Scientists at the Council for Industrial and Scientific Research (CSIR) and the Savanna Agricultural Research Institute (SARI) in Ghana have submitted another application to the National Biosafety Authority (NBA).
The applicants are seeking permission from the authority to add a second gene to the cry1Ab which has already been engineered into the Bt cowpea.
They say the new cry2Ab gene will make the Bt cowpea more robust and fortified in its resistance to the Maruca pest and possible mutations that may develop later on.
The application was made on January 30, 2023, at the offices of the NBA.
“This application is properly in place. I think we are moving in stages and the biggest hurdle to me has been cleared with regards to the pod borer-resistant cowpea which has been approved for environmental and release.”
Present were scientists from SARI, staff of the NBA, staff of the Open Forum on Agricultural Biotechnology (OFAB), staff of the African Union Development Agency (AUDA), and other stakeholders.
For over a decade, SARI worked on genetically modifying a popular cowpea variety, songotra to resist the Maruca vitrata which is a pod-boring insect.
The insect is responsible for the destruction of over fifty percent of cowpea on farmers’ fields resulting in low profits.
To protect their crops from the pod borer, farmers usually resort to using expensive chemicals which affect their health due to lack of protective gear and disregard for precautionary measures.
The cry1Ab, derived from a soil bacterium (Bacillus thuringiensis Bt), has been engineered into the cowpea variety to make it develop resistance to the pod borer insect.
This was after the scientists applied to the NBA to begin work on modifying the crop.
On June 30, 2022, the biosafety authority approved the Bt cowpea for environmental release.
“The Board of the NBA has determined that the genetically modified plant does not present an altered environmental risk or a food or feed safety concern when compared to conventional cowpea varieties in Ghana,” the statement read in part.
“The Board has therefore approved the environmental release and placing on the market of Cowpea (Vigna unguiculata L. Walp.) Genetically Modified for Resistance to Maruca pod borer (Maruca vitrata) Event AAT-7O9AA-4 for ten (10) year period, renewable.”
However, the scientists are supposed to meet some data requirements before the National Varietal Release and Registration Committee (NVRRC) can grant commercialization.
The director for SARI, Dr Francis Kusi explained that insects do develop into new biotypes and break any resistance that has already been established for them.
“So, with this approach, we are just trying to build up the level of genes in there so that if a particular insect can overcome one, the other one will be able to knock it out,” he said.
“This is the approach, and that is why we are now asking for the second gene to add to make it more robust, and then the resistance can stay longer for the farmers.”
He added that as scientists they have to think ahead and be proactive to forestall any disadvantage in the future.
Mr Eric Okoree, CEO of the NBA received the application on behalf of the authority and stated that they will do all risk assessments and grant the approval if all requirements are met.
According to law, the NBA should make its decision following the receipt of an application within 180 days.
Okoree said they will not go beyond the timeline.
Professor Walter Alhassan, former director general of the CSIR and an expert in stewardship said such research provides stimulus for further studies in science to avert any future problems.
He also stressed the necessity of the addition of the cry2Ab gene.
Ensure nothing goes wrong
“This application is properly in place. I think we are moving in stages and the biggest hurdle to me has been cleared with regards to the pod borer-resistant cowpea which has been approved for environmental and release,” he said.“Now we have to improve on it because the insects can still become resistant to the Bt gene that has been put in it. It is just nature’s way of making sure the species survive. They will mutate and then continue life, and so when they mutate to this gene (cry1Ab), another gene (cry2Ab) comes in to knock them out.”
“The Board of the NBA has determined that the genetically modified plant does not present an altered environmental risk or a food or feed safety concern when compared to conventional cowpea varieties in Ghana.”
He also stated that by looking at nature, it should not be surprising another gene will be needed because the second gene could be knocked off after a long while.
The country coordinator for OFAB said the application is a good thing and tells that scientists are on the ground, and are knowledgeable of what they are doing to ensure nothing goes wrong.
He said more problems would be created if scientists rush to the laboratory only when farmers encounter challenges.
He also noted that it is better they are doing what should be done now to arrest the possible disasters that might occur in the future.
The scientists said they are hoping to get the Bt cowpea in the hands of farmers latest by next year, after all, requirements and needed data are presented to the NVRRC.