In June this year, Ghana’s National Biosafety Authority (NBA) approved environmental release of pod borer resistant (PBR) Bt cowpea Event 709A, making it the first-ever genetically modified crop to be approved in the country. This development places Ghana as the second country – after Nigeria – to approve the release of a GM cowpea, and the eight African country to okay open cultivation of biotech crops. With this milestone, the country is now a step closer to commercializing the crop genetically improved to resist Maruca pod borer, an insect responsible for up to 80% loss in yield.
What does this approval mean for Ghana’s food security situation and farmers’ economy? And what impact does it have on crop biotech development on the continent? To delve into these questions, we talked to Ghana’s Bt cowpea lead scientist Dr. Jerry Nboyine.
- Who is Dr Jerry Nboyine?
I am an entomologist, and I work on developing locally tailored pest management solutions for cereals, legumes and fibre crops in northern Ghana. I work in the Savanna Agricultural Research Institute (SARI), an institute of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) – I joined the institute in 2011. I am one of the experts working on a crop protection program to develop environmentally friendly pest management technologies.
In 2013, I joined a team of scientists working on PBR Bt cowpea, a collaborative project managed and coordinated by the African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF). My role in the project was to study the behaviour of Maruca and evaluate how resistance to this pest can be conferred into the crop. I left the project in 2014 in order to pursue PhD studies abroad. Upon completion of my studies, I re-joined the team in 2020 and was appointed the Principal Investigator.
- Give us a brief background on the project from where it started to the approval
Research into PBR cowpea has been a long journey – the initial work beginning in 2012. The initial stage involved getting approval to carry out Bt cowpea research. We also needed to put up research infrastructure before the actual work got underway.
The first events, comprising six transformed lines, came into the country in 2013 with trials beginning in September the same year. The objective of the trials was to test and identify the most effective lines in terms of resistance against the Maruca pod borer. Data showed that Event 709A (containing Cry 1 Ab) was the most effective with 98 per cent resistance to the legume pest. Consequently, 709A was introgressed into local Bt cowpea varieties.
The introgressed material (transgenic cowpea) was planted in three confined field trial (CFT) sites in order to identify its suitability across different agro-ecological zones. Samples of the harvested grain were sent to laboratories in the United States and Australia for compositional analysis. The analysis showed that there is no difference in nutritional content between Bt cowpea and its conventional counterpart. The analysis further showed the transformed crop is safe for human and animal consumption as well as for the environment.
Results also revealed PBR cowpea is more productive than conventional varieties even when planted using common agronomic practices.
In 2021, CSIR-SARI, AATF and partners submitted an application to the Institutional Biosafety Committee (IBC) for environmental release of Bt cowpea. In February 2022, the National Biosafety Authority published a notice for public participation on PBR cowpea. The public were given 60 days to submit their comments on the application. On 30th June 2022, NBA approved deregulation of Bt cowpea and subsequently issued a permit following conclusion of the expert review that showed the developed Bt cowpea is safe.
- How did you feel when you first heard news about the approval? What ran through your mind?
This was the best news that anyone could think of. You can imagine the time spent – a decade to be precise – and the resources spent in developing the crop. This was the best news not for the project team alone but for the whole country. With the approval, Bt cowpea became the first ever GM crop to be okayed in Ghana. This was a historic moment in the country! The fact that other scientists can explore this opportunity for inspiration was the most exciting part about this development. 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.
- What does this approval mean for Ghana and Africa at large?
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. Cowpea farming is on its death bed owing to devastating infestation of Maruca. The legume pod borer has driven many farmers out of bean cultivation. Conventional cowpea varieties produce 500kgs per hectare against a potential of two tons (2000kgs).
Data from our trials show Bt cowpea is 98 per cent effective against Maruca and can produce 1900kgs per hectare. This approval, therefore, is a big step towards addressing the challenge of Maruca.
- What next after this approval?
The project is currently conducting multi-locational trials to test the crop’s suitability in additional agro-ecologies. The next step is to make an application to the National Varietal Registration and Release Committee (NVRRC) for registration of Bt cowpea as a variety before delivering it to farmers for commercial cultivation.
The project team has already started seed production with over ten acres of land already earmarked for this purpose. We want to make sure we have sufficient quantities of seeds for seed companies to multiply and release as certified seeds. Plans are also underway for commencement of public education on product stewardship. Farmers are excited about Bt cowpea but they need to be sensitized to handle it responsibly once they start its cultivation.
- When will the improved crop be available to farmers?
We hope to apply for registration of varieties in early 2023. If it is registered without any delay, then the earliest time farmers can access the seeds for cultivation is late 2023 or early 2024. In Ghana, the NVRRC requires data for at least two seasons. Uniformity and stability of Bt cowpea can be demonstrated by the higher number of trials we have conducted at different agro-ecological zones.
- Ghana becomes the second African country to approve Bt cowpea. What is the country doing right in moving this progress forward?
Ghana has a supportive policy and regulatory environment on deregulation of biotech crops. The political class has also demonstrated support for GM technology. This favorable environment is a result of multiple engagements with policy makers, regulators and politicians. Through different forums, we have sensitized these critical stakeholders to enhance their understanding and appreciation of biotech crops and to build trust in the GM process especially in assuring safety.
- What three key lessons can other African countries borrow from Ghana’s seamless progress and success with Bt cowpea research?
For African scientists preparing to commence research into GM crops, one key lesson is tenacity is king. They must be ready to ward off any opposition against the technology by proactively sensitizing stakeholders on how their interventions will address national challenges such as food insecurity.
Secondly, there is a need for all biosafety regulators to come together on a common platform and share experiences on GMO regulations across the continent. I applaud efforts by the African Union Biosafety Regulators’ Forum to foster development of biosafety regulatory systems on the continent.
Thirdly, our African political class should be ready to trust technical advice on science. They should be keen not to be dissuaded by rampant misinformation and lies about the technology.
- Where do you see Ghana ten years from now in terms of crop biotech development?
I want to believe that ten years from now, public confidence on the safety of biotech crops will have grown remarkably. For the last ten years, much of the fears have been based on abstract nature of biotech crops thus lots of misperceptions. In ten years from now, there will be a lot of farmer confidence in adoption of Bt cowpea and other biotech crops in Ghana.
For more information on Ghana’s PBR cowpea, contact Dr. Jerry Nboyine at firstname.lastname@example.org