BY ONOME AMUGE
Cowpea, an annual herbaceous legume popularly called ‘beans’ in Nigeria, is a crop renowned for its high drought tolerance and ability to germinate easily even under poor soil conditions, making it highly adaptable to the semi-arid regions of Africa and Asia.
The growing consumer demand for plant protein, increase in consumer awareness of the benefits of its nutritional benefits for both human and livestock consumption, significant growth of food processing companies focused on including plant-based proteins in their products, nutraceutical value in the health industry, applications in the cosmetic industry, amongst other benefits, have resulted in a notable surge in the demand and market value of the soft commodity.
An analysis by Market Data Forecast, a market research organisation, noted that the cowpeas market was valued at $6.3 billion in 2020 and projected to hit over $10.5 billion at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 5.3 percent between 2022-2027.
The Food and Agriculture Organisation Corporate Statistical Database (FAOSAT) ranked Nigeria as the largest producer and consumer of cowpea, with the most populous black nation accounting for 61 percent of the production in Africa and 58 percent of global production.
Unfortunately, Nigeria’s position as the top producer of one of the most affordable sources of protein, also known as “poor man’s meat”, has failed to yield a significant impact in the global market, with output falling below expectation.
A research conducted by the Cornell University Alliance for Science, an independent nonprofit research institute, observed that Nigeria imports an estimated 500,000 tonnes of cowpea annually to meet its 3.6 million tonnes annual local demand.
This was attributed to the low yields generated by local cowpea farmers as a result of infestations by the legume borer (Maruca Vitrata), a harmful pest that devours cowpea leaves and seeds causing devastating damages to the flowering buds and seeds, eventually rendering the infested crop useless.
The research further showed that the use of pesticides and related chemicals to control the infestation have not proven to be a viable approach as farmers are forced to use heavy doses of chemicals which are most often, unaffordable to small scale farmers, pose health and environmental risks, kill beneficial organisms and also leave harmful residues on crops.
The excessive use of chemicals by Nigerian farmers to control the pest also resulted in a temporary ban on importation of Nigerian cowpea into the European Union zone.
In a concerted effort to curb the maruca infestation affecting cowpea production and also provide a feasible solution to the costly and hazardous pesticide spraying, a group of researchers from Nigeria’s Institute for Agricultural Research (IAR), National Biotechnology Development Agency (NABDA), the Agricultural Research Council of Nigeria (ARCN); Australia’s national science agency, CSIRO, and the Danforth Plant Science Centre, developed a genetically modified pod borer-resistant cowpea.
The new cowpea variety (Bt cowpea) was produced through the application of biotechnology, a process that involves harnessing genetic engineering in which a trans-gene from a naturally occuring bacteria in the soil (Bacillus thuringiensis) was cloned to create a pest-resistant cowpea.
The Bt gene, according to the researchers, causes the plants to produce a protein that selectively affects certain harmful pests, including the pod borer without affecting other beneficial insects.
Following a series of experiments and satisfactory results, the Nigerian government approved the commercial production and cultivation of Bt cowpea across the country, becoming the first country in the world to adopt biotechnology in cowpea production.
Farmers recount Bt cowpea experience
Sani Yahaya, a cowpea farmer based in Tudun Wada Local Government Area of Kano State, stated that prior to the adoption of Bt cowpea farms were often ravaged by pod borers, which he described as a terrible and problematic pest to cowpea production.
“If you are cultivating one or two hectare in a day or in less than 24 hours, once there is an outbreak of Maruca Vitara, it will feed on the leaves, pod and flower and damage everything,” he said.
Speaking on the yield performance of the new cowpea variety, he said one kilogramme of seed yielded about 65 kilogrammes on his farm compared to between 12 and 16 kilogrammes harvested from the local variety.
He noted further that he used to spray pesticides seven to eight times per crop season for the local variety, while that of the new variety is reduced to only two sprays.
Bakare Hassan, another cowpea farmer in Edu Local Government Area of Kwara State who also cultivated Bt cowpea, disclosed that the new variety germinated faster than the old variety.
Saidu Ahiaba, a farmer in Niger State, observed that the Bt cowpea, when harvested, tastes just the same as conventional varieties, adding that the leaves of the crop are very edible for feeding animals.
