The story of Ghana’s Bt cowpea: Why are stakeholders in high hopes?
Agriculture is a key driver of Ghana’s economy, contributing an average of 20 per cent of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) as well as providing livelihoods for majority of Ghana’s rural population. This makes the sector very critical to the Ghanaian economy and its population.
Sadly, the sector is heavily dependent on rain-fed production systems, hence making the sector highly susceptible to any environmental changes. Climate change and climate variability are therefore serious threats to Ghana’s agricultural production and productivity.
The reason is that significant changes in temperature and rainfall patterns—including shifts in when seasonal rains begin and end—have shortened the growing season, reduced productivity and pushed many farmers into extreme poverty. In fact, many Ghanaian farmers are food insecure.
According to the Ghana Statistical Service’s (GSS) annual household income and expenditure survey strategy for the first and second quarters of 2022, 49.1 per cent of the Ghanaian population experienced food insecurity with higher prevalence in the rural areas than the urban areas.
The GSS statistics is quite alarming. The problem is that if people in the rural areas face food insecurity, then the country is in big trouble. The reason is that Ghana’s food come mainly from the rural areas where majority of the population are smallholder farmers.
The sad reality is that climate change is making things difficult for Ghanaian farmers, particularly smallholder farmers to produce any significant produce.
Many smallholder farmers are facing the challenges of pests and diseases as well as fast declining levels of soil fertility.
And Africa, where Ghana is a part is home to 50 per cent of the world’s smallholder farmers. These farmers are particularly vulnerable to climate change and its attendant effects. There is therefore the need for the Continent’s crops to be enhanced in order to meet the demands of the changing climate.
The cowpea story
In Ghana, for instance, cowpea farmers are at the mercy of the Maruca Vitrata pest (pod borer), which destroys about 60 per cent of their farms. Farmers in their attempt to contain these ravaging pests end up spraying their farms with pesticides for about eight times before harvest time, thus imposing on them additional financial cost as well as making these unharvested cowpeas susceptible to chemical infiltrations.
The maruca pest remains a major challenge to any cowpea farmer. The pest attacks the crop at all stages of its development. It is for this reason that scientists have advanced the need to adopt biotechnology solution such as the Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) to develop pest resistant crops to help farmers overcome some of these challenges they face as a result of the changing climate.
The reason is that this solution has proven to be effective in many parts of the world. For instance, countries such as the USA, Argentina, Spain, Canada, Australia, India, Pakistan, Poland, Czech Republic, Paraguay, Uruguay, Slovakia, South Africa, and more recently, Nigeria are all enjoying the benefits of biotechnology solutions.
Agricultural biotechnology is a range of tools, including traditional breeding techniques that alter living organisms, or parts of organisms, to make or modify products; improve plants or animals; or develop microorganisms for specific agricultural uses.
Because GMO crops have been modified to serve purposes such as resisting insects or thriving with little water, they have proved to guarantee higher yields and therefore good income.
Considering the potential of the biotechnology tools, Ghanaian research scientists started the development of the Bt Cowpea—GM variety in 2012. The Bt cowpea has been genetically modified to resist the Maruca pest.
Even though the technology presents considerable prospects, there are major obstacles getting them to the market. One of such obstacles is the activities of anti-GMO campaigners and lack of political will. These campaigners sought to create fear and dislike as well as unfounded myths about the GM crops.
Luckily in the case of Ghana, the country seems to be making progress in the development and adoption of the GMO technology, particularly the Bt cowpea. And this has become possible as a result of the persistency of Ghanaian scientists as well as the advocacy work of the Open Forum on Agricultural Biotechnology (OFAB-Ghana).
Some individuals including the Prof. Walter Alhassan, former Director-General of Ghana’s Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR); Professor Kenneth Ellis Danso, a Plant Biotechnologist and former Director of the Biotechnology and Nuclear Agriculture Research Institute (BNARI) of the Ghana Atomic Energy Commission (GAEC); Professor Eric Danquah, the founding Director of the West Africa Centre for Crop Improvement (WACCI); and Dr. Richard Ampadu-Ameyaw, a Senior Research Scientist with CSIR-STEPRI, who is also the National Coordinator of OFAB-Ghana have all played key roles in getting the public to understand the science behind the technology.
Prof. Danquah, for instance, has often advocated on the need to transform the Ghanaian agricultural space through emerging technologies such as the GMO and Gene Editing technologies.
He is of the view that the African Continent has the least chance to adapt to climate change shocks.
He explains that genetic engineering “can assist breeders to develop crops that better adapt to the threats of climate change.”
He expressed the confidence that with biotechnology, more plants can be modified to adapt to the climate crisis, including pests and diseases, desertification, and changing rainfall patterns.
Like Prof. Danquah, Ghanaian research scientists working on the Bt cowpea are confident that when the crop is finally released to farmers, it will bring significant changes in the production of the crop in the country.
