more than ₦48 billion (US$132 million) annually from cowpea.
Years of extensive risk assessment and safety studies have shown that the Bt cowpea is safe for both human and livestock consumption.
The statement by the NBMA concluded that the approval was given in line with the advice of the National Biosafety Committee, National Biosafety Technical Sub-Committee and the Risk Assessment and Risk Management reports provided by the Institute for Agricultural Research (IAR).
“After a thorough analysis of the application dossier which included Risk Assessment and Risk Management Plans, it is unlikely that the proposed release will have an adverse impact on the environment and human health,” the statement added.