Nigeria to commercialize first genetically modified food crop

After a decade of research work and on-farm experimentations, farmers in Nigeria will be planting the Pod Borer Resistant Cowpea following its proof of efficacy and the official release by the Federal Government of Nigeria.

AATF coordinated a network of international partners and funders including USAID for over 10 years and working with relevant local partners such as the Institute for Agricultural Research to develop the variety which became the first genetically modified food crop developed and released in the country.

The project which was started in three West African countries of Nigeria, Ghana, and Burkina Faso has the target of addressing Maruca Vitara, one of the major challenges faced by cowpea farmers on the continent.

Maruca has been responsible for the low productivity of cowpea and had given both farmers and researchers sleepless nights due to its destructive nature which conventional breeding techniques lacked the capacity to handle.

Below are series of developments related to the PBR cowpea as it goes into the hands of farmers in Nigeria

2,000 farmers to plant a new variety

More than 2000 farmers across the cowpea growing belts of Nigeria will be planting the PBR Cowpea also known as SAMPEA20-T as the full commercialization of the variety commences in July during the 2021 planting season, Dr. Mohammed Lawal Umar, Trial Manager for PBR cowpea has said.

“We are currently multiplying the PBR cowpea seeds because we were unable to meet our target during the last demonstration trials,” Dr. Umar said.

Umar dropped the hint while speaking during the 2021 PBR Cowpea Annual Planning and Review Meeting (PBR APRM) held in Abuja on 8th April 2021.

Already three seed companies including Maina Seed, Tecni Seed, and Saro Agro Sciences all based in Kaduna, Northern Nigeria, have been engaged to produce certified seeds. The companies have been thoroughly assessed for their production capacity, technical personnel, processing facilities, and a good network of farmers.

“We are interacting with the seed companies to see how they can start selling the products to the farmers. Engaging seed companies alone will not be the last stage, we want to also conduct promotion exercise and prioritise regions where cowpea is grown most among the 24 states including Federal Capital Territory (FCT) though we are going to extend it to the six geopolitical regions in Nigeria,” he said.

Dr. Umar noted that in the first phase of commercialization, the target is to have about 2,000 farmers across the country plant the PBR cowpea.

“This is not the final figure; it may be more than that because last year we had a demonstration in about 9 states including FCT and we were able to buy the seeds back from the farmers who produced to enable the research team analyses and document. Very soon we will inform the public where they can get the seeds.”

National Stewardship Committee

A National Stewardship Committee for the PBR Cowpea to check on seed adulteration and ensure proper utilization of the variety without compromising on its quality was inaugurated at the sidelines during the PBR APRM. The AATF Product and Stewardship Manager, Francis Onyekachi was elected as the Chairman.

Speaking after the inauguration, Mr.  Onyekachi said the Committee will ensure quality control and assurance of the product to enable farmers to buy the original seed because seed adulteration in Nigeria is a huge challenge.

“The Committee will work with seed companies, the breeders, and farmers to monitor and ensure the chain of production is not compromised at any point, the seed purity must be a guarantee at all times while the resistance level is constantly monitored to guide against any breakdown,” he added.

He noted that AATF and its partners are currently working on the additional Insect Resistant Management (IRM) plan for the PBR Cowpea to provide guidance on how farmers can effectively manage insects or other pests on their farms while planting the variety.

Speaking at the same meeting, AATF PBR Cowpea Manager, Dr. Issoufou Kolo said that the stewardship component designed for the PBR Cowpea was to serve as a guarantee that the technology delivers as expected. “It will be of no use if farmers cannot get what the technology can offer. The stewardship programme in place will safeguard against malpractices that would deny farmers the benefit of the technology.”

Members of the Committee drawn from AATF, National Biotechnology Development Agency (NABDA, Institute for Agricultural Research (IAR), National Agriculture Seed Council (NASC), National Agricultural Extension and Research Liaison Services (NAERLS), and seed companies were immediately trained on their mandate, roles, and responsibilities to ensure sustainable and durable benefits from the variety.

Meanwhile, Denis Kyetere, AATF Executive Director urged the PBR Cowpea project team to ensure strict compliance to laid down Monitoring and Evaluation (M&E) guidelines and environmental issues capable of derailing the progress made so far as the project enters the commercialization phase in Nigeria.

In an address to stakeholders and partners during the PBR APRM, Dr. Kyetere said that M&E is very important to the work of AATF and donors and there is a need for proper collection of M&E data. “We need to pay special attention to this area because our donors are also interested in how we deal with them,” Said Dr. Kyetere.

Dr. Kyetere said M&E and environmental concerns would be properly guarded as farmers in Nigeria gear up to plant the PBR Cowpea following approvals granted for both environmental and commercial release, while their Ghanaian and Burkinabe counterparts will have to wait a little longer.

The trials started in the three West African countries at about the same time, but Nigeria   approved the variety almost two years ahead of the others due to delay in instituting an appropriate legal framework to facilitate the release of the crops in Ghana and Burkina Faso

“There is a lot of work to be done in the commercialization area: development of commercialization strategy, promotion of the cultivar, assuring a good supply of high-quality foundation and commercial certified seed and protecting the farmers against counterfeiters,” he pointed out.

He further emphasised that stewardship will play a critical role during the commercialization phase.

He said that the commercialization of PBR Cowpea remained a landmark in African agricultural research and development, adding that already, the research work on the second generation of PBR Cowpea has started. While the Australian-based Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation  (CSIRO) is working on a new variety using the two genes  (Cry1Ab—Cry2Ab) to strengthen the variety’s resistance to Maruca damage.

He commended stakeholders and partners including USAID, CSIRO, Danforth Plant Center, Bayer, and MSU for their long commitment to the project and supporting agricultural research and development in Africa.

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