Nearly 10 years of Ghana’s efforts to develop a pest-resistant cowpea variety—Pod Borer Resistant (PBR) cowpea, which is a product of Genetically Modified Organism (GMO), farmers are yet to get access to the seeds. Scientists at the Savannah Agriculture Research Institute of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR-SARI), who led this breakthrough exercise are hopeful that regulatory bodies will give them the green light to be able to release the seeds to the waiting farmers, having satisfied all regulatory requirements. As the scientists wait to see farmers benefiting from their years of research and fieldworks, farmers are becoming impatient and uncertain as to when the Bt Cowpea will be released to them for commercial cultivation. Benedicta Gyimaah Folley speaks to the various stakeholders to find out why Ghana is still yet to commercially release the Bt Cowpea to farmers.
Cowpea is one of the staple food crops in Ghana grown by many smallholder farmers—peasant farmers. The crop, popularly known as the “poor man’s meat” is very common in many notable Ghanaian local dishes, hence farmers from across all ethnic identities in Ghana grow the crop. It is the reason the crop is in high demand all across Ghana.
Cowpea is an important source of plant protein – all parts of the crop is consumed and haulms used as fodder. Local dishes such as “Koose”, “Gari & beans” popularly known as “Gobe”, “Waakye”, and “Tubaani” are all prepared with cowpea as an active ingredient. Dishes made from this crop are an important source of quality plant protein.
However, farmers of cowpea are in constant battle with the destructive Maruca vitrata pest, which destroys the crop at all stages of its development and causes yield loss, sometimes, ranging from 30 to 80 per cent.
The maruca vitrata pest feed on young leaves, flower buds, flowers, and on young pods of the cowpea by burrowing into the pods. When the ravenous pest take dominion over one’s farm, the farmer will have no option than to brace up for a great loss.
Maame Abena Nyanfoa, 48, a cowpea farmer at Ekumfi Bogyano in Ghana’s Central Region is one of the many farmers who has a chilling story to share over the activities of maruca vitrata pest.
Maame Abena learnt the techniques in growing cowpea in her infancy from her parents—both deceased, at their Ekumfi Bogyano village. As a child, she helped her parents on the fields, farming cowpea and other crops, which brought them money and food from the sales and the harvest they made.
For her, growing up in a farming community and most especially, having parents who were known cowpea growers in their village, developing an interest in the crop came naturally to her. So, when she grew up as an adult and decided to go into farming and chose cowpea as one of the crops to grow, she needed no further tutelage or guide—the experiences she gathered from her parents were enough to make her successful in her farming occupation.
Maame Abena says when she first started her cowpea farming, it was giving her good returns—as she had good harvest that brought her some income. She also had enough food to feed her family with.
However, the crop which ones upon a time gave Maame Abena happiness—food and money, as a farmer, is now her source of pain and regrets. She explains that cowpea is no longer profitable—as pests—maruca vitrata take hostage of her farms, destroying her entire investment within a short space of time.
Maame Abena, who has been farming cowpea for more than two decades says, she is no longer growing cowpea. Her reason is simple—she is fed with the activities of maruca vitrata on her farms.
“I stopped cultivating cowpea about seven years ago. I could not even get the money I invested into the farm due to the pests,” she recounted, with her voice echoing anger.
For her, many people in her community who used to grow cowpea have all stopped due to the destructive maruca vitrata pests.
“I can confidently say that there is no farmer in this community who still grows cowpea; they are all into other crops; pests can make you get nothing from your farm,” she explained.
“No matter how many times you spray the pests, they still manage to destroy the crops,” she bemoaned, stressing that “You cannot grow cowpea and still be a happy farmer in Ghana now.”
For Maame Abena, nothing will push her back into cowpea farming, having lost a huge sums of money to cowpea farming due to the destructive maruca pest infestation.
“I doubt if I will ever go into cowpea farming. I can’t continue to lose my money to pests for no reason. I am tired of cowpea farming; all the sprays we spray don’t kill the pests,” she expressed her frustration.
Maame Abena probably is not the only cowpea farmer in Ghana who is badly disturbed by the activities of Maruca vitrata.
