Cowpea or bean known scientifically as ‘vigna unguiculata’ is the most important food grain legume in the savannah regions of tropical Africa, where it is grown on more than 12.5 million hectares of land.
The legume serves as an excellent source of protein in many West African nations, and its consumption exceeds that of rice and millet, two staples of the West African diet. It is estimated that over 200 million people in Sub-Saharan Africa consume cowpea on a daily basis as their source of protein.
Statistics of Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, Ghana is amongst the world’s leading cowpea producers. Unfortunately, over the years harvestable yield of cowpea is impacted by a number of factors, including soil fertility, parasitic weeds, and insect pests, among others.
According to Deputy Director of Savannah Agricultural Research Institute (SARI), Nyankpala, Dr. Mumuni Abudulai, Maruca pod borer (Maruca vitrata), one of the pests of cowpeas, could account for yield losses as high as 80 percent.
He emphasised that, to date, conventional plant breeding efforts for resistance against Maruca vitrata had been unsuccessful, adding that the use of pesticide sprays was simply not an option for most subsistence farmers in West Africa due to high costs and sometimes, unavailability of suitable insecticides.
Dr. Abdulai made these revelations at a day’s sensitization seminar and field visit organised recently by the West Africa office of the African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF) in collaboration with SARI and The Open Forum on Agricultural Biotechnology Ghana Chapter at Nyankpala.
The sensitisation seminar which was on the Pod Borer Resistant Cowpea Project, sought to sensitize participants on the prospects and benefits of the project and create awareness on agricultural biotechnology and its benefits.
It was also intended to solicit the support of farmers for the adoption of Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) cowpea seeds, showcase the Confined Field Trial (CFT) site to stakeholders through seeing-is-believing field visit as well as to acquaint participants with the challenges and safety of Bt cowpea.
|Participants of the seminar on field visit|
The seminar was attended by farmers, seed companies, chiefs, regulators, journalists, students, agricultural extension officers, agro-dealers, government officials, scientists and among others.
The Cowpea Project Manager, Dr Abdulrahman Kollo, said the AATF in collaboration with a coalition of institutions was leading efforts towards reducing cowpea grain yield losses caused by Maruca vitrata through the application of modern plant improvement technologies.
The development of a genetically modified cowpea with Bt gene, he indicated, would enable resource-poor farmers in Sub-Saharan Africa to have access to high quality seeds with increased resistance to Maruca vitrata.
“With the biotechnology gene transferred into improved cowpea varieties, it is expected that smallholder farmers can increase their yields by over 20 percent and greatly enhance their food security and economic status. More importantly, biotechnology cowpea has the potential to reduce health hazards to both farmers and consumers”, stressed.
Meanwhile, so far, 14 CFTs have been successfully conducted annually in Nigeria, Burkina Faso and Ghana since 2009 and two promising lines have emerged. The pod borer resistant trait has been introgressed into farmer preferred cowpea varieties through conventional breeding and the efficacy of the trait is being evaluated in multi-location CFTs to validate the results obtained.
Scientists say product development of Maruca vitrata resistant Bt cowpea has also reached advanced stage in Nigeria and is speedily advancing towards deployment. The next priority is to ensure that the technology is delivered to millions of resource-poor farmers who need them.