Cowpea is an important legume predominantly grown in the dry savannas along the fringes of the Sahara Desert where the annual rainfall is around 300 mm.
An estimated 200 million people in Africa consume the crop either as a grain or vegetable — the leaves and fresh pods — daily.
Cowpea is also regarded as a cheaper source of protein for the poor, making it a crop contributing to the elimination of malnutrition.
The protein content in cowpea varieties ranges from 17 to 32 percent of dry weight and about 64 percent of it consists of carbohydrates, vitamins, and fiber.
Apart from their nutritional component, cowpea has multiple advantages to farmers, including their ability to grow and produce high yields on poor, sandy soils, high rates of symbiotic nitrogen fixation, and lower fertilizer requirements.
Despite these benefits and their significance to sustainable living, it is sad that cowpea productivity in typical sub-Saharan African farmers’ fields remains very low, at less than 600 kilograms per hectare compared to a potential grain yield of over 2000 kilograms per hectare.
This is partly due to several factors, particularly insect infestation.
The long-awaited solution to pests
Insect pests are the most important yield-reducing biotic factors in cowpea production worldwide, especially the pod borer Maruca vitrata which destroys the pods of the plant in the field.
Over the years, scientists had studied and tried to acquire knowledge and tools on how to tackle this problem.
Finally, in 2019, Nigeria became the first country in the world to commercialize Pod Borer Resistant (PBR) cowpea.
This breakthrough gave Nigeria’s farmers the right to grow the crop.
Those who planted the genetically modified cowpea continue to express joy over their yields, saying the crop was the long-awaited solution to the problematic Maruca pest.
The farmers testified that they recorded profits because of higher yields and also spent less on pesticides, which they applied only twice during the planting season as opposed to eight times for the conventional cowpea.
Recounting her personal experience with the improved variety, Mrs Patience Koku, the chief executive of Replenish Farms, said that one cowpea plant produced over 45 pods, with visible signs of new flowers springing up. That, according to her, signified more yields and subsequently additional income.
The modification is primarily responsible for the resistance of the beans to the Maruca pest. A direct result of this is increased yield and a neat outlook, which are the background traits of the variety of beans we used.”
The farmer said cowpea producers struggle to stop the deadly Maruca worm from sucking the grain’s pods and leaving many of them with zero harvests and blamed the uncontrollable hike in the price of beans on this problem.
She complained that the ugly situation has seriously denied low-income citizens access to protein at an affordable price.
Mrs Koku said the GM cowpea has raised optimism that the price of beans will come down.
“Farmers will make money and other people will also benefit because an increased production of cowpea means that we can have better, competitive prices in the market,” she said.
Mrs Judith Ekele, another farmer who cultivated the GM cowpea, said she got a good harvest.
Apart from the high yield, she said the GM cowpea cooks faster and does not come out mashed like the conventional variety.
Meets all the market requirements
Chief Daniel Okafor, the vice president of the All Farmers Association of Nigeria (AFAN), also said reports from the farmers who planted the GM cowpea were very encouraging.
“The PBR cowpea is a seed that if carefully planted and managed with the best agronomic practices, produces more than double yields compared to its conventional equivalent,” the AFAN boss said.
The GM cowpea does not need a lot of chemicals because it is pest-resistant.
The chemicals, Chief Okafor said, stay in the environment for long and are harmful. “We are tired of having low harvests and getting diseases from the use of chemicals and pesticides.”
Mrs Faith Ame, a foodstuff trader and farmer believes the GM cowpea is unique and meets all the market requirements.
“It’s not very easy to get a conventional variety with all these qualities, she said. As traders and farmers, these qualities are very important and enable us to get maximum profits,” she said.
According to Professor Mohammad Ishyiaku, principal investigator of the GM cowpea project and executive director of the Institute for Agricultural Research at Ahmadu Bello University Zaria, these qualities of GM beans are a result of the modification and the variety of beans that was selected for modification.
“The modification is primarily responsible for the resistance of the beans to the Maruca pest. A direct result of this is increased yield and a neat outlook, which are the background traits of the variety of beans we used,” Prof Ishyiaku said.
Nigeria is Africa’s largest producer and consumer of cowpea, but the country’s annual production deficit stands at more than 500,000 metric tons.
It is estimated that Nigeria will save up to 40 million dollars previously used on pesticides if GM cowpea is cultivated on one million hectares.
The PBR cowpea also promises another 20 percent yield advantage, which is valued at around 112 million dollars per year.
With millions of seeds already in the market waiting to be planted, the government and all stakeholders in the agricultural sector need to work together to help the public leverage the benefits of this scientific breakthrough so and improve livelihoods.