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Plagued by pest, African farmers may soon have access to insect-resistant GMO cowpeas—for free

A project begun nearly 15 years ago is finally coming to fruition, as Nigeria is poised to become the first country to release a genetically modified variety of insect-resistant cowpeas to farmers.

“The cowpea growers have been very supportive. They like the GM crop. They have seen it perform and they are ready to grow it,” Issoufou Kollo Abdourhamane, the project’s manager at the African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF), told me.

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Matured cowpea pods ready for harvesting. (Source: IITA)

Cowpeas, known as black-eyed peas in the United States, are a key source of protein for over 200 million people, mostly in West Africa. However, the destructive pod borer insect can cause yield losses of up to 80 percent, and conventional breeding methods have been unable to help.

The GMO crop has shown strong resistance to the pest in field trials so far. Scientists used genetic engineering to insert a single gene from Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), a soil bacterium commonly used as an approved natural insecticide and sprayed on crops by organic farmers.

Several crops now utilize the Bt technology to protect against insects, including corn and soybeans in the US, cotton in the US and India, and eggplant in Bangladesh. Monsanto developed the first Bt crop, corn, in 1996. Today, over 75 percent of the corn grown in the US is Bt. 

The intellectual property for the Bt gene was provided by Monsanto to the project royalty-free. This, along with initial funding from the Rockefeller Foundation and sustained funding for the past decade from the US government’s Agency for International Development (USAID), will allow the seeds to be distributed to farmers at no cost. Monsanto has also provided Bt traits royalty-free for other development projects, such as eggplant in Bangladesh and corn in Africa.

“There is a widespread belief that only large biotechnology companies can deliver valuable transgenic crops to smallholder farmers,” said Stephen Long, a crop scientist at the University of Illinois. “This public sector collaboration between Australia, Nigeria, and other West African countries shows that with modest support these technologies can reach some of the least well-off farmers in the world.”

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Nigeria, which has been conducting field trials of the Bt cowpeas since 2009, is expected to approve the crop this year, which would be its first GMO food crop. The country passed a law governing agricultural biotechnology in 2015. Ghana and Burkina Faso are currently conducting field trials of the cowpeas, and scientists there hope farmers will have access to the seeds in a few years.

“Farmers have shown a lot of appreciation at the results they see during field days and are always asking us when they can have seeds to plant on their fields,” explained Mumuni Abudulai, one of the scientists working on the project in Ghana.

“If we can get a 15-20 percent increase in grain yield in cowpea then this would have a major impact on food and nutritional security in Africa,” said T.J. Higgins, a research scientist who helped develop the Bt cowpea at Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO). He estimates that the GMO variety will increase the average farmers’ yields from around 700 kilograms (~1,540 pounds) per hectare to closer to one tonne (~2,205 pounds). (One hectare is a little less than 2.5 acres.)

Reduced pesticide use

“No farmer cultivates cowpea without insecticides in Ghana. He will harvest nothing,” Abudulai said.

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With built-in protection against insects, Bt crops have been shown to decrease the need for pesticide spraying. Bt genes are able to selectively target certain insect pests, including the pod borer, without affecting beneficial insects.

“This means that instead of spraying between six to eight times while growing cowpea in order to get good yield, with only about two sprays the farmer can get as much yield,” Mahammad Ishiyaku, the project’s principal investigator in Nigeria, told the Cornell Alliance for Science.

The reduction in insecticide use will also benefit farmers economically. Instead of six to eight liters per hectare, farmers will only need two to three liters, saving them roughly $5,400 Nigerian naira (about $15 US dollars), per hectare. If just 1 million of the 3 million hectares of cowpea in Nigeria are converted to the GMO variety, the country’s farmers would save an estimated $16.2 billion naira ($45.2 million USD) annually on the cost of insecticides. Additionally, the new seeds are expected to increase yields 20 percent, which could provide an economic boost of $48 billion naira ($133.9 million USD) annually.