Mohammed Sibdow Wunibiyeli, a cowpea farmer at Kpalsogu community near Nyankpala in Ghana’s Northern Region is also worried about the destructive pests, which has led to many farmers losing their lifetime savings within a cropping season.
Mr Wunibiyeli, who is in her early 60s notes that many cowpea farmers are frustrated by the activities of the maruca vitrata pest.
For him, there is no cowpea farmer in his community who has not story to share on the pest, saying “We have all experienced the bites of the cowpea pests before.”
He says cowpea farmers continue to record decrease yields due to the activities of the pest, disclosing that farmer are ready and are only waiting for the government to authorise the scientists to give them the Bt cowpea.
“We will gladly adopt the Bt cowpea if our scientists give them to us because with that, we will spend less on our farms than the conventional type,”Mr Wunibiyeli noted, adding “We have seen the trial farms and they look very good than the conventional types we have.”
For him, he does not understand why authorities are still delaying the release of the Bt cowpea to farmers, knowing the benefits the crop can offer farmers and the nation as a whole.
“A mere observation of the Bt cowpea trial farms give us a lot of hope that cowpea farming can become profitable someday,” he said with a beaming smile.
“When you look at the Bt Cowpea, they yield more than the conventional types,” he noted, saying “We believe that the Bt cowpea can transform cowpea farming in Ghana.”
Mr Wunibiyeli believes when the Bt cowpea is released to the farmers, it will help to bring down the rising cost of cowpea in the country.
He explained that due to the destructive nature of the maruca vitrata, farmers sometimes spray their farms six to eight times in a season, saying “We spray our farms about six times before we harvest them.”
Like Maame Abena and Mr Wunibiyeli, many cowpea farmers in Ghana have similar disturbing stories to tell with regard to the destruction caused by the Maruca vitrata pest.
For many years, Maruca vitrata has become a constant sorrow and a thorn in the flesh of cowpea farmers in Ghana and other parts of Africa. The destructive pest feed on the plant at all stages—causing huge financial loss to the farmers, as they spend huge sums of money buying pesticides and other chemicals they deem fit can kill the pest.
In a bid to reduce insect damage and cut pesticide use, scientists in Ghana developed Bt cowpea, which has been genetically modified to resist the destructive Maruca vitrata pest.
The Cry 1Ab gene, from Bacillus thuringiesis was used to develop the podborer resistant cowpea for small-holder farmers in sub-Saharan Africa.
The Bt Cowpea, which would be the first genetically modified (GM) crop to be released in Ghana, would contribute to food security, improve the livelihoods of smallholder farmers by reducing the pod’s damage, promote grain quality and reduce seasonal crop loss.
The development of the Bt cowpea follows an over nine-year laboratory research works and field trials at different locations in Ghana by scientists at the Savannah Agriculture Research Institute of the Council Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR-SARI), the lead agency in the development of the insect tolerant cowpea.
Rationale for the Bt cowpea
Dr Jerry Nboyine, an Entomologist and Plant Breeder at CSIR-SARI is the Principal Investigator for Ghana’s Bt cowpea. He said Scientists working on Bt Cowpea had prepared a dossier on indicators, including; the toxicity, efficacy and profitability of the crop to the National Biosafety Authority (NBA) for assessment.
He said once the NBA approved it, the Ministry of Food and Agriculture would take it up for assessment and field demonstrations before its release.
He said biological technology was not new to humans, explaining that the insulin used in the field of medicine and the traditional brewing of ‘pito’, a local beverage, were all forms of biotechnology.
Dr Nboyine said pod borer infestation was a major constraint to cowpea production in the country, adding that many farmers had stopped growing cowpea due to pest.
“In the absence of resistance genes in the cowpea germplasm, a new [biotechnological] innovation has identified a resistance gene from a bacteria species— Bacillus Thuringiesis. This has been transferred into Songotra, a local cowpea variety to kill the pod borer and also reduce the harmful effect of many insecticides sprays the farmers are exposed to.”
For him, the goal of the Bt cowpea was to contribute to food security and to improve livelihood of small-holder farmers in Sub-Saharan Africa by using biotechnology tools to develop improved, high yielding farmer–preferred cowpea varieties that are resistant to attacks by Maruca vitrata.
