IAR Giant Stride: Commercial Release of Pod Borer Resistant Cowpea, the First GMO in Nigeria (I) by Professor MK Othman

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Prof. IU Abubakar

Monday, 28th January 2019 became the momentous date in the history of genetic engineering of agricultural commodities in Nigeria. It was a day that Nigeria emerged triumphant in a global scientific community as a country capable of using biotechnology to address food security challenges. The day was certainly a milestone for food scientists in Nigeria and abroad because of the commercial release of Pod Borer Resistant (PBR) Cowpea.

The Federal Government of Nigeria approved the commercial release of the PBR Cowpea, which was developed by the Institute for Agricultural Research (IAR), one of the research centers of Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria. IAR is also among the seventeen National Agricultural Research Institutes under the auspices of Federal Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development (FMARD), Abuja.

The PBR Cowpea, by this development, becomes the first genetically modified food crop to be approved in the country. IAR in partnership with the African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF) commenced the research to address the deadly Maruca Vitrata attacks on beans in 2009. This became necessary when series of efforts to use conventional breeding methods failed to produce the desired results.

Ten years of extensive research by IAR and her collaborators on genetic engineering is highly commendable considering the environmental challenges to scientific research in Nigeria. It is also commendable to the Federal government for the prompt action to commercially release the product of this tireless intellectual work conducted over a ten-year period.

As a scientist, I am fully aware that the environmental challenges to research work in Nigeria involving laboratory and field experimentations are enormous. The enormity is more pronounced in genetic improvement of bio-resources that takes ample time, colossal financial resources and innate intellectual capabilities.  According to Crop Life International Organization (https://croplife.org/plant-biotechnology/regulatory), the cost of discovery, development and authorization of a new plant biotechnology trait introduced between 2008 and 2012 in USA was on the average of US$136 million.

The time from the initiation of a discovery project to commercial launch is estimated to be 13.1 years on average for all the GMO crops. This huge financial resource for GMO research and development (R&D) in USA is equivalent to N48 billion in Nigerian currency. In addition to the time for R&D, there are also registration and regulatory procedures. The time for these stages (registration and regulatory) was increased in USA from the average of 44.5 months (3.7 years) for a GMO crop introduced before 2002, to the current estimate of 65.5 months (5.5 years). This is because various activity stages overlap in real time and they do not reflect the actual duration of the overall R&D process.

While that price tag is significant, so are the losses from pests, diseases and other issues that these new traits are designed to help farmers combat. For example, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has estimated corn rootworm causes $1 billion dollars in damage to the U.S. corn crop alone each year. By delivering traits that can fight these pests, it increases farmers’ productivity. From the foregoing analysis, it is therefore clear that this seemingly simple event of releasing the PBR cowpea variety is by no means a mammoth breakthrough by IAR and in deed by the nation.

The release of the PBR cowpea variety into the nation’s agricultural seed system was necessitated by two key reasons. First, the variety successfully passed all regulatory stipulations and international scientific procedures subjected to GMO for safety and standard. Second, the Federal government is very desirous of making the nation achieve food security through use of improved technologies. What are the likely impacts the release of PBR cowpea variety will achieve in the next few years? What made IAR scientists and their collaborators achieve this giant feat?

Starting with the last question on motivation for the scientists to achieve the gargantuan landmark in genetic engineering, without mincing words, financial gain to the team or the Institute, IAR is certainly out of the question because of our lackadaisical attitude as a nation in financing scientific research. According to Kuriuki, the director of the African Academy of Sciences’ Alliance, Nairobi, Kenya, “Government money (in Africa) is spent on development and security, not research and innovation”. He quoted the World Economic Forum, “Africa produces only 1.1% of global scientific knowledge.

The continent has just 79 scientists per million of inhabitants compared to countries like Brazil and United States where the ratio stands at 656 and 4,500, respectively. Worst of all, of those scientists and engineers who are trained in Africa, most work elsewhere due to the lack of infrastructure and resources”. Thus, the desire to squarely address the deadly Maruca Vitrata attacks on cowpea (popularly called beans) was major inspiration of IAR.

At the official public presentation of PBR cowpea, the first ever Nigerian GMO commercially released for public use, the Executive Director of IAR, Prof. I. U Abubakar provided cogent reasons for the Institute commitment to the project. He said “the decision to venture into genetic modification in cowpea breeding was as a result of massive pest infestation that has over the years made cowpea farming difficult as farmers get less for their efforts and even exposed their lives to danger due to chemical spraying to keep the pest away”.

Similarly, the 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” Akpa said

Elimination of the deadly cowpea infestation will increase the national average yield of cowpea from 1.5 to 3.5 tons per hectare thereby facilitating the achievement of national food security. Consequently, the solution will bridge the national deficit of cowpea demand estimated to be more than 500,000 tons in addition to improvement of the national productivity while lowering the food importation. Why the choice of cowpea as the first test crop for R&D of GMO in Nigeria?

Nigeria is recognized globally as the largest Cowpea producer with making of 61 percent of the African production and 58 percent of the world’s production. Incidentally, Nigeria is also ranked as the highest consumer of cowpea. As a leguminous crop, cowpea is a food crop that forms the bulk of dishes eaten in the majority of households in Nigeria on a daily basis.  It is highly nutritional with high supply of energy content to the body. Cowpea has a wide range of nutritional benefits to the body.

A small quantity of cowpea, about 170 grams could contain as much as 13.22g of protein and more than three times carbohydrates of 35.5g. It is a good source of vegetable protein and can serve as meat to people who cannot afford animal protein or are vegetarians. Cowpea has protection ability against colon cancer as well as reduction of blood cholesterol levels by working as a bulk laxative and bringing down reabsorption of cholesterol-binding bile acids in the colon. It is rich in essential amino acids and B vitamins, with a very high content of the very important folate, which helps prevent neural-tube defects in babies and thus making it one of the preferred delicacies for pregnant women.

Additionally, cowpea contains several essential minerals like Copper, Iron, Selenium, Calcium, Zinc, Phosphorus, Potassium and as well as contains little fat, making it suitable for people placed on a low-fat diet.

Cowpea is dominantly grown by smallholder farmers and serves as a primary source of protein for both urban rich and rural poor Nigerians. With serious threat to food insecurity coupled with the results of the Fifth Multiple Indicators Cluster Survey (MICS5) recently released, the choice of cowpea for the development of first Nigerian GMO is certainly dexterous in our national effort to achieve food security. With PBR cowpea, farmers will no longer need to use toxic chemicals on the production and preservation of cowpea, yield will increase, and more cowpea will be available for food to Nigerians and beyond. This is indubitably a highly commendable effort to IAR and her likable collaborators and supporters. While commending the developers of the first Nigerian GMO, it must be stated that GMO connotes dreadful fear to some people. Is GMO safe for human consumption? Is PBR cowpea safe to humanity?

Professor Othman is the Executive Director of National Agricultural Extension and Research Liaison Services (NAERLS), ABU Zaria.

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