Nigeria urges Africa to follow its lead on GM cowpea

By Joseph Opoku Gakpo

December 1, 2021

Nigeria is urging the rest of Africa to follow its lead and approve genetically modified cowpea to help ensure food and nutrition security on the continent.

The Nigerian scientists and government officials who developed and approved the world’s first genetically modified (GM) cowpea say their successful commercial release of the variety should give other African countries the confidence to do the same. The improved variety reduces pesticide use and increases yields by providing resistance to the destructive pod borer pest.

“It is getting too late,” said Prof. Mohammed Ishiyaku, executive director of Nigeria’s Institute for Agricultural Research and principal investigator on the GM cowpea project. “It is high time for Ghana and other countries to hasten the processes to ensure these seeds get into the hands of farmers for them to be able to unlock the benefits in this new variety. It is highly beneficial not only in terms of productivity, but it reduces the use of harmful insecticides in our environment.”

Cowpea is a high-protein staple food crop consumed by an estimated 200 million people in Africa daily. Though Nigeria is Africa’s largest producer of cowpea, commonly known as beans, it has been unable to produce enough to meet its own needs. Nigerian officials anticipate that GM cowpea will fill that gap because it resists the pest that has been suppressing yields.

Processes to approve various GM cowpea varieties, also known as pod borer-resistant (PBR) and Bt cowpea, have been in the pipeline in Nigeria, Ghana and Burkina Faso for about a decade now. Administrative bottlenecks, legal actions by anti-GMO groups and cumbersome regulatory processes have slowed down the approval, as is common with dozens of other GM crop varieties under development across the African continent.

The Nigerian government approved the variety in December 2019 and farmers welcomed its introduction, quickly exhausting the available seed supply. Farmers are reporting reduced pest destruction of their fields, increased yield and higher profits. Ishiyaku urged other African governments to greenlight commercial release of the variety, saying farmers all over the continent deserve the opportunity to use the crop to enhance food and nutritional security.

“They should quickly hasten to complete this process… I have the firm belief that this material has a lot of economic potential that can benefit the other countries as well,” he told the Alliance for Science in an interview.

Nigeria has also approved GM maize and GM cotton varieties, which are climate-resilient and pest-resistant, respectively. Dr. Rose Gidado, deputy director of the state-run National Biotechnology Development Authority (NABDA), said other African countries should view Nigeria as an example they can follow in advancing GM crops.

“With the evidence they have, they should use Nigeria a model. Look at us as a model, as an example, how we made it to where we are today,” Gidado urged.

Rufus Egbeba, chief executive officer of the National Biosafety Management Authority, Nigeria’s GM regulatory agency, urged governments and scientists working on GM crops in Africa to resist the intimidation exerted by anti-GMO groups.

“In Africa, and in particular the West African subregion, there is lots of intimidation on the part of the anti-GM groups. But I think once you have the knowledge and the courage, you can take your decision, and particularly when you have scientific evidence to make your decision,” Egbeba told Alliance for Science in an interview.

“You must apply courage and knowledge based on scientific parameters before you take such decisions and do not be afraid, because the world is already being ruled by science and technology and Africa is not an exception,” he continued. “Africa must use safe technologies to ensure that the African economy is diversified, is opened up for job creation, innovations and to give economic prosperity to our people.”

Egbeba dismissed concerns that GM technology is a foreign imposition on the continent, arguing the application of technological innovation knows no boundaries. “If anybody is telling you it’s foreign, such a person is just trying to mislead you,” he said. “We have the African science as well. Science is global, it’s not something you say is foreign.”

There is already a lot of intra-regional trade that goes on within the West Africa subregion that would make it difficult for neighboring African countries to restrict the importation of GM cowpea varieties once they become common on the Nigerian market. Hundreds of trucks filled with cowpea, rice, maize and other grains leave Nigeria’s Dawanau International Grains Market on a daily basis, headed to numerous African nations. It’s the largest grains market in West Africa, attracting traders from Ghana, Niger, Cameroon, Chad, Burkina Faso, Libya and other countries.

“We are receiving the various traders from the neighboring countries, especially West African countries,” Sani Mohammed, chairman of the traders’ association  Nigeria’s Kano State, told the Alliance for Science during a visit to the market. “We have so many varieties, type of grains, which are taken from Dawanau to abroad and our neighboring countries.”

Egbeba said efforts are underway to develop a harmonized biosafety framework for the subregion so that approval of a GM crop in one country will allow for adoption of the variety in other countries.

“In the West African subregion, we are trying to have the West African biosafety common regulation,” he explained. “Those countries that may not have enough competence should be able to adopt what other countries have done, so that there is a portability concept. So that they can move on, because Africa is connected and the issues of environment, it belongs to the commons.”

Dr. Issoufou Kollo Abdourhamane, West Africa Coordinator of the African Agricultural Technology Foundation, said progress is being made on getting GM cowpea approved in both Ghana and Burkina Faso.

Scientists are currently working to secure environmental release permits for the crop in Ghana before moving on to the national variety performance trials that are needed before the National Seed Variety Release Committee will release the seeds to farmers, he explained.

“So there are two steps… Our dossier has been ready. It is with the National Biosafety Authority of Ghana. So, we are waiting for the time when we will get the environmental release permits. In Burkina, before the end of this year we may apply for environmental release too,” he added.

Image: Sacks of cowpea are offered for sale in a market in Abuja, Nigeria. Photo: Joseph Opoku Gakpo