Activists seek over health, environmental hazards
Despite the positive feedback of producers and consumers of Bt cowpea, some experts, particularly in the health sector, have raised concerns regarding the health and environmental impacts of the new cowpea variety.
Based on this premise, a coalition of non-governmental organisations, farmer groups and research experts called for a ban on the distribution of the genetically modified cowpea among Nigerian farmers.
Airing their views at a press conference titled, “Nigerian Farmers and GMO Crops”, the group known as the Health of Mother Earth Foundation (HOMEF), argued that genetically modified cowpea possesses severe long-term negative implications on the environment and farmers’ seed and populations, as well as production practices.
It also stressed that Nigerian farmers could become trapped in unsustainable, unsuitable, and unaffordable farming practices, deepening the threat to food and nutritional security and ultimately farmers’ rights.
Nnimmo Bassey, director of the ecological think tank organisation, asserted that due to the pollinator characteristics of the natural West African wild cowpea populations, BT-gene will move from the genetically modified lines to non-modified lines of both cultivated and wild relatives, resulting to other plants gaining the resistance trait that will cause an alteration in ecological balance and present adverse effects.
Mariann Bassey-Orovwuje, an environmental, human and food rights advocate and the coordinator of the food sovereignty programme at Friends of the Earth, Nigeria/Africa, said the introduction of GM engineered cowpea is a great cause for concern for farmers, consumers and civil society organisations across the continent.
Bassey-Orovwuje explained that while the technology is said to be provided royalty-free, the long-term implications of transforming the environment, farmers’ varieties, and production practices, will trap farmers into unsustainable, unsuitable, unaffordable farming practices, and deepen the threat to food and nutritional security.
“It is worth noting that this cowpea containing the transgene Cry1Ab, has not been approved anywhere else in the world. Use of this BT gene was discontinued in South Africa where the cultivation of maize modified with the gene led to enormous pest resistance and infestation.
Current research has revealed that protein produced by this transgene has toxic effects on human liver cells and induces alterations in immune systems of laboratory animals,” she said.
She added that several countries of the world have banned such crops, making Nigeria and Africa a dumping ground for them.
To effectively tackle the challenges affecting cowpea production, the group demanded adequate support for smallholder farmers, who have over the years, resisted pest and disease invasions and improved food productivity, through indigenous knowledge and innovation.
It also enjoined the Nigerian government to strengthen the nation’s Biosafety legislation in line with the precautionary principle which advises caution where there is no certainty of environmental and health safety.
Experts drum support for Bt cowpea
Refuting negative reports about the health implications of consuming Bt cowpea, Abdullahi Mustapha, director general/CEO, National Biotechnology Development Agency (NABDA), argued that there is no scientific proof that biotechnology crops have a negative health effect.
Mustapha also opined that no nation can develop without the use of science and technology, adding that there is no way Nigeria can transit from subsistence farming to business farming in agriculture without adopting bio.
Rufus Ebegba, director general/CEO, National Biosafety Management Agency (NBMA), affirmed that the regulatory process of Bt cowpea is based on concrete scientific evidence which include risk assessment review process conducted by the national biosafety committee.
Ebegba called for more awareness on the usage of the improved pest resistant cowpea variety, noting that it is capable of solving the country’s cowpea farming challenges and giving farmers an additional choice about what to grow.
Rose Gidado, country director of the Open Forum on Agricultural Biotechnology (OFAB), asserted that growing bt cowpea will make Nigeria economically vibrant in terms of farmers’ empowerment, nutritional value and also serve as a beneficial diet for people with diabetes.
Stressing the need for Nigerians to harness the opportunities in bt cowpea production, Gidado noted that its exploitation would not only enrich the country’s food system but also tackle the high importation challenge confronting the country. She added that Nigeria can generate not less than $8.6 million annually on Bp cowpea if encouraged.
According to her, the majority of the countries where Nigeria imports food have adopted the technology to commercialise their food productivity and Nigeria shouldn’t be found wanting during this period of agricultural advancement.
On his part, Iyare Harrison, CEO, Harry Portal Farms in Benin, Edo State, pointed out that a large number of cowpea farmers are not aware or have limited knowledge on the technology involved in the production of the new improved variety.
Harrison called on the government and health agencies such as the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC) to make serious efforts towards ensuring the crops are thoroughly scrutinised before being distributed to farmers.