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Empty pesticide bottles near a cotton field in Burkina Faso. (Source: Joseph Opoku Gakpo/Cornell Alliance for Science)

Historically, pesticides were difficult to get and expensive for farmers in West Africa, but they’re becoming more widespread due to an influx of cheap imports. However, insecticides are often sold to farmers in soda bottles, with little or no training on how to use them safely and effectively.

“When people can afford them they tend to overspray,” said a USAID official who asked not to be identified. “Removing potentially toxic pesticides from the equation is a good thing.”

Trials and tribulations

A crucial element of the project has been crossing the Bt cowpea strain that Australian scientists developed with local varieties that are adapted to the area’s conditions and farmers’ preferences. Government breeders in West Africa have been working for years, with much success, to improve local cowpea varieties via conventional methods in order to increase yield, drought-tolerance and other important variables.

“The real heroes of this are the breeders and the entomologists in Africa,” Higgins, the Australian scientist, professed. “They’re the ones who keep me motivated, because of their need for this technology.”

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Pod borer (Source: IITA)

The variety that Nigerian farmers hope to have access to in 2018 will contain the Cry1Ab gene, but researchers are working on adding more Bt traits to help protect against the possibility that the pod borer could evolve resistance to the single gene. They’ve already developed a variety with both the Cry1Ab gene and a second Bt gene, Cry2Ab, and are currently working on a third, Vip3Ba. However, Higgins doesn’t anticipate the pest will develop resistance for at least 15 to 20 years, if at all, and is confident they’ll be able to get cowpea varieties with three or more “stacked” insect-resistant traits to farmers soon.

Field trials of biotech crops in West Africa are required to be protected by fences and guards at all times. Part of the justification is to protect the crop against potential vandalism from anti-GMO activists, as has happened in other parts of the world. A more pressing reason in West Africa, however, is that the government and researchers worry that if nearby farmers see how well the crop is doing, they’ll rush in and take the plants for themselves, thus ruining the field trial.

“The field would be bare,” the USAID official said. “As soon as the farmer sees what this technology does, the next question is ‘where do I get it?’ The argument is over at that stage.”

Several of the West African scientists I talked to were frustrated by the efforts of anti-GMO activists in their countries to demonize biotech crops. They suspect many of the activists are funded by environmental non-governmental organizations based in the US and Europe, such as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth.

“It is very frustrating to us. It is frustrating for science. Nigerians are working for foreign organizations to deny a good product to their own people. And this is based not on scientific fact but on manufactured lies. Totally made up. No scientific base. It is tragic and frustrating,” said Abdourhamane, the AATF researcher.

“More needs to be done to make people understand what is behind GM crops,” said Batieno Benoît Joseph, a cowpea breeder in Burkina Faso. “People still have in their minds that GM crops are monsters.” 

The USAID official said anti-GMO activists in the US and Africa have a lot in common, and that both are often exposed to misleading information about biotechnology by way of popular media.

“Most of the opposition you get are from well-fed people in cities watching TV. They don’t understand what agriculture is like. They haven’t ever been to a farm or lived on a farm. They don’t understand the constraints that farmers have,” the official said. “It’s just something you have to deal with.”

Iz Q IM x eUS funding and support

For USAID, the cowpea is a strategically important crop in the fight against extreme poverty in West Africa. Despite the fact that farmers comprise more than half of the population of Africa, the continent imports around $35 billion worth of food annually. Despite this, roughly 40 percent of children in sub-Saharan Africa suffer from malnutrition.

“We convinced the leadership at Monsanto that this would be a good thing to do,” said the USAID official, who worked at Monsanto at the time. “It was a problem that we knew how to fix as scientists, and there was a group of people who needed it.”  

“I really admire the USAID and the African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF) for their sustained support for the project,” said Higgins, the Australian researcher. “It really does require a visionary view of the world to look at a project like that, which [was] definitely going to take ten to 15 years to get to the farmers.”

