By Daniel Osei Ofosu, PhD

Hamda sits in front of his hut with chin in his hand. He wonders how he will be able to cater for his family needs as his cowpea farm yields have been declining over the last decade or so. The perennial Maruca infestation continues to worsen and due to poor harvest from previous year, he was only able to afford two sprays for his two acre cowpea farm. The issue with this particular insect is not just peculiar to Hamda’s farm. All his neighbours are facing the same problem and despite all home-grown remedies they tried, none had worked. To make matters worse, all the improved varieties released by the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research’s Savannah Agricultural Research Institute (CSIR-SARI) have not been able to control this pest on their farms. This has lowered the harvest to about 150 kilograms of cowpea grains as compared to 500kgs of maize grains harvested from the same farm size by their counterparts farming maize. Hamda is in deed desperate and in need of some lasting solution as he does not intend to quit farming.

The importance of cowpea as a staple diet for most Ghanaians has convinced three scientists, Dr. Ibrahim Atokple, Dr. Abudulai Mumuni and Dr. Jerry Nboyine to progressively work on finding a solution to this Maruca insect menace on cowpea. After years of collaborative research with scientists from the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO) in Australia, a viable solution has been found for the Maruca problem in cowpea. Their work was aided by the African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF) which obtained some genes royalty-free from the agricultural giant Monsanto. Using these genes, cowpea varieties have been transformed to be resistant to Maruca. The genetically modified cowpea is able to produce a crystal protein that effectively protects it from Maruca larvae. So far the research has worked perfectly in the lab, thus the need for testing outside the laboratory.

This testing, called a confined field trial, has been ongoing since 2013, after CSIR-SARI got approval from Ghana’s National Biosafety Authority. All necessary data has been generated for the eventual release of this improved cowpea. The data shows the variety has 90% efficacy against Maruca. Per their trials, farmers would only need about two sprays to control the other insects that may attack the cowpea.

Though this may be good news to a farmer like Hamda, the trial has dragged on for years. Opposition to the technology that helped produce this variety is rife in Ghana. This very trial has been taken to court to stop its release to farmers due to unsubstantiated fears. Lack of understanding of the technology seems to be the root cause for this resistance. But the determined scientists are eventually leaving their laboratories and explaining this new science to Ghanaians. Hamda is convinced that Dr. Ibrahim Atokple, Dr. Abudulai Mumuni and Dr. Jerry Nboyine have found the solution, having previously found the solution to striga, thrips and aphid problems in cowpea.

Dr. Daniel Osei Ofosu is a Research Scientist at Biotechnology and Nuclear Agriculture Research Institute of Ghana Atomic Energy Commission and Ghana Country Coordinator – Program for Biosafety Systems