AATF, partners unveil landmark insect-resistant cowpea

PBR Cowpea (beans), a genetically modified Cowpea is the product of an international partnership under the coordination of the African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF) that included scientists from the Institute for Agricultural Research (IAR) of Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria.

Released as SAMPEA 20-T variety in Nigeria in December 2019, the PBR Cowpea is the first transgenic food crop in Africa outside of South Africa. SAMPEA 20-T is resistant to the pest, Maruca Vitrata, the insect that is responsible for up to 80 per cent Cowpea yield losses.

AATF’s Executive Director, Dr.  Denis Kyetere said this is a landmark event that will help Nigeria achieve food security and increase farmers income.

In his remarks during the launch of the new variety of the crop in Kano, Dr. Kyetere said the development of PBR Cowpea has been a long journey which started in real terms with the acquisition of the technology.

Dr. Kyetere stated that PBR Cowpea will greatly benefit farmers and consumers in Nigeria. ‘’The national cowpea production will increase by 20-100% as has been recorded and witnessed by farmers during the national performance trials,’ he said, adding that the massive importation of cowpea will be reduced. ”It is estimated that 20% of the cowpea consumed in Nigeria is imported. With PBR Cowpea, Nigeria is set to save billions in earnings.”

Dr. Kyetere noted that people who depend on cowpea’s rich protein, vitamins (thiamine) and minerals such as iron will have an abundant supply with PBR Cowpea.  “An increased supply of cowpea will help reduce malnutrition in the country, especially among children and women.  When people are healthy, they will be productive,” Dr. Kyetere said.

Nigeria’s Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, Sabo Nanono described the launch of the PBR cowpea as liberation for Nigerian farmers, who have been faced with the incessant nightmare of dealing with the devastating impact of Maruca Vitrata.

In his remarks, the Minister who was represented by Prof. Garuba Sharubutu, Executive Secretary of Agricultural Research Council of Nigeria said, “I was reliably informed that during the 2020 cropping season, there were on-farm demonstration trials in 28 sites across Adamawa, Bauchi, Kaduna, Kano, Katsina, Zamfara, Kebbi, and Plateau states. The results of the demonstration trials clearly indicate the agronomic superiority of the new variety resulting in high demand for seed.”

Nigeria’s Minister of Science and Technology, Dr. Ogbonnya Onu, congratulated Nigeria’s scientists for the great work saying the commercialization of PBR Cowpea would solve some of Nigeria’s problems in a manner that has registered the country on the world map.

He said Nigeria could only solve its food problems that have been exacerbated by the dwindling fertility of the soil and the reliance on age-long methods by thinking outside the box.

“Agricultural Biotechnology is one of the interesting tools capable of providing a  soft landing for us as a nation in the midst of growing issues of food and nutritional insecurity because it has proven that it has the ability to quickly respond to low productivity, diseases,  and pest challenges as well as climate change,” said Onu, who was represented by Prof. Abdullahi Mustapha, Director General, National Biotechnology Development Agency (NABDA).

Kano State Governor, Dr. Abdullahi Umar Ganduje was full of praises for the Nigerian scientists from the Institute for Agricultural Research (IAR), Zaria, with support from NABDA and other stakeholders for their selfless service that resulted in the development and release of PBR Cowpea.

The Governor said, “In Africa generally, yields have been on a perpetual decline. While in other climates, farmers are among the richest, here farmers are at the lowest part of the ladder in our society struggling to feed themselves and sell what is left to provide for their children’s school fees.”

On a brighter note, the Governor represented by Alhaji Usman Alhaji, Secretary to Kano State Government, remains optimistic that Nigeria could make the best of the emerging technologies and innovations in agriculture to regain lost glories and make huge economic gains.

“Today, Nigeria is recognized as the first country in the world to release a cowpea variety that is resistant to Maruca, the destructive insect that had been a nightmare to farmers on the African continent,” he said.

Also speaking during the launch, Dr. Donald J. MacKenzie from the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center, said the increased harvestable yield of PBR Cowpea will improve the livelihoods of all farmers, especially the women who produce and process cowpea into local dishes for the market. 

“PBR Cowpea’s success is the result of bringing together some essential ingredients: farmer demand to solve a major production problem; a tested and accessible technology solution; an enabling policy environment; and the right partners,’’ Mackenzie said.

Speaking at the launch, Dr TJ Higgins of CSIRO, Australia’s National Science Agency, and molecular biologist on the project said he had looked forward to this day for a long time.

“It has been a privilege to help bring innovative technology for food security to Africa-something that was requested by African scientists,” Dr Higgins said.

CSIRO has collaborated on this work over the last 20 years, working alongside partners to incorporate the Bt genes into cowpeas, develop many pod borer resistant cowpea lines and trial these first in their glasshouses in Australia.

Dr. Faith B. Tarr, General Development Officer, Biotechnology Specialist, USAID Bureau for Resilience and Food Security Center for Agriculture-Led Growth said that the commercialization of pod borer resistant cowpea otherwise called SAMPEA 20-T by Nigeria represents tremendous progress in applying innovative approaches to advance Nigerian food security.

“We celebrate the completion of a critical stage within a continuous, iterative process by which new food security innovations are developed, disseminated, adopted, and used in order to enhance prosperity, resilience, and nutrition,” she said.

“This achievement advances Nigeria’s capacity to harness science, technology and innovation to sustainably improve livelihoods and nutrition. It also demonstrates that research investments can support innovation systems to deliver a pipeline of new tools and approaches that improve agriculture, food security, and resilience in the face of complex, dynamic challenges that Nigeria may face in the future,” Faith added.

Prof. Mohammad Faguji Ishiyaku, IAR Executive Director, said that the economic benefit of SAMPEA 20-T includes savings on foreign exchange through reduced importation of chemical insecticide from abroad.

‘It is estimated that between 17 to 21 Billion Naira will be saved annually from the reduction of the use of chemical insecticide in the production of beans in our fields by planting this new variety instead of the non-resistant one” said Prof Ishiyaku.

“Additionally, this new variety has yield margins of between 15 to 25% compared to conventional varieties currently in cultivation by farmers. The total benefit from the yield increase from SAMPEA 20T is estimated to be 46 Billion Naira every year if the variety is planted on one million hectares of our land,” he said.

The All-Farmers Association of Nigeria (AFAN) has said that about 8 million Nigerian farmers and their families will benefit directly from cultivating the newly launched pod borer resistant cowpea variety called SAMPEA20-T.

The President, All Farmers Association of Nigeria, Arc. Kabiru Ibrahim said that over 12.5 million hectares of land will be dedicated to the production of the new variety across Africa where many millions consume cowpea on daily basis.

“I understand that Nigeria is the first country in the world to commercialize this variety of cowpea and hitherto, yield losses of 70-80% will be no more thanks to SAMPEA 20-T completely mitigates this phenomenon,” the President told the audience at the launch. Other partners who played a role in the SAMPEA 20-T development include the USAID, CSIRO, Australia, Donald Dan Fourth Plant Science Centre, USA, Program for Biosafety System, Network for Genetic Improvement of Cowpea in Africa, IITA, Kirkhouse Trust, ARCN Nigeria, NABDA, and National Research Organisations in Nigeria, Ghana and Burkina Faso.

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