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PBR Cowpea: Providing Solution To Farmers’ Plight

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JULIANA AGBO examines benefits of a new genetically modified beans variety known as Pod Borer Resistant (PBR) cowpea.

Over time, Nigerian beans farmers have faced many challenges including spraying chemicals about six to ten times in a planting season due to Pod Borer insect, also called Maruca Vitrata.

The insect has the capacity to damage over 80 per cent of beans pods and had remained a sore, until Nigerian plant breeders developed a new Genetically Modified (GM) beans variety known as Pod Borer Resistant (PBR) Cowpea.

The new beans variety will ensure farmers spray less chemicals but get bumper harvest and help transform  Nigeria to return to its position as world largest producer of beans.

Cowpea popularly called beans is one of the most popular and staple foods in Africa, especially in Nigeria.  It is highly recommended because of its numerous health benefits and nutritional values and also  offers quality protein when compared to other foods in Nigeria and most African countries.

Nigeria is leading in the production of cowpea and the country also holds the record as the greatest consumer of the crop but these records are currently under threat as a result of damages done by Pod Borer insect. The insect is today considered as the limiting factor to beans production in Nigeria.

The Pod Borer insect has the capacity to damage over 80 per cent of Cowpea pods if enough chemical was not used by the farmer to control it.

Recent discovery of the use of toxic insecticides to preserve cowpea has left many lovers of it to shiver, while farmers and sellers of cowpea are being blamed for being selfish and insensitive to the dangers that such chemicals can pose to human health.

It is against this backdrop that scientists embarked on  research to get permanent solution to Maruca Vitrata, and after 10 years of research works, the Pod Borer Resistant (PBR) Cowpea was developed to assist farmers in saving money and enjoy good health while engaging in farming.

The genetically modified cowpea can reposition beans as the ‘food security crop’ in Nigeria. With the biopesticide, Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) in the genetically modified cowpea, fortified with the characteristic trait that will help reduce the need to spray insecticides, avoid insect attacks and boost yield.

The GM beans will not only bring succour to Nigerian farmers who have over the years been lamenting over the dwindling profit, to the extent of contemplating on leaving beans farming for other crops such as groundnuts, but also contribute to the growth of the nation thereby translating to economic boom and food sufficiency.

While there has been series of arguments on how safe Genetically Modified (GM) crops are to the environment and humans, following the processes involved in developing the crops, studies have shown that contrary to the claims by the anti-GMO activists, the GM crops have been proven to be more environmentally friendly compared to conventional counterpart.

The Institute for Agricultural Research,  Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria (IAR), in partnership with the African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF) commenced the research to address the deadly Maruca Vitrata attacks on beans in 2009 after series of efforts to use conventional breeding methods failed to produce results.

After 10 years of extensive research, the federal government deemed it fit to introduce the crop variety that will be available to farmers in 2020, into the nation’s agricultural seed system having met all regulatory stipulations and scientific procedures.

The approval was contained in a decision document issued by the National Biosafety Management Agency (NBMA) granting permit for the environmental release of the PBR Cowpea which has been genetically modified to resist the insect pest – Maruca Vitrata.

Director-general, NBMA, Dr Rufus Ebegba said all measures have been put in place by the Agency to ensure that the PBR Cowpea does not have any negative effect on both humans and the environment.

Ebegba said the agency would not just relent after certifying the wholesomeness of the crop, but will continue to engage farmers and the general public to get feedback on the behaviour of the new Cowpea variety.

“As for the agency, we are well prepared to analyse the product to ensure that it is safe, if it is not safe, we will not approve it, if it is safe, we have no reason not to approve it.”

“The approval means the crop is safe and posed no harm to human and the environment and can now be submitted to the National Variety Release Committee for consideration and registration as a commercial crop in Nigeria.”

Acting director-general, National Biotechnology Development Agency (NABDA), Prof. Alex Akpa,  said that by the approval, Nigeria has registered her name among the global scientific community as a country capable of finding solutions to her challenges.

“After 10 years of laboratory works and on-field trials, Nigerian scientists have developed its first genetically modified food crop, the PBR Cowpea, we are proud to be associated with this noble development,” he said.

While speaking on the research result recently, the Country Director, AATF,  Dr Abdourhamane Issoufou,  noted that the research results have shown that the PBR-cowpea is safe for human and animals, completely resistant to Maruca; leads to yield increase of 20% with fewer sprays of chemical insecticides.

