Many farmers in Nigeria and other African countries are avoiding the cultivation of cowpea as a result of yearly losses caused by maruca pests’ attacks. African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF), estimates that cowpea, a grain legume, is cultivated on more than 12.5 million hectares and consumed by nearly 200 million people.
However, maruca attack reduces the size and the quality of the popular beans, thereby discouraging
farmers from cultivating the crop.
“Maruca reduces the size, and quality of cowpea harvest; we use insecticides to control it, but it is too expensive to be applying insecticides all the time.
“Sometimes I still get a very low yield after using insecticides; I will not cultivate cowpea again,” Abdulahi Yunisa, a beans farmer in Gombe State, said.
Mrs Rose Gidado, Head, Open Forum on Agricultural Biotechnology in Nigeria, explains that maruca moths lay eggs on cowpea plants, and the emerging caterpillars feed on the plants.
“This damage affects the quantity of the leaves, flowers and quantity and quality of seeds leading to severe yield loss.”
However, modern biotechnology has provided a remedy for the maruca- infested beans through a soil bacterial gene known as Bacillus Thuringiensis (Bt).
According to Prof. Mahammad Ishiyaku of Institute for Agricultural Research, Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, biotechnology is the only way to combat maruca.
Ishiyaku, a plant breeder, said over 80 per cent losses, forced plant breeders to source for maruca resistant varieties from the many strains of cowpea available on earth.
“For maruca especially, there is no such natural resistance in the cowpea strains, we have evaluated 15,000 different varieties of cowpea.
“From the northernmost part of Nigeria up to the edge of the Atlantic Ocean in Victoria Island in Lagos, no single cowpea showed this resistance; the same thing in Ghana, Burkina Faso and South Africa. “All over the world, there is no cowpea that has that resistance; it is like looking for a banana that produces milk,” he said.
He said that the only alternative was gene transfer, using biotechnology; a technology that was then not known by cowpea farmers.
“That is why over the years, we have to live with the painful solution of having to spray our cowpeas to control maruca.
“Until such a time when information came to us, that we can cut a gene from a non-cowpea organism and transfer it and cowpea will be able to absorb the gene and resist maruca,” he said.
Research by the AATF, sponsored by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) led to the development and successful field trials of the maruca resistant cowpea varieties.
Ishiyaku said that the gene was derived from bacillus thuringiensis, harmless bacteria found in the soil.
“These varieties are showing 90 per cent to 95 per cent of maruca insect control, where cowpea is mostly planted,” he said.
However, the maruca resistant varieties still have to undergo series of trials and test before the proposed launch in Nigeria this year.
Mr John McMurdy, USAID’s International Research and Biotechnology Advisor, said the research on the maruca-resistant beans was to ensure sustainable beans production for Nigeria, the largest grower and consumer of the crop.
“The gene that we put into the cowpea (beans) is actually the same gene that we put into maize in the U.S. and we have consumed it for about 27 years.
“It is a specific gene code that targets the specific insect, but has no effect on other organisms, so that is really the beauty of this technology.
“We have made a lot of progress in cowpea; ultimately we are not going to see it as a success until we actually get it out there for farmers to use to increase their yields yearly.
“Getting the seed production systems in place, is probably close to 10 million U.S. dollars over these next five years, specifically cowpea, to include the work in Ghana, Nigeria, Burkina Faso and now Malawi, the newest project partner,” he said.
Dr Denis Kyetere, AATF’s Executive Director, said field trials of maruca-resistant beans were carried out at multi-location sites in Kano, Zaria and Zamfara since 2011.
The results showed 90 per cent to 95 per cent of maruca insect control, “which is expected to improve nutrition and food security for about eight million farmers and their families if inculcated.
“The research is not only carried out in Nigeria but also in Ghana and Burkina Faso, while Malawi is coming on board, seeing the possibility of the crop growth strides in Nigeria,” he said.
Dr Prince Addae, Project Manager, Pod Borer Resistant Cowpea Project, says the AATF plans to commercialise the maruca resistant bean seed in three target countries – Nigeria, Ghana and Burkina Faso from 2017.
Mr Auwalu Balarabe, the Chief Executive, Maina Seeds Kano, said that the breakthrough in cowpea production was a welcome development for cowpea farmers.
“Every farmer in Africa who cultivates cowpea will tell you how much loss he has been recording as a result of maruca,’’ he noted.
Dr Alhasan Yakubu, Ghana’s Deputy Minister, Ministry of Food and Agriculture, urged African countries to immediately start utilising the benefits of the new technology.
He stressed that for a sustainable food security, Africa must embrace biotechnology in cowpea and other agricultural products.
“Food security in Africa is as important as it has always been in all our activities.` `It is important that we look at alternative ways of managing the already vast ecology and secure ourselves nutritionally,’’ he said.
The deputy minister appealed to African legislators to work on their bio-safety regulations and laws to ensure the passage of country-based bills which would guarantee improved technology for food crops.
“What the state institutions can do is to provide the appropriate legislations to help in this direction,” he said.
It is hoped that African lawmakers would heed the call, as passage of the laws are pre-requisite to the launch of maruca resistant beans by 2017. (NAN)