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INTERVIEW: Scientists to develop Bt cowpea to resist post harvest pests  

 

Dr Rose Gidado, the Country Coordinator, Open Forum on Agriculture Biotechnology (OFAB) in this interview, speaks on the future of PBR cowpea in Nigeria. She also highlighted the plans to train extension workers to interface with the farmers.

Last year, the commercialization of PBR cowpea was approved, what stage are we now?

What is currently happening is seed certification that’s the next stage by the National Agricultural Seed Council because once the seed certification is done, then seed multiplication will follow to such a level that it will be available to all farmers.
Seed multiplication will be done by both Institute for Agriculture Research (IAR) and the local seed companies that we have that have all it takes to the seeds just to ensure that whatever the farmers will get at the end will get those quality seeds because some other people can always come up with adulteration and market them as Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) just to discourage the farmers because they will plant and won’t get the desired result. That’s why we really have to take measures, keep on monitoring, the stewardship plan that have now been put in place to help follow up and help the farmers with good farm management practices because the technology cannot just work on it’s own, we know something is there to prevent pest attack, but there is another thing, it is not automatic ticket to productivity but you have to do good farm management practices.
The gene has taken care of the insects aspect of it, but then, beans is susceptible to other insects, the Maruca is the most ravaging of them all, so the gene takes care of only Maruca and those insects that are in the same family of Maruca, and then those insects outside Maruca, you have to also find a way of managing them, maybe with fewer chemicals, that’s why we have fewer sprays, maybe two sprays of you were able to do like eight to ten sprays, this time around you can only do two sprays just to take care of other insects that are not within the Maruca insect family.
You have to also do weed management, we have to know the time of planting, then having access to the right quantity of seed that the farmers need.
There are many other things contained in the stewardship plan, all those things have to be followed when planting starts, but now I think we are working towards seed certification and seed multiplication at the same time to ensure that farmers have access to the right seeds.
Are there plans to follow up farmers in the field to further educate the farmers?
We are actually having plans in place, because once these seeds start going out, we need to begin to go to the fields where the farmers are, and we need to also establish contact with the extension workers. The farmers and the extension workers are always together and the farmers understand their language better, they can talk in the local language.
So, we have to start working closely with the extension workers, but I think first of all we have to identify those extension workers, bring them close, trains them, tell them things about GMOs and how to handle those GM seeds, to plant, maintain, tell them the advantages, the expectations.
So, we have to first of all get those extension workers, train them, build their capacity so that they would do their jobs well with the farmers, so that the farmers will realise those expected output. So we really have to go out this time around.
After the PBR cowpea, what is the next GM crop Nigeria should be expecting?
We have so many crops in view but they would all come one after the other because it is a very holistic process coming out developing and coming out with safe and wholesome GM crop is not easy thing, you have to take it one after another.
So we have GM cassava which is developed by International Institute for Tropical Agriculture (IITA) Ibadan, and it is for shelf life elongation for the tuber.
You know cassava has this problem of perishability, once you harvest, if you don’t process within the next few days it becomes useless, and that is a big challenge to the farmers.
So that is why scientists usually the look at crops and see which problem is more debilitating and they work against that. And the first thing to do to remedy the situation in cassava is to lengthen the shelf life so that the farmers can harvest and it will stay one month, they can dispose it at their own time, so that is why IITA went in for that and it is gene edited.
Now it is still undergoing Confined Field Trials and I don’t know the trials would be completed, but it is doing well, I think in the next few years it can be approved for commercialization, so that is what we are waiting for. Because it is gene edited, I don’t think it needs to go through those hurdles other crops go through.
Once we have a cassava with longer shelf life, I think we are good to go, the business will bloom better.
