NIGERIA – Nigeria’s public sector scientists who developed the high-yielding genetically modified cow pea variety have struggled to produce enough certified seeds to meet the huge farmer demand.

Nigeria approved commercial use of the pod borer-resistant (PBR) cowpea in December 2019. As farmers who planted it in trials in 2020 spread the news about how it helped protect their fields from attacks by the voracious pod borer pest, more farmers became interested in trying it out.

Hajia Dijesaidu, coordinator of the Small-Scale Women Farmers Organization, said she first planted the GM cowpea seeds last year and got higher yields and reduced pest pressure. After she invited some members of her association to see the fields, they all demanded the new variety.

“They see that it gets more yields, and it didn’t consume money on insecticide sprays. It gives less work and less spraying. I sprayed the farm only twice. Our previous seeds, we spray about 10 to 12 times before we harvest it,” she told the Alliance for Science during a recent visit to her farm in Nigeria.

But Dijesaidu and other members of  her organization, which has about 27,500 members, have been unable to secure as much PBR cowpea seed as they’d like to plant this year.

Ahiaba M. Sylvanus, a smallholder farmer in Kaduna State, had a similar experience. The 63-year-old farmer typically spends about 20,000 Naira (US$50) buying pesticides for his farm every season — a cost that he said reduces his profits. But he spent only about 25 percent of that amount on pesticides when he grew GM cowpea last year.

“I started regretting that the GM cowpea should have been out before this time. There are so many benefits. We spend less on labor and buying chemicals to spray. We spray two to three times for the GM beans. But the others, we spray up to eight times,” he said.

Asked whether he will be growing the Bt cowpea again this year, he replied that he doesn’t have it yet as the seeds are no longer available on the market. He said he is considering growing some of the Bt cowpea seeds he saved from last year if he doesn’t get certified ones.

As the planting season got underway this past July, the Institute for Agricultural Research (IAR), which developed the variety at the Ahmadu Bello University, distributed tonnes of the GM seeds to three indigenous Nigerian seed companies and some farmer cooperative groups for sale to farmers. But that supply has run out and farmers are demanding more of the PBR cowpea, known commercially as SAMPEA 20-T.

Onyibe Onyisi John, managing director of Gold Agric Nigeria Ltd., one of the local seed companies contracted to help distribute the GM seeds to farmers, said his industry has not previously encountered a more popular variety. But they didn’t receive sufficient seeds from the IAR and all available stock was quickly sold.

“At the time of the launching, they gave us 2.5 metric tonnes for the trials. It was too small. The 2.5 tonnes couldn’t last for one month and it was exhausted. We the seed companies have a lot to do. We have not had a variety that has been subscribed like the PBR cowpea,” said John.

PBR cowpea

PBR cowpea provides inherent protection from the pest due to the introduction of a gene from Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), a naturally occurring soil bacteria widely used in organic agriculture. Nigeria is the first country in the world to commercialize Bt cowpea, with similar projects under way in Ghana and Burkina Faso under the auspices of the Kenya-based AATF, formerly called African Agricultural Technology Foundation.

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