By Sharon Atieno

The approval of biotech cowpea by the National Biosafety Management Agency in Nigeria, marks a milestone in Africa’s capacity to adopt agricultural biotechnology.

The pod borer-resistant cowpea –AAT709A, is genetically improved to resist lepidopteran insect pest, Maruca vitrata which results to almost 80 percent yield loss. This makes cowpea the first genetically modified (GM) food crop to be approved for open cultivation in the country.

In order to get rid of maruca vitrata, also called maruca pod borer, farmers had to apply pesticides six or seven times during a planting season leading to high economic losses as well as health and environmental degradation. The GM cowpea provides built-in resistance to the insects, decreasing the use of pesticides.

According to GM Crops: Global Socio-Economic and Environmental Impacts 1996-2016, a study by PG Economics, for every dollar invested in biotech seeds, farmers gained an average of USD 3.49.

“In 2016, farmers in developing countries received USD 5.06 for each extra dollar invested in biotech crop seeds, while farmers in developed countries received USD 2.70 for the same investment,” the study reveals.

Nigeria is among the leading producers of cowpea accounting for 61 percent in Africa and 58 percent in the world according to International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA). The approval of the pod borer resistant cowpea after several years of trials is set to boost the production of cowpea in the country.

“We have seen for more than 20 years now how crop biotechnology adoption in developing countries has contributed to higher yields, more secure production, and increased incomes greatly contributing to decreasing poverty, hunger and malnutrition in some regions of the globe most prone to these challenges,” said Graham Brookes, Director of PG Economics and co-author of the Socio-economic and Environmental Impacts paper in a statement during the release of the study.

Nigeria joins a wide list of developing countries who are resorting to GM crops in order to increase their local and export baskets. A 2017 report by the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA) indicates that there was a total increase of 4.7 million hectares of land put under biotech crop cultivation with 19 out of the 24 countries planting biotech crops in 2017, being developing countries.

South Africa and Sudan are among the first African countries to venture in to the field of GM crops, with South Africa starting as early as 1996 with GM maize and Sudan following suit with GM cotton.

Based on the ISAAA report titled: Global Status of Commercialized Biotech/GM Crops in 2017, Sudan and South Africa grew a total of 2.9 million hectares of biotech crops.  While South Africa grew biotech soybeans, maize and cotton on 2.7 million hectares, Sudan grew biotech cotton on 192,000 hectares.

It also notes that by 2017, Africa had 12 biotech crops in 13 countries and 14 traits under different stages of planting, experimentation and research. Through political goodwill and budget allocations by various governments, Africa is showing a lot of promise in agri-biotechnology.