Dr Nboyine explained that the Bt cowpea would reduce pod borer damage by 98 per cent and also increase crop yields four times.
Similarly, he noted, the “use of Bt cowpea line requires only two insecticide sprays instead of the 4-5 sprays normally done by farmers.”
For him, the Bt cowpea reduces cost of production by the farmer, reduces the exposure of the farmers to the hazardous chemicals with its health implications, and that they were relatively environmental friendly as less chemicals are carried into the runoffs and water bodies.
Safe to eat
Speaking on the safety of the Bt cowpea, Dr Nboyine explained that proximate analysis conducted (biochemical and functional properties) showed that there was no difference between Bt and non-Bt in terms of crude protein, fat, ash, carbohydrates, calories, moisture.
For him, consumers had nothing to fear about the Bt cowpea, saying “there is no toxicity or allerginicity associated with Bt cowpea.”
He was of the view that when the Bt cowpea is released to the farmers, it will help them to increase their yields, saying “Our farmers will become none competitive in the cowpea industry if other nations adopt PBR Cowpea and produce the grains cheaply.”
In addition, he noted, when Ghanaian farmers are denied access to the new Bt cowpea, “they will eventually become poorer because the price of their commodity will be higher than the cheaper ones imported from neighbouring countries.”
Dr Richard Ampadu-Ameyaw, who is a Senior Research Scientist at Science and Technology Policy Research Institute (STEPRI) of CSIR, argues that consumers had nothing to fear about the safety of the Bt cowpea, indicating that no Ghanaian scientist will develop any crop that is poisonous for Ghanaians to eat.
For him, Ghanaian plant breeders are also Ghanaians and have families and will therefore not endanger the lives of others by developing GM crop that was not safe for both human and animal consumption.
He said all that plant breeders have been doing was to find solutions to agricultural problems that face Ghanaian farmers, pointing out that it was worrying that people who do not understand the science behind GM technology peddle falsehood that scientists were developing crops that could pose danger to people’s health.
“GMO is not a chemical, it is nothing scary but a technology that is used to develop food crops based on the best species,” Dr Ampadu-Ameyaw explained.
He said although genetically modified technology had not been adopted in Ghana yet, it would serve as the best solution to food security.
“GMO will save farmers money as they will not have to spray their crops against diseases and pests. Currently, we are polluting the environment with the spraying of chemicals to prevent crops from being attacked. With GMO, the production cost of farmers will go down and their yields will go up,” he noted.
Dr Ampadu-Ameyaw said the choice of cowpea, was due to the important role it played in the nutritional needs of Ghanaians, especially those in the Northern Region.
He explained that cowpea was rich in nutraceuticals compounds such as dietary fibre, antioxidants and polyunsaturated fatty acids and polyphenols.
For him, scientists (plant breeders) go through rigorous processes before they are allowed to release GM crops to farmers and that the GM technology is a highly regulated technology.
Discarding the myths
Ms Gloria Mensah, a molecular biologist at CSIR-SARI, is accustomed to hearing many misconceptions and myths about GMOs. But for her, humans have long used plant breeding methods to change the genetic makeup of crops.
She said the process of genetic engineering itself has no effect on taste or other critical elements of the crop, unless the objective was to alter the taste.
She explained that the Bt cowpea had been developed to resist the deadly maruca vitrata pest, saying “if you improve normal agronomic traits, such as enhancing disease resistance or tolerance to climate change, etc., the new crops will taste exactly like the conventional ones; there will be no change in taste.”
To increase public understanding of GMOs, Dr Joseph Adjebeng-Danqua, a Plant Breeder and Internal Biosafety Officer at CSIR-SARI, has challenged the Ghanaian media to educate the public on GMOs.
For him, the Ghanaian media can promote public confidence in the regulatory authorities, debunk negative communication on GMO’s, and also build public confidence in the acceptance of GMOs.
He was of the view that further delay of the Bt cowpea will compound the poor stage of cowpea farmers in the country.
Scientists say they are done with the Bt cowpea, farmers say they are ready to grow them. The ball is now in the court of the government.
By Benedicta Gyimaah Folley