COVID-19 may stall Nigeria’s rollout of GMO cowpea

By Nkechi Isaac

May 8, 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic may delay the rollout of pest-resistant Bt cowpea, Nigeria’s first genetically modified (GM) food crop.

The country’s lockdown, imposed to stop the spread of the new coronavirus, has made it difficult to get the improved seeds out to farmers, said Dr. Rose Maxwell Gidado, the country coordinator for the Open Forum on Agricultural Biotechnology (OFAB) Nigeria chapter.

The government’s decision to allow the commercial release of Bt cowpea, which resists the destructive pod borer insect without the use of pesticides, elicited excitement among Nigerian farmers. They have been eagerly awaiting the planting season to try the new crop in their own fields after battling pod borer (Maruca) infestations for years. The Maruca outbreaks have been so severe, and the crop losses so significant, that a number of farmers have quit growing cowpea out of frustration.

They saw hope in the Bt cowpea, which scientists have determined confers 100 percent protection against Maruca through the use of genetic modification to introduce the Bacillus thuringiences (Bt) gene.

Preparations were already in top gear as the National Biotechnology Development Agency (NABDA), Institute of Agricultural Research (IAR) and Africa Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF) had begun training farmers in the best practices and skills to effectively start growing the crops as soon as the planting season begins.

Farmers previously had been involved in practical field trials that demonstrated how the improved seeds performed alongside conventional varieties on their farms. Nigerian seed companies, meanwhile, were being prepped to multiply and distribute the seeds for the 2020 planting season.

However, the COVID-19 pandemic may have interfered with the proposed planting of Bt cowpea, which is one of Nigeria’s most important staple crops.

Gidado told the Alliance for Science that restrictions imposed on the movement of people in a bid to stop the spread of the virus had stalled progress in getting the seeds out to farmers for the planting season.

Onyaole Patience Koku, the chief operating officer of Replenish Farms in Kaduna State, said the COVID-19 shutdown came at the beginning of the farming season. And since Nigerian agriculture is import-based, with most of its herbicides, insecticides, some fertilizers and even seeds coming from other countries, she expressed concern that there would be delays in getting these necessary inputs to farmers, resulting in late planting and lower yields.

The lockdown in major cities also coincided with the time most companies restock for the season, Koku said. She expressed fear it would translate to shortages of farm supplies later in the season and result in low yields, as shortages lead to price hikes that Nigerian farmers can’t afford.

The lockdown, which has placed great restrictions on farmers, effectively stalled Bt cowpea seed certification and distribution, Gidado said. The global spread of the disease and the rising number of cases in Nigeria have affected the planting season, she said, pointing out that food and agricultural systems are particularly affected by the disease, especially in Nigeria, where the issues of food insecurity have remained topmost on the agenda for decades.

The onset of the rainy season means planting time is here, she said, and timely planting is critical in farming.

“Farming, in general, does not have an alternative,” Gidado said. The global nature of the disease means every country has to cultivate enough food so as to avert food insecurity, which can lead to social crisis, she added.

“It is in view of this that Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari has directed that farmers should have unrestricted movement as the rains have started and planting season has set in. Free movement of farmers with increased access to inputs is very strategic to food productivity,” Gidado said.

“However, at the current food production growth rates, Nigeria remains unable to feed its population,” she continued. “It has been proven over and over again that no nation has become great without developing its agriculture. Nigeria has more than 70 million hectares of arable land, of which 42 million hectares are cultivated. Over 90 percent of agricultural production is rain-fed and smallholder farmers account for 80 percent of all farm holdings.”

Modern biotechnology provides a good alternative to addressing the looming food crisis after the pandemic by developing plants with enhanced natural attributes, such as resistance to diseases and pests, adaptation to harsh environmental conditions, reduction and delay of spoilage and improvements to the nutrient profile, she said.

GM crops have been shown to greatly improve agricultural productivity by reducing production cost with the use of less farm inputs, Gidado said. The potential for economic growth arising from the cultivation of GM crops in Nigeria is high, offering increased access to food, good health and productivity, she said. It will also attract foreign investments and earnings from modern biotechnology sector, leading to wealth creation.

The development, adoption and commercialization of GM crops “will undoubtedly create an upward spiral with biotechnology serving as a trigger for investments in R&D, rural infrastructure, technical training and entrepreneurship,” she added.

Koku, too, sees benefits in growing biotech crops, which she said would enable farmers to use less herbicides, insecticides, water and even fertilizers.

“In view of the anticipated post-COVID challenges, it is in the interest of farmers to plant the Bt crops that are available as they will require less input and guarantee better yields,” she said. “If we had drought-resistant and herbicide-resistant Bt crops available in Nigeria this would have mitigated the impending effect COVID will have on our farming season.

“Bt cotton will be a valuable asset to cotton farmers across Nigeria in the 2020 farming season,” Koku added, “and the same goes for Bt cowpea, as it would guarantee a bumper harvest in spite of input shortages or hiked costs.”

Dr. Issoufou Kollo Abdourhamane, the regional head of AATF, expressed optimism that Nigeria would get back on track in getting the staple crop into the hand of farmers once the pandemic is fully tackled and things return to normal in the country. He said Bt cowpea “would help boost Nigeria’s food chain and ensure we have a food-secured nation.”