USAID currently funds over a dozen biotech crop projects, according to the USAID official, ranging from vitamin-A enhanced rice in the Philippines to blight-resistant potatoes in Uganda.

“We basically align a technology to a need,” said the USAID official, who called genetically engineered crops a “science-based tool” to combat poverty. “In this case, there was no other mechanism to control this pest efficiently, and biotechnology happened to be one that could do it very effectively.”

“There will be more biotech projects,” the official continued. “There’s no doubt about it.”

Paul McDivitt is a science and environmental writer based in St. Paul, Minnesota. He has a Master’s in environmental journalism from the University of Colorado. Follow him on Twitter @PaulMcDivitt

Related article:  Viewpoint: Simple disclosure—not fancy logo—is what GMO labeling needs

16 thoughts on “Plagued by pest, African farmers may soon have access to insect-resistant GMO cowpeas—for free”

  1. Bt cowpea will be a welcome tool for IPM of the legume pod borer (Maruca vitrata) and is compatible with recently developed and highly effective bio-controls (goo.gl/SwYbFm).

    Also, for clarification one of the below pictures (given in the above article) is a legume pod borer larva that has been killed by the Maruca vitrata multi-nucleopolyhedrovirus, MaviMNPV (picture with the larva hanging from the pod of the cowpea plant) and the picture is not related to Bt cowpea. This aforementioned viral spray has the potential to be produced by farmers as a cottage industry and is highly effective against the legume pod borer (goo.gl/3FFtV6). Additionally, there are other Maruca-specific bio-control agents that have been recently developed and released that are highly effective in controlling this pest population (second picture given below).

    It will be very exciting to see Bt cowpea join these other highly effective control strategies as a new tool in the overall toolbox for the control of this pest.

    Regards,
    Barry Pittendrigh, Ph.D.
    MSU Foundation Professor (2016-Present)
    C.W. Kerns, C.L. Metcalf and W.P. Flint Endowed Chair in Insect Toxicology (2008-2016 at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign)

    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/8d17fd03aa8aa1ca442ce323d94c3232c8d1b7bae0f044c9c1e62772dae28bd4.jpg

    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/97dc9f2bb0b4467c3f2020e6446313841a959194cee9f4b4f1a96741b443bb36.jpg

  2. We find the following to be misleading and false:

    “The GMO crop has shown strong resistance to the pest in field trials so far. Scientists used genetic engineering to insert a single gene from Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), a soil bacterium commonly used as an approved natural insecticide and sprayed on crops by organic farmers.”

    The claim has been proven to be false by Jonathan Latham @BioSRP: “not a single one of the 23 Bt commercial lines that we analysed was identical to natural or historically used versions of Bt toxins. All had at least two of the above categories of alterations, but most had many more. To call GMO Bt proteins natural, as biotech companies standardly do, is therefore misleading and scientifically wrong.” Have Monsanto and the Biotech Industry Turned a Natural Pesticide into a GMO “Super toxin”? See: https://www.independentsciencenews.org/environment/have-monsanto-and-the-biotech-industry-turned-natural-bt-pesticides-into-gmo-super-toxins/

  3. Who holds intellectual property rights on these varieties? How can you ever justify taking this important food security crop, that has been nurtured particularly by women over countless generations, out of the commons and claiming ownership? Recipe for hunger and disaster. Keep your greedy hands off African resources Monsanto!

      • you clearly don’t understand how intellectual property rights work. Even if Monsanto doesn’t charge a royalty they maintain intellectual property rights and the seed is the same price as conventional seed.They will license various distributors to sell their product. There is no bigotry involved unless you are referring to so-called developed countries thinking they can plunder and privatise African resources for their own private gain

        • Idiot sites are the places where you get stupid ideas about people “plundering” and where people who tell you to actually read the article are trolling full time.

        • You clearly are an idiot conspiracy theorist. No one is plundering any African resources. Read the article. Cowpeas are grown on several continents. Also look up the word free.

