Improved cowpeas resistant to pod-borer insects are coming to Nigerian farmers soon, thanks to an international team including the Danforth Center. On January 22, Nigeria’s National Biosafety Management Agency (NBMA) granted a permit for the commercialization of pod-borer resistant (PBR) cowpea following rigorous biosafety review, setting the stage for the commercial release of seed to farmers.
Efforts to prepare the regulatory application for submission to the NBMA in November 2018 were led by Don MacKenzie, executive director of the Institute for International Crop Improvement (IICI) at the Danforth Center. The commercial approval of PBR cowpea in Nigeria marks an historic milestone for crop development by public sector research institutes and donors dedicated to improving the livelihoods of smallholder farmers.
Cowpeas are a member of the legume family and include protein-rich beans such as black-eyed peas and crowder peas. Due to their tolerance for low rainfall and sandy soil, cowpeas are an important crop in semi-arid regions across Africa, but they are susceptible to pod borers.“This public-sector-developed product is going to make a very big difference to the farmers of Nigeria,” said MacKenzie. “With PBR cowpea, not only will yields increase dramatically, but farmers can significantly reduce pesticide use, which will benefit farmers’ health, as well as the environment."
Nigeria is the world’s largest producer and consumer of cowpeas, yet more than 40 percent of cowpeas consumed in Nigeria are imported. Pod-borer infestations there can cause losses of more than 80 percent in severe cases. Nigerian farmers spray pesticides 6 - 10 times throughout the growing season, often with no protective gear and at substantial expense, in an attempt to keep the insect scourge at bay.
PBR cowpea has been field tested in Nigeria since 2009. The initial research was done by TJ Higgins of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization in Australia working with Mohammad Ishiyaku of the Institute for Agricultural Research, Ahmadu Bello University, in Zaria, Nigeria. African Agriculture Technology Foundation facilitated the development with funding support from the United States Agency for International Development.
The insect-resistant cowpea relies on a gene from Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), a naturally occurring, soil borne bacteria long used in organic agriculture, to control certain insect pests. Research and regulatory work demonstrated nearly complete protection against the pod borer and is expected to increase yield by 20 - 80 percent and reduce Nigeria’s reliance on imported cowpea.
Nigeria has demonstrated substantial leadership in embracing technology for the benefit of its farmers with the first Bt cotton varieties registered for release in 2018. Nigerian scientists have been working with colleagues in Ghana and Burkina Faso on field testing PBR cowpea and regulatory applications in those countries are anticipated soon.