Nigeria gears up to prevent GMO cowpea seed shortage next planting season

By Nkechi Isaac

November 1, 2021

After demand for Nigeria’s genetically modified, pod borer-resistant (PBR) cowpea seed far outstripped supply, the public sector scientists who developed the crop are scrambling to ensure they have enough for the next planting season.

Nigeria, which approved GM cowpea in 2019, had planned to sell around 10 tonnes of the improved seed via indigenous companies for the 2021 planting season. But seed developers and contract growers were only able to produce 3 tonnes, disappointing many farmers who wanted to plant the insect-resistant variety.

Among them are Kaduna State farmer Mallam Abubakar Haliru, who participated in the field trials for the insect-resistant crop but was unable to get the seeds this year. However, a friend who wanted to grow the GM variety after seeing how well it grew on Haliru’s farm was able to get seed after traveling to the Institute of Agricultural Research (IAR), which developed the crop.

Haliru said he and many others would have loved to plant the seed this year but for the scarcity. “Everyone who saw the cowpea on my farm during the trials became interested in it,” he said.

What caused the shortage?

Prof. Mohammed Ishiyaku, IAR executive director, said many of the farmers engaged as out-growers breached their contract and mismanaged production, resulting in smaller quantities than anticipated of the certified seed.

The seed production is being overseen by partners in the PBR cowpea project, including IAR, the African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF), the National Biotechnology Development Agency (NABDA) and others. Ishiyaku said the shortage is part of the teething process as the institute, its partners and Nigerian seed companies develop systems for producing and distributing GM seed.

Dr. Issoufou Kollo, AATF regional representative for West Africa, said farmers who heard of the crop’s improved vigor during field trials quickly requested seeds, causing the supply to sell out long before the planting season.

“The companies have sold out all the available PBR cowpea, but farmers are still calling and asking for PBR cowpea seeds,” he said. “We have no commercial seeds available now.”

The seeds are in high demand because farmers saw the tremendous economic benefits of the PBR cowpea, he said, including yields of over 2.9 metric tonnes per hectare and a reduction in costly pesticide use from eight sprays per season to just two.

Nigerian farmer Alhaji Ali Tsalaha Hayinsambo displays some of his GM cowpea seeds. Photo: Joseph Opoku Gakpo

Planning and planting ahead

Ishiyaku revealed developers at the IAR have already started preparations to increase production and have 12 tonnes of seed ready for farmers who want to grow PBR in the next planting season.

“We have cultivated six hectares now,” he said. “We are estimating a harvest of about 12 tonnes. We have also put [up] checks to ensure that the contract growers are only a fraction of the seed production system that we have. We cultivated six hectares, so if complemented with reliable contract growers, we will end up getting much more.”

There are also plans to increase the number of local companies that will sell the certified GM seeds.

“We used three seed companies in the last season,” he explained. “They were selected based on their staffing, infrastructure — which includes seed cleaning facility, farm size and their history of being in the seed business — the brand name and geographical location, in addition to some other prerequisites. We also looked at their quality assurance and production capacity. That was what we used in selecting them.

“However, we have to increase the number of seed companies in the next planting season, though the reach of the three companies we have currently is very wide. All the same, we need to add other seed companies to cover the south,” he added.

Benjamin Ameh Abraham, a seeds officer with Maina Seed Ltd., said the company has already planted over 80 kilograms of GM cowpea foundation seeds on four hectares in a bid to help meet the high demand anticipated in the next planting season.

Other measures taken include training 20 seed certification officers from the National Agricultural Seeds Council (NASC) of Nigeria and 15 technicians from seed companies on seed production, sampling techniques and certification.

The training aims to build the capacity of participants to make them competent to participate in the multiplication and certification of seeds and ensure they are delivering the product as developed by researchers, Ishiyaku said.

Image: GM cowpea seeds developed by the Institute for Agricultural Research are sold through Nigerian seed companies. Photo: Joseph Opoku Gakpo