Researchers inventing pod borer resistant cowpea for Africa

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Cowpea, popularly called beans in Nigeria, is one of the country’s important food crops massively destroyed by a pest called pod borer or Maruca, which damage cowpea pods on farm fields thereby causing heavy losses to farmers and reducing cowpea productivity in the country and other parts of Sub-Saharan Africa.

According to Prof. Mahammad Faguji Ishiyaku, a plant breeder, Nigeria’s annual consumption of cowpea runs to several millions of tons and constitute a greater percentage of the world’s consumption of cowpea.

Ishiyaku, who is also the Principal Investigator of the Pod-borer Resistant Cowpea (PBR) Project, Institute for Agricultural Research, Ahmadu Bello University Zaria, said even though Nigeria is the largest producer, she is also the largest consumer making the country have an annual national grain demand deficit of over half a million tons, as the excess of 600, 000 metric tons grains is needed.

Experts say the average yield loss reported as a result of Maruca infestation on cowpea runs to as much as 70 to 80 percent. Some farmers resort to spraying with insecticides with the attendant health hazards; but others farmers cannot afford the spray as a result of the cost implication.

The African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF) in collaboration with other stakeholders is making efforts to develop cowpea varieties that will be resistant to attacks by maruca called the Pod-borer Resistant (PBR) Cowpea.

The Pod-borer Resistant (PBR) Cowpea project is a public private partnership coordinated by AATF and is developing and testing cowpea varieties with a genetic trait that would not only make the plants resistant to the borer, but will make it easy and cheap for farmers to produce cowpea and provide an alternative to spraying with insecticide.

The project aims to boost cowpea productivity and utilization in sub-Saharan Africa through technological interventions and introduction of BT traits into farmer’s varieties which transfers resistance to the pod for improved varieties.

It is being implemented in three countries in Sub-Saharan Africa which are Nigeria, Burkina Faso and Ghana.

Project Manager of the PBR Cowpea Project, Dr Prince Addae, said during the African Agricultural Technology Foundation’s annual review and planning meeting on the Pod Borer Resistant (PBR) Cowpea project held in Accra, Ghana, said “One of the goals of the PBR cowpea project is to introduce the resistant BT trait into farmers varieties after transgenic lead lines have shown proof of concept to control maruca in cowpea.”

The meeting was attended by scientists, seed companies and country regulators from Nigeria, Ghana and Burkina Faso.

He said the first confined field trial (CFT) was conducted in 2013 and the proof of the concept was confirmed both in Nigeria and Burkina Faso in 2011 and 2012. The first Confined Field Trial (CFT) is also being conducted in Ghana.

Addae said the project made advances in product development in Nigeria, and breeders from Burkina Faso and Ghana are in different stages of incorporating the trait into their farmer’s varieties, adding that “there is no infraction on bio-safety compliance because of the intensive training partners undergo for appropriate handling of the materials in the target countries.”

Other expected benefits of using  pod-borer resistant cowpea includes; improving nutrition and food security for about eight million farmers and their families, developing varieties that will improve income, health and environment for farmers and increasing yields by over 20 percent for small holder farmers, among others.

The AATF is also making efforts to commercialize the Pod-borer Resistant Cowpea and make it available to farmers in the three countries, and specifically in the year 2017 in Nigeria.

Executive Director of AATF, Dr Denis Kyetere, at the meeting in Accra said that while the PBR cowpea continues to make advances in the product development by successfully incorporating the BT trait into the farmers varieties, the  commercialisation of the PBR cowpea is somewhat different from what  might be used for conventional seeds.

“Besides registration, certification and variety release of the product, there are requirements for regulatory approvals by governments in target countries for food, feed and environment safety. These requirements are new and have not been implemented for food crops in Sub-Saharan Africa,” he said.

He said they have therefore invited people with expertise in deregulating biotech products to share their experience so that the PBR cowpea will be deployed successfully, adding “Regulators will take advantage of this opportunity so that they will be ready to grant regulatory approval in due time.”

Kyetere said there are serious implications if PBR is mixed with conventional cowpea as such the organization will embark on intensive training on stewardship with seed companies and out growers before the release of the product to farmers.

“It will require appropriate stewardship so that the PBR cowpea seed will never be mixed with conventional cowpea seed because Maruca will find the conventional seed if it is mixed and attack it,” he said.

Prof. Ishiyaku said that the PBR cowpea project had become the only known solution to address losses suffered by cowpea farmers in the country and advised Nigerians not to be afraid of the technology as it is safe for both humans and the environment.

Chief Executive Officer, Maina Seeds Limited Kano, Mr. Auwalu Balarabe, who was representing Nigerian seed companies at the meeting, lauded the PBR cowpea saying it is a technology that will help African farmers.

He said: “Every farmer in Africa who cultivates cowpea will tell you how much loss he has been recording as a result of Maruca. A technology is now coming up that will take care of this problem and it will boost the production of cowpea in Africa.

“It will help alleviate the problems farmers face with Maruca, boost cowpea production and income of cowpea farmers, and our seed companies are well supported and capable of delivering this technology to the doorsteps of each farmer in Nigeria.”

Click here to view article on Daily Trust, Nigeria

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