Nigeria is witnessing a shortage of genetically modified cowpea seeds as farmer demand for the insect-resistant crop dramatically outstrips supply.
Public sector scientists who developed the high-yielding variety have struggled to produce enough certified seeds to meet the huge demand as farmers who planted it in trials last year spread the news about how it helped protect their fields from attacks by the voracious pod borer pest. Nigeria approved commercial use of the pod borer-resistant (PBR) cowpea in December 2019.
Hajia Dijesaidu, coordinator of the Small-Scale Women Farmers Organization, said she first planted the GM cowpea seeds last year and got higher yields and reduced pest pressure. After she invited some members of her association to see the fields, they all demanded the new variety.
“They see that it gets more yields, and it didn’t consume money [on insecticide sprays]. It gives less work and less spraying. I sprayed the farm only twice. Our previous seeds, we spray about 10 to 12 times before we harvest it,” she told the Alliance for Science during a recent visit to her farm in Nigeria.
But Dijesaidu and other members of her organization, which has about 27,500 members, have been unable to secure as much PBR cowpea seed as they’d like to plant this year. “I want these [seed] companies to bring more PBR seeds to us next time because our people like it,” she noted.
Ahiaba M. Sylvanus, a smallholder farmer in Kaduna State, had a similar experience. The 63-year-old farmer typically spends about 20,000 Naira (US$50) buying pesticides for his farm every season — a cost that he said reduces his profits. But he spent only about 25 percent of that amount on pesticides when he grew GM cowpea last year.
“I started regretting that the GM beans (cowpea) should have been out before this time,” he observed. “There are so many benefits… We spend less on labor and buying chemicals to spray. We spray two to three times for the GM beans. But the others, we spray up to eight times.”
Asked whether he will be growing the Bt cowpea again this year, he replied, “I don’t have it yet” because the seeds are no longer available on the market. He said he is considering growing some of the Bt cowpea seeds he saved from last year if he doesn’t get certified ones.
As the planting season got underway this past July, the Institute for Agricultural Research (IAR), which developed the variety at the Ahmadu Bello University, distributed tonnes of the GM seeds to three indigenous Nigerian seed companies and some farmer cooperative groups for sale to farmers. But that supply has run out and farmers are demanding more of the PBR cowpea, known commercially as SAMPEA 20-T.
Prof. Mohammed Ishiyaku, executive director of the IAR, said the shortage was expected because the process of introducing GM seeds in Nigeria is still in its teething stages. “They have now run out of the seeds because this is the beginning. The demand for the seed has far, far, far outweighed the supply that we can make which is very expected. It is just the beginning. So, the next step is for us to expand the foundation seeds multiplication and then the seed companies can produce ore certified seeds to satisfy the demand of farmers,” he said.
Seed industry stunned by demand
Onyibe Onyisi John, managing director of Gold Agric Nigeria Ltd., one of the local seed companies contracted to help distribute the GM seeds to farmers, said his industry has not previously encountered a more popular variety. But they didn’t receive sufficient seeds from the IAR and all available stock was quickly sold.
“At the time of the launching, they gave us 2.5 metric tonnes for the trials. It was too small. The 2.5 tonnes couldn’t last for one month and it was exhausted,” John told the Alliance for Science. “We the seed companies have a lot to do… We have not had a variety that has been subscribed like the PBR cowpea.”
Bala Dari Kayi, general manager for Tecnic Seeds, said the 2.5 metric tonnes of PBR cowpea allocated to his company didn’t last for even two weeks. “The farmer is always after any means of cutting cost in production,” he said. “The PBR cowpea is outstanding compared to other cowpea.”
Benjamin Ameh Abraham, administrative officer at Maina Seeds, said his supply also sold out quickly, though farmers pay 1,000 Naira (US$2.4) per kilogram for PBR cowpea compared to 800 Naira (US$1.9) for the same quantity of its conventional counterpart. “We believe a lot of farmers will still want this particular variety because of what they get from it,” Abraham said.
Reaping ‘huge benefits’
Cowpea is a high-protein staple food crop consumed by an estimated 200 million people in Africa daily. It’s usually cooked and eaten with carbohydrate sources like plantain and rice. Though Nigeria is Africa’s largest producer of cowpea (popularly called beans), its annual production deficit stands at more than 500,000 metric tonnes.
Much of the shortfall can be attributed to the destructive Maruca pod borer pest, which can cause 100 percent yield loss. The insects are particularly devastating because they damage not only the flowers and the buds, but also destroy the pods of cowpea, resulting in huge grain loss.
PBR cowpea provides inherent protection from the pest due to the introduction of a gene from Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), a naturally occurring soil bacteria widely used in organic agriculture. Nigeria is the first country in the world to commercialize Bt cowpea, with similar projects under way in Ghana and Burkina Faso under the auspices of the Kenya-based AATF (formerly called African Agricultural Technology Foundation).
Ishiyaku said farmers who grow GM cowpea reap huge benefits because they can significantly reduce pesticide costs and achieve better harvests. The PBR cowpea variety has a yield potential of 2.9 tonnes per hectare, compared to 1.9 to 2 tonnes for non-GM varieties.
Image: Nigerian farmer Hajia Dijesaidu shows off her healthy GM cowpea plants. Photo: Joseph Opoku Gakpo