We also have the Nitrogen Efficient Water Efficient, Salt Tolerant (NEWEST) Rice which is also being worked upon by the National Cereals Research Institute (NCRI), Badeggi, we are in the second year of trial and it is still going on, the efficacy of the gene has been established. It has three traits, the water use, which means drought tolerant, and the Nitrogen Use Efficiency which means less use of fertiliser and the salt tolerant, I think salt has a big problem of saline soil, I think it reduces its productivity, but this one has been developed in such way that even if the soil of saline, it maximizes the uptake, it helps it take there required amount from the soil that it needs, even if the soil is highly saline, the rice will not be affected. That will be a great advantage to the farmer.
In terms of the Nitrogen Use efficiency, it also reduces the use of fertiliser, so that the little fertiliser that is applied, it makes good use of it.
The water Efficient is of course drought tolerant, you know rice most of the time is a rain fed crop, we have to cultivate it in a marshy area where is is water logging. But this one is being developed to able to withstand drought conditions, so you can do upland farming with it, so that is only the pipeline, it is still expected that one day it will come out with a safe and wholesome commercial rice which I know will help Nigeria because rice is our staple food, a lot of people like it, it is a ceremonial grain.
We have the African Biofortified Sorghum (ABS) which is developed to have more nutrient, enhanced level of Vitamin A Iron and Zinc to help curb malnutrition in children between the ages of 1 and 4, so this grain can be used as a weaning food and it is very good.
Also, not just iron and Zinc elevation, but also protein digestibility is being looked at in the ABS, it is an African led project by Africa Hatvest Biotechnology Foundation International, based in Kenya, this project is being developed in Nigeria and Kenya, it was 3 countries but I think Burkina Faso is a little out of it, but Kenya and Nigeria are keeping peace in the project, we ran out of fund but then there is a refocus on it again by donors, I think by middle of this year we should have funding for this ABS because it very helpful and useful project.
Protein digestibility has been identified as one of the problems with Sorghum, when you cook Sorghum and you eat, it does not get digested on time, even though farmers like that, it keeps you long all the day, it releases its energy in bits, it is not like maize or rice that releases its energy quickly, it is actually good for diabetics because the protein is indigestible even when you cook it.
So, the project has been developed such that the protein digestibility will be there, you can eat it and digest it fast, the indigestibility I think it is due to some anti-nutritional factors.
So, all these problems is going to be taken care by the Africa Biofortified Sorghum.
Another thing coming on is the Virca Plus virus resistant cassava, not just virus resistant, the cassava would also have enhanced nutrition, that is Vitamin A, iron zinc would be added to it in addition to the resistance of the mosaic disease.
We have the cassava brown streak disease and we have the mosaic virus disease which I know is very prevalent in West Africa, but the brown streak is only in East Africa, so the project is actually for East Africa and West Africa, it is just coming into West Africa and Nigeria, but it have developed and worked on in East Africa, and the efficacy of the gene has been tested and it is fine.
The Confined Field Trial has started at National Root Crops Research Institute, Umudike and the trials will run for some years and I think at the end we are going to have a virus resistant cassava with higher nutrition.
It will help to curb malnutrition, and it will help eliminate the mosaic disease virus, so it is for nutrition and it is for disease resistance and it will really raise the quality of cassava.
We have also the Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA) which developed for drought tolerance. The Confined Field Trials haven’t started yet, approval has been given by the National Biosafety Management Agency (NBMA) to do Confined Field Trial in this project, and usually it run for 4 to 5 years after which the regulation starts.
Are their plans for another variety of PBR cowpea when it exhausts its life span?
The plan to get another variety has started, to add more genes so that the insects don’t grow resistance on time, already, approval has been be given for the Confined Field Trial a new gene into the cowpea, to strengthen the gene, so it is going to have more advantage over this very one that has been released.
Another variety (brown beans) will also be developed, it is in the pipeline. Another thing is weevils, the post harvest challenge, the PBR cowpea takes care of farm, but during post harvest period, what happens? You know beans, you can’t store it for long period without any preservative added to it and that is why people put snipers on it to take care of the weevils, so something is being done, already it has started, a variety of beans would be developed to be resistant to weevil during storage.
So, scientists don’t sleep, research is on going, you don’t wait for a problem to emanate before you begin to look for solutions, you go ahead, you work, scientists always work ahead of time, I think all those are in process.


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