Ghana prepares to commercialize its first GMO crop

By Joseph Opoku Gakpo

November 2, 2018

Ghanaian scientists have completed field trials on the pest-resistant Bt cowpea and will soon apply for commercial release of the country’s first genetically modified (GM) crop.

The GM crop is expected to help farmers dramatically reduce their use of pesticides, while also enjoying better yields of this important staple food.

Scientists said the trial results are currently being reviewed, after which an application for commercialization will be submitted to the National Biosafety Authority.

Currently, the scientists are producing more seeds of the pod borer-resistant cowpea variety to scale up production when the greenlight is eventually given for commercial release.

“Now, we are trying to multiply our Bt cowpea seeds in order to have enough seeds so that once regulators give the go ahead for release, we know that we have enough seeds to give whoever wants seeds,” Gloria Adazebra, a plant breeder on the Bt cowpea project in Ghana, said during an Alliance for Science visit to the trial site.

Destructive insect pest

The Bt cowpea variety developed by the Savannah Agricultural Research Institute (SARI), a state research body,  has shown a high level of resistance to the destructive maruca pod borer, which can destroy up to four-fifth of yields on cowpea farms.

“It has been very difficult to control these pests because it has a cryptic feeding habit and you can get very drastic reduction in your yield,” Dr. Mumuni Abdulai, principal investigator in charge of the Bt cowpea project, told Alliance for Science. “It can cause loss of up to 80 percent of farm yields. It feeds on the flower buds and flowers. And it’s difficult to spray them with chemicals. Over the years, it’s been very difficult to control the pests with pesticides as farmers have to spray insecticides heavily on the fields.”

Cowpea, popularly called beans, is a common and important food in Africa. Nearly 200 million people consume it on the continent. It is rich in protein and has high energy content, making it a good source of nutrients for both humans and animals. It’s usually cooked and eaten with carbohydrate sources like plantain and rice.

Destruction by the maruca pod borer pests has been responsible for very low yields on cowpea farms in Ghana and across sub-Saharan Africa. They are particularly devastating because they damage not only the flowers and the buds, but also destroy the pods, resulting in grain and yield loss.

“At a very young age, the pest causes destruction to the plants,” Ibrahim Lansah, a cowpea farmer at Nyankpala in the northern region of Ghana, told the Alliance for Science in an interview.  “They bore holes in the plants. It’s a very dangerous pest. We spray them every week for three months. That’s 12 times of spraying every season.”

Bt provides pest protection

But this could soon be a problem of the past when Ghana, Nigeria, Burkina Faso and other African countries complete the processes needed to put Bt cowpea varieties in the hands of farmers. Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) is a naturally occurring bacteria that has the capacity to control a range of pests, including maruca pod borer. A gene from the bacteria has been introduced in maize, cotton, cowpea and other crops to give them inherent pest resistance. Bt crops are popular in South Africa, the United States, South America and other countries, with a 100 percent safety record.

The Kenya-based African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF) has been supporting state research institutions in Africa to produce these novel varieties to help save farmers from annual losses, ensure food security and boost protein consumption among the populace.

“Pod bearer maruca has plagued farmers for many decades,” said Dr. Issoufou Kollo Abdourhamane, cowpea project manager for AATF West Africa. “There is no good solution for it. The insecticides are toxic and they are not very effective. So now we get the GM technology and it is a safe technology. We use it to solve the problem.”

Promising results

Ghana’s decade-long cowpea research project, which began in 2008, is nearing an end with the completion of field tests. Results show the Bt cowpea uses less pesticides compared to conventional varieties and are highly productive. “When you look at the conventional, you can spray as much as eight times. But with the Bt, you can spray only two times. Just the two sprays can confer resistance in Bt like the eight sprays in the conventional,” Mumuni explained.

“For field testing, when we deliberately subjected the crops to pest pressure, the one with the Bt gene could give us up to 1300 kilograms per hectare. But the one without the Bt gene gave us only 74.1 kilogram per hectare. On the normal [non-test] field, it’s a different outcome, but the yield is still higher with the Bt, giving more than five times the yield of conventional,” he added.

Some farmers in the northern part of the country who have had the chance to grow the varieties as part of the trials are equally impressed. “The insect infestation is less with the Bt,” said Ibrahim Lansah, a farmer at Nyankpala. “The Bt varieties yield a lot more than the local varieties we have.” As farmer Yusifu Abubakari explained: “We observed that if we use the Bt cowpea, we will have more money to feed our children. Because the yield at the trials was very good.”

Regulators say they are ready

The National Biosafety Authority — the state regulatory agency in charge of GMOs — said it is well-equipped to adequately assess the first GM crop before approving it for release onto the market. “What we have done is to strengthen ourselves. We have signed MOUs with some other regulatory institutions to get ourselves ready to do the risk assessments and to ensure that any GMO is safe for the public,” Eric Okoree, chief executive officer of the Biosafety Authority, told the Alliance. He explained the National Biosafety Act 2011, passed by Parliament seven years ago, has provided the necessary legal framework to allow for the safe introduction of GMOs onto the market.

Once the scientists put in an application for commercial release of the Bt cowpea varieties, the authority will have 180 days to give its approval. Then the scientists could take the Bt cowpea seeds through the normal variety approval processes at the Ministry of Agriculture before they can be released onto the market.

Bt cowpea seeds will be public property

The Bt cowpea variety will be delivered to farmers royalty-free as the license was donated to Ghana free of charge through a private-public partnership led by AATF. In the end, the state research body SARI will work with a local seed production company to multiply the seeds and get them out to farmers.

Dr. Alexander Wireko Kena, a plant breeder at the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology, said farmers will have ownership over the Bt cowpea seeds they buy and will have the right to replant them if they choose to.

“One of the strongest arguments against GMOs is that GMOs cannot be replanted. They [anti-GMO activists] say it a lot. But nothing is farther from the truth. There is no current GM variety which has the terminator gene deployed in it. So every GM seed can be re-planted,” he explained.

Nigeria anticipating similar benefits

Similar progress has been made in Burkina Faso and Nigeria towards commercializing Bt cowpea. “I am very confident Nigerians will enjoy this variety because of the advantage. So therefore, there is going to be relatively higher levels of availability of cowpea on our markets once it is adopted,” Prof. Mahammad Faguji Ishiyaku, principal onvestigator in charge of the Bt cowpea project in Nigeria, told the Alliance.

“We have estimated that from savings alone on insecticides, if only 1 million hectares of cowpea farms are replaced with Bt cowpea, the savings will be 16 billion Naira ($44m). Then on yield advantage, assuming only 20 percent more yield is recorded, we are going to make a gain of 48 billion Naira ($132m) every year,” Ishiyaku explained.

By adopting biotech crops that reduce production costs and produce higher yields, Africa’s food security is expected to improve, along with the incomes of its smallholder farmers.