Cowpea is a major staple in many Ghanaian communities
Cowpea is a major staple in many Ghanaian communities

Bt cowpea: Saviour to consumers, good news to farmers

One of the fundamental determinants of our health is the food we eat. It is for this reason that one must be extra careful in selecting what to eat. This is because eating an unhealthy or contaminated food could bring you many health problems. 

Thus, many people prefer to prepare their own foods instead of buying them on the streets. Such people think that by preparing your own food, you save yourself from eating unwholesome foods. But the challenge is that people are unaware of how the food stuff, particularly the vegetables, the beans, grains, and tubers are produced. 

It is important to mention that food safety, nutrition and food security are inextricably linked. An estimated 600 million – almost 1 in 10 people in the world – fall ill after eating contaminated food and 420, 000 die every year, resulting in the loss of 33 million healthy life years, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO).

WHO also estimates that US$ 110 billion is lost each year in productivity and medical expenses resulting from unsafe food in low- and middle-income countries, and children under 5 years of age carry 40 per cent of the foodborne disease burden, with 125, 000 deaths every year.

Foodborne diseases impede socioeconomic development by straining health care systems and harming national economies, tourism and trade.

The fact is that when undesirable chemicals end up in food, they could cause health effects, such as allergic reactions and/or adverse effects on organs or physiology. Allergic reactions may occur in people who are particularly sensitive to certain substances (allergens). 

Examples of toxic effects include gastrointestinal symptoms, kidney damage, liver disease, impairment of the nervous system, or DNA damage, which could cause cancer, according to health experts. Some toxic effects are transient, but other effect may sometimes be permanent.

In recent times, many researchers have become very particular about the use of pesticides and other agro-chemicals in food crop production since unguided use could pose many health challenges to consumers of such food crops.

Pesticides are chemical or biological agents that are used to protect crops from insects, weeds, and infections. Fetuses, infants, growing children, pregnant and nursing mothers, and women of childbearing age are most at risk for adverse health outcomes from exposure to pesticides. It has been established that long exposure to pesticides could even cause infertility in both men and women. 

Cowpea and pesticides

But the reality is that in spite of the dangers associated with unguided use of pesticides, farmers tend to spend so much on pesticides on crops that are easily attacked by pests or insects. For instance, cowpea is one of the crops that farmers use a lot of pesticides on in Ghana due to the vulnerability of the bean crop to the ravaging maruca vitrata pests.

Maruca vitrata, also known as the Maruca pod borer, is one of the most devastating insect pests of cowpea in Africa. 

Maruca pests attack cowpea at all stages of its development, causing up to 80 per cent yield loss. Farmers therefore in their attempt to control the pest spray their crops about six to eight times in the three-month life cycle of the crop.

What it means is that these excessive spraying of pesticides could lead to chemical infiltration of the substances in the cowpea. 
And because Ghana is also one of the countries with high bean consumption per capita, it therefore implies that some lives will be at risk if the practice continues unabated. 

For instance, bean consumption per capita reached 6.04 kg in 2020 in Ghana, according to Food and Agriculture Organisation’s (FAO) statistics. This is 0.984% less than in the previous year.

According to FAO, bean consumption per capita in Ghana reached an all-time high of 9.62 kg in 2012 and an all-time low of 0.130 kg in 1993.
The reason accounting for Ghana’s high consumption of cowpea is that the crop is grown by many smallholder farmers and it is used in preparation of many local dishes. 

The crop, popularly known as the “poor man’s meat” is very common in many notable Ghanaian local dishes, hence farmers from across all ethnic identities in Ghana grow the crop. 

Cowpea is an important source of plant protein – all parts of the crop is consumed and haulms used as fodder. Local dishes such as “Koose”, “Gari & beans” popularly known as “Gobe”, “Waakye”, and “Tubaani” are all prepared with cowpea as an active ingredient. Dishes made from this crop are an important source of quality plant protein.

However, farmers of cowpea are in constant battle with the destructive Maruca vitrata pest, thus overusing pesticides, which exposes the lives of consumers in danger.

The good news  

Ghanaian research scientists in their resolve to help prevent this possible chemical (pesticides) infiltration in cowpea decided to adopt biotechnology to develop a cowpea variety that is resistant to the Maruca vitrata pests. It is called the Bt cowpea or pod borer resistance cowpea. 

The Principal Investigator leading the development of the Bt cowpea in Ghana, Dr. Jerry Nbonyine, who is also an Entomologist and Plant Breeder at CSIR-SARI, is convinced that the crop has the potential to reduce pesticide use, thus reducing chemical impacts on both the environment and on the food crop itself. 

For him, whereas farmers tend to spray their cowpea crops about six to eight times before harvest time, with the Bt cowpea, farmer may only spray it once or twice.

That, he explains, with the reduction in the number of times that farmers spray their cowpea crops, it will save them some money, time as well as protect the beans they produce from being contaminated with chemicals.

Dr. Nbonyine indicated that the Bt cowpea has been genetically modified to resist the destructive Maruca vitrata pest.

He explained that the Cry 1Ab gene, from Bacillus thuringiesis was used to develop the podborer resistant cowpea for small-holder farmers in sub-Saharan Africa.

For him, Bt Cowpea, which would be the first genetically modified (GM) crop to be released in Ghana, will contribute significantly to food security, improve the livelihoods of smallholder farmers by reducing the pod’s damage, promote grain quality and reduce seasonal crop loss. 

Dr. Nboyine explained that biological technology is not new to human race and that the insulin used in the field of medicine and the traditional brewing of ‘pito’, a local beverage, were all forms of biotechnology.

He expressed the concern that due to the impacts of the pod borer infestation, many cowpea farmers had stopped growing the crop.

“In the absence of resistance genes in the cowpea germplasm, a new [biotechnological] innovation has identified a resistance gene from a bacteria species— Bacillus Thuringiesis. This has been transferred into Songotra, a local cowpea variety to kill the pod borer and also reduce the harmful effect of many insecticides sprays the farmers are exposed to,” he pointed out. 

Dr Nboyine explained that the Bt cowpea would reduce pod borer damage by 98 per cent and also increase crop yields four times.

For him, the Bt cowpea reduces cost of production by the farmer, reduces the exposure of the farmers to the hazardous chemicals with its health implications, and that they were relatively environmental friendly as less chemicals are carried into the runoffs and water bodies.

Safe to eat

Speaking on the safety of the Bt cowpea, Dr Nboyine explained that proximate analysis conducted (biochemical and functional properties) showed that there was no difference between Bt and non-Bt in terms of crude protein, fat, ash, carbohydrates, calories, moisture.

For him, consumers had nothing to fear about the Bt cowpea, saying “there is no toxicity or allerginicity associated with Bt cowpea.”

He was of the view that when the Bt cowpea is released to the farmers, it will help them to increase their yields.

“Our farmers will become non-competitive in the cowpea industry if other nations adopt Bt Cowpea and produce the grains cheaply,” he said. 

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