Where anti-GMO activists got it wrong on Bt cowpea

By Nkechi Isaac

February 27, 2019

As Nigeria moves to commercialize genetically modified cowpea, it’s positioning itself as a leader in the deployment of revolutionary crop technology and a role model for other West African nations.

Since it’s the world’s largest producer and consumer of cowpea, and the first African country to commercialize a GM variety of this important indigenous legume, Nigeria’s actions are likely to have an influential effect across the continent.

As a result, anti-GMO activists have stepped up their opposition. They’re now rallying Nigerians to speak out against the technology, citing issues of human and environmental health, the hijacking of conventional farming systems and fears that multinational seed companies will exercise too much control.

But most of the claims they’ve asserted about the GM cowpea, which relies on the Bt gene to provide 100 percent resistance against the destructive pod-borer pest, are wrong.

Disinformation campaign

Contrary to speculations by opponents of biotechnology, Bt cowpea (beans) was developed by African scientists in public institutions in Africa — not by international biotech companies. The goal of the work was to make the local cowpea varieties preferred by farmers in sub-Saharan Africa resistant to the pod-borer (maruca) pest.

After nine years of intensive trials, the home-grown initiative successfully conferred 100 percent protection against maruca by using genetic modification to introduce a gene from Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), a naturally occurring soil-borne bacteria, into cowpea.

Prof. Mahammad Ishiyaku, coordinator of the pod borer-resistant (PBR) cowpea project at the Institute of Agricultural Research (IAR) in Zaria, said the research went through all the necessary trials to validate the safety of the crop. As a result, Nigeria’s National Biosafety Management Agency (NBMA) approved the environmental release of Bt cowpea — a key step in commercialization.

“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.”

The plant breeder discredited activist claims that the gene introduced to protect cowpea from maruca has toxic effects on human liver cells. Research has determined that the Bt protein, which dwells freely in the soil, is harmless in the guts of humans and livestock. It is an important insecticide in organic agriculture and has other industrial and pharmaceutical applications.

Economic and environmental benefits

Ishiyaku also emphasized that Bt cowpea will provide farmers with an alternative to costly and hazardous insecticide spraying and eliminate the expense of spraying heavy doses of 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.”

Bt cowpea trials have shown a reduction in the requirement of insecticide sprays from six-to-eight liters per hectare to two-to-three liters per hectare. With pesticides costing N1200 per liter, that equals a production cost savings of N5400 reduction per hectare planted with Bt cowpea. Nationally, if only one of the three million hectares currently planted in cowpea converts to the Bt variety, the annual savings would be N16.2 billion.

In addition to the savings in pesticide costs, the Bt cowpea is expected to yield 20 percent more than conventional varieties, generating revenues of N48 billion annually. The new crop will also help Nigeria reduce its need to import some 500,000 tons of cowpea annually, at a cost of N20 billion, to make up the shortfall between supply and demand.

NBMA’s reassurances

Dr. Rufus Ebegba, NBMA director-general, said the agency has engaged in extensive outreach, including conducting a public presentation on the Bt cowpea to get comments from scientists, farmers, policy makers, civil society organizations, agricultural experts, faith-based organizations and the media.

The agency also published a 21-day public notice in the national dailies and on its website to enable the public to review the application and present its views to the agency. The agency took the additional steps of convening a national biosafety committee and national biosafety technical sub-committee of eminent experts and scientists to carry out a detailed review of the risk assessment and risk management and make recommendations to guide the NBMA’s final decision, Ebegba said.

Once the food crop gets the final nod from the National Varietal Release Committee, it will be released to the Nigerian market, said Ebegba, who offered reassurances about the agency’s commitment to the safe application of biotechnology in Nigeria. He urged Nigerians to trust the agency’s judgment as it would not allow any harmful biotech applications to see the light of day.

Farmers support the crop

Nigerian farmers have expressed their willingness to embrace a technology that would turn around their fortunes and help them exert less energy and get more production from their farms.

The farmers, who spoke under the aegis of the All Farmers Association of Nigeria (AFAN), said the introduction of the Bt cowpea would help to reduce labor input in farming through modernization.

Speaking through Chief Daniel Okafor, the association’s vice president, the farmers expressed joy at the new crop, stressing their willingness and readiness to adopt technologies that would reduce losses, increase yields and invariably have a positive affect on their livelihoods.