Scientists in West Africa who are developing genetically modified (GM) pod borer-resistant (PBR) cowpea say they could have the final product by 2017.
The scientists told a meeting to review the cowpea project held in Accra, Ghana, last month (14 April) that they aim to develop an improved variety that can withstand the pod borer, Maruca vitrata.
The research project that started in 2008 in Burkina Faso, Ghana and Nigeria is being coordinated by the African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF), which is headquartered in Kenya.
The borer removes sap from the leaves, pods, seeds and other aerial plant parts damaging the plant and resulting in yield reductions.
Severe infestations leading to yield losses of between 70–80 per cent have been reported in Kano, Zaria and other northern Nigerian states, according to Mohammed Ishiyaku, the national cowpea breeder for the Institute for Agricultural Research, Ahmadu Bello University in Nigeria, who is involved in the project as his country’s principal investigator.
Prince Addae, the AATF project manager for cowpea, says the result from the first phase of the trials in Nigeria in 2012 and 2013 showed that whereas cowpea pod borer destroyed 46.9 per cent of conventional cowpea yields, the pest damaged only 1.9 per cent of the GM variety’s yields.
The result, Addae says, has given the team the confidence that they are on track. “It is on this note that we hope for commercialisation of the crop by 2017 in Burkina Faso, Ghana and Nigeria,” he stated.
Ishiyaku said that safety and environment impact assessments conducted under the supervision of the Nigerian regulator — the National Biosafety Unit — shows that PBR cowpea is safe for human consumption and does not impact negatively on the environment.
“The results from our trials show increased yield and the technology is the best antidote to overcome the threat of pod borer,” he tells SciDev.Net, adding that it could increase farmers’ income.
But Denis Kyetere, AATF executive director, told delegates about the challenges of commercialising PBR cowpea. “Besides registration, certification and variety release of the product there are requirements for regulatory approvals by governments in target countries for food, feed and environment safety,” he said.
Kyetere added: “These requirements are new and have not been implemented for food crops in Sub-Saharan Africa.”
Ahmed Yakubu Alhassan, deputy minister in charge of crops for Ghana’s Ministry of Food and Agriculture, said that efforts have been made at the Economic Community of West African States agricultural ministers’ level to establish a regional framework that would guide the deployment of biotechnology and its products in the region.
The ministers have met in the past and are working on having a common biosafety framework, Alhassan noted.