The scientists are highly convinced that with the work done so far on the Bt cowpea as well as the warm cooperation they have received from the regulatory body—National Biosafety Authority (NBA), Ghanaian farmers are likely to get access to the seeds of the crop by 2024. The reason is that NBA gave approval for the commercial release of the Bt cowpea variety in 2022.
The Principal Investigator of the Bt Cowpea, Dr Jerry Nboyine, in an interview described the news on the approval for the commercial release of the insert resistance crop as the “best news anyone could think of.”
For him, his team had completed a multi-locational trial of the Bt cowpea seeds as part of regulatory approval processes.
“As a country, we import a lot of cowpea to meet our domestic consumption. The fact that farmers are now about to access this improved cowpea and produce abundant yields at a lower cost means that our intervention is key in driving poverty away. Farmers had grown impatient as they waited for Bt cowpea but with this approval, our promise to deliver the seeds is no longer an empty story,” he noted.
Dr. Nboyine further indicated that the approval signifies an important achievement in “our quest to eradicate the vicious Maruca pest, enrich our food basket and unshackle poverty in our communities.”
For him, “Cowpea farming is on its death bed owing to devastating infestation of Maruca,” adding that “the legume pod borer has driven many farmers out of bean cultivation.”
He explained that cowpea production rate and planted area have declined over the past 10 years in Ghana due to pest infestation.
Dr. Nboyine who works with the CSIR-Savanna Agriculture Research Institute (SARI) said pest infestation has discouraged many cowpea farmers from farming the crop in the country, noting that pest infestation has made cowpea farming highly unattractive and also highly costly, thus forcing many farmers out of cowpea cultivation.
He explained that because of pests, when farmers grow cowpea, “they need to spend a lot of money to buy chemicals to spray” and that “even when farmers are able to afford the chemicals, labour to spray the chemicals all go against them.”
For him, the situation whereby cowpea farmers are leaving the sector to farm other crops would mean that government would have to spend more money to import more cowpea into the country.
But Dr. Nboyine is convinced that with the Bt cowpea, farmers will have their peace of mind to farm the crop and increase the country’s production of the bean crop.
According to him, data from their trials show that the Bt cowpea is 98 per cent effective against Maruca and can produce 1900kgs per hectare.
That, he added, “This approval, therefore, is a big step towards addressing the challenge of Maruca.”
For him, with the PBR cowpea, the maruca pest can no longer attack the crop, adding that the Bt Cowpea also helps to increase yields.
“Conventional cowpea varieties produce 500kgs per hectare against a potential of two tons (2000kgs),” Dr. Nboyine indicated.
Also sharing his views, Dr. Richard Ampadu-Ameyaw of CSIR-STEPRI, encouraged the public not to fall victims to the activities of anti-GMO campaigners about the Bt cowpea, saying “no Ghanaian scientist will develop any crop that is poisonous for Ghanaians to eat.”
He said Ghanaian plant breeders are also Ghanaians and have families and will therefore not endanger the lives of others through their research.
For him, all that Ghanaian plant breeders and scientists have been doing over the years was to find solutions to agricultural problems that face Ghanaian farmers, such as the maruca pests.
Dr Ampadu-Ameyaw said it was worrying that people who do not understand the science behind the GMO technology would peddle falsehood that scientists were developing crops that could pose danger to people's health.
“GMO is not a chemical; it is nothing scary but a technology that is used to develop food crops based on the best species,” he said.
He said although currently no Ghanaian farmer has access to GM crops, when it finally becomes acceptable in the country, like the Bt cowpea has received approval, it would serve as the best solution to food security.
“GMO will save farmers money as they will not have to spray their crops against diseases and pests. Currently, we are polluting the environment with the spraying of chemicals to prevent crops from being attacked. With GMO, the production cost of farmers will go down and their yields will go up,” Dr Ampadu-Ameyaw noted.
Kwesi Arhin, 36, and Auntie Esi, 52, are all cowpea farmers at Ekumfi in the Central Region. They are victims of the devastating impacts of the maruca pest and wished that the new Bt cowpea seeds are released to them even before 2024.
“I don’t know where the insects come from but the moment you plant the cowpeas, you see them coming and they destroy a lot of the crops,” Kwesi shared his experience.
For him, he has stopped farming cowpea on large scale and only farm something for his own family due to the maruca pests.
“There is no point wasting your energy on cowpea and getting nothing at the end of the day due to pests,” he remarked.
Just as Kwesi is troubled by the pests, Auntie Esi has not also been spared. “My daughter, it is difficult farming cowpea because the pests will not let you rest; they can eat everything if you don’t spray it more often.”
She expressed the hope that one day, farmers will get a variety that will help them to deal with the maruca pest.
But the wish of Kwesi and Auntie Esi will soon materialise as farmers are likely to have access to the seeds of Bt cowpea in 2024.