Dr Issoufou noted that the PBR Cowpea, by this development, becomes the first genetically modified food crop to be approved in the country, adding that the introduction will address the national cowpea demand deficit of about 500,000 tonnes and also improve the national productivity average of 350kg/hectare.

He explained that the PBR Cowpea has the potential to resist  Maruca from destroying the plants and  makes it possible for farmers to plant and harvest quality yield twice in a year with reduced chemical spraying in the farm which makes it less expensive to plant than the conventional cowpea variety.

He said: “AATF was able to obtain access to the Cry1Ab gene used for this modification on humanitarian basis and worked with institutions in Nigeria, Ghana, Burkina Faso and Malawi for the transformation. Today, Nigeria stands tall in the comity of nations for effectively managing and bringing to fruition this dream.

“Since the mid 1980s, cowpea scientists have declared maruca as the main limiting factor of cowpea production in Africa hence the intervention of the AATF based on its principles of providing access to appropriate technologies by small scale farmers.”

Summarising the process that lead to the development of the PBR cowpea recently, executive director, IAR, Prof. I. U Abubakar said the decision to venture into genetic modification in cowpea breeding was as a result of pest infestation that has over the years made cowpea farming difficult as farmers get less for their efforts and even have their lives exposed to danger due to chemical spraying to keep the pest away.

He said: “Cowpea is the most important food grain legume in Nigeria. The low yield of the crop in Nigeria is due to many constraints particularly pod boring insects which cause up to 90 per cent yield loss in severe infestation cases.”

On the economic benefits of the PBR Cowpea recently, the President, National Biotechnology and Biosafety Consortium (NBBC), Prof. Celestine Aguoru, said Nigeria will no longer spend foreign exchange purchasing over 500,000 tons of beans annually from other countries, adding that farmers will heave a sigh of relief from chemicals which they have to spray about 10 times for each beans season.

While noting that the country will save a lot of foreign exchange used in the importation of chemicals, he said farmers’ health, water bodies across the country and the environment will no longer suffer extreme pollution from the chemicals used by farmers to keep Maruca at bay, adding that the younger generation will now be attracted to farming knowing that a bumper harvest is guaranteed.

He said: “This numerous plus that the genetic modification of one single crop is bringing to the country is currently being condemned by a group of arm-chair civil societies that wants Nigeria turned into a dumping ground for unregulated GMOs and haven for adulterated and deadly chemicals.

Speaking on the implication of using pesticides to preserve  beans, he said: “today, beans from Nigeria is not accepted at the international market due to heavy use of chemical on farms and in storage, this development should worry any right thinking Nigeria but some who have constituted themselves into perpetual critics see nothing bad in that, they want government to ban the GM beans.

“Nigeria has had enough of this draw back syndrome, what are the duties of the over 15 agricultural research institutes all over the country as well as the federal government owned and funded universities of agriculture, faculties of agriculture, Sciences, Vet medicines and all the related units in universities.” he queried.

 

“Their duties are simply to work on the improvement of our crops, provide scientific solutions to challenges facing farmers and ensure that crops which the country has comparative advantage in producing are enhanced to the extent that we don’t have to lose that advantage. World all over, countries that have attained appreciable heights in their development strides had relied on their universities and science and technology. The popular story of Malaysia and our palm trees is still fresh and should be a reference for all of us.”

 

He however called on the federal government to ignore the call by the non scientific activists to ban the GM beans and increase budgetary allocations to universities and research institutes to enable them undertake research that meets national aspirations as we have seen in this case PBR cowpea.

 

“The GM beans is safe and posses no proven harm to human or animals. We urge the government to encourage these non experts who turn around to criticise to come together with us where government personnel shall be observers where issues could be explained to those agitating,” he averred.

 

A middle aged beans farmer in Kano, Yakubu Yusuf,  who noted that he was contemplating on leaving beans farming for other crops due to high spending, said he is optimistic about the new variety, adding that it will increase his yields and income from the sale of the crop.

 

“On hearing about the PBR cowpea and the information I have gathered about it, I am sure it has no side effect, with this new variety, I won’t be spending much on my beans farm anymore.  There is no need to doubt the agency that approved of it, GM crops have been developed to resist pests and insects attack, which by implication means that the need to spray pesticides and other chemicals to control pests or weeds may not be necessary.

 

“ It was as a result of excessive use of chemical pesticides in Cowpea that prompted the European Union to place ban on Nigerian Cowpea, this will lead to saving of billions of Naira not only for our farmers,” but also for our country, he said.

Nigerian farmers will love the PBR Cowpea as they can plant with little inputs but expect a bumper harvest.

 

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