          • wavering the royalty is not the same as wavering intellectual property rights. Why is this so difficult to understand? Cowpea has been available in the commons for a very long time and is an important food security crop, especially for women. If they have to start buying seed it will cause hunger, if the seed is taken out of the commons and privatised it will cause hunger. The royalty has nothing to do with this. You are being effectively tricked with the word free. The seed is not free plus it will become protected intellectual property. Your rude language in no way strengthens your argument. A good argument will strengthen your argument. Advice for free

          • When you make foolish claims and accuse folks of “plundering” Which is rude as it is an accusation of theft with no evidence. You deserve to be treated rudely. All seeds have a cost. Whether saved or purchased. The out dated seeds can still be used and saved by those who desire to do so. Thus no one is worse off. It is arrogant of you to try to usurp the rights of these farmers to choose for themselves. They know better than thou.

          • where are you based Eric? Who is informing your opinion about what African farmers know? This article is not written by African farmers but the vested interests who will benefit from taking cowpea out of the commons and selling it back to the very farmers who’ve developed it over generations. Are you in contact with African farmers? My position is that of the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa (AFSA), which represents millions of farmers, pastoralists and fisherfolk on the continent. For example, here are AFSA members from Malawi expressing concern about Bt cowpea in 2015 and there has been solidarity in Nigeria, Ghana etc with this position. I really don’t see how your aggressive rudeness wins the argument – like if you can put me down with insults you’ve made a good argument for Bt cowpea in Africa. Am not seeing the link.
            All seeds DONT have a cost actually. African farmers access more than 80% of their seed from farmer managed seed systems. The formal seed industry in Africa is tiny and has never been able to provide the diversity needed by African farmers, who continue to breed, share, trade & maintain the majority of seed used on the continent. http://afsafrica.org/malawi-civil-society-coalition-vehemently-oppose-field-trials-of-gm-cowpea-2/

          • The labor to save seeds is a cost. Same with the labor to clean them. Try reasoning. No one is taking seed out of the commons. If there are some farmers willing to foolishly continue to do as you desire. They can do so. The rest will be the successful ones. what is it you wacktivists have against small African farmers making progress? Again you started the hostility by accusing others of plundering. You are the scum trying to stop progress. The way to gain food independence is through progress. Not that regressive group of so called food sovereignty fools. Those front groups are usually motivated by ecoterrorist groups like greenpeace and use scare tactics. They are the ones who come up with lies about seed saving. Let the individual farmers decide. If the new varieties are not cost effective. The farmers will not use them. You have no evidence for your wild claim regarding the author. Here is an article referring to people like you. https://www.bing.com/search?q=mitch+daniels+gmo+tulsa.&form=EDNTHT&mkt=en-us&httpsmsn=1&refig=d339ee4d51bb49ac930f36fcce7c8f7b

    • Good question Haidee. My understanding is that Monsanto does not have any ownership stake in the crop. They provided the intellectual property (GM methods for inserting Bt genes into crops) to the project royalty-free because they have no interest in the West African cowpea market, as there would be no way to make any money. Cowpea is not a “cash crop” like corn, soybeans, cotton, etc., and it just wouldn’t be worth the R&D and regulatory costs for a private sector company to do so. Like many crops bred through conventional methods in these countries, Bt cowpea seeds will be made available to farmers for free through government breeding programs.

      However, again like conventionally-bred crops, private-sector seed companies can license the technology for free (from the government, I believe) and sell for greater than $0. But since the seeds are also available for free from the government, these companies would have to provide some additional benefit to farmers to convince them to pay for them (better quality control, additional benefits obtained through crossing with the companies’ existing cowpea lines, etc.).

    • So, Haidee, what’s your solution to the cowpea pod borer problem? I’m sure that if you could come up with one that actually works then African growers would use it. Meanwhile, quit whining about an issue that doesn’t actually exist, i.e. your twisted slam against Monsanto which others below have already debunked. You have no case.

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