Genetically Modified Cowpea Clears Its First Hurdle in Ghana
Genetically modified (GM) cowpea has cleared the first of the three regulatory hurdles in the way of commercialisation in Ghana. If it is commercialised, it will be the first GM crop grown in the country – a major milestone. Biotechnology proponents have been working for decades to integrate GM crops into Ghana’s development agenda.
The approval of GM cowpea by the National Biosafety Authority comes amid debate, both inside and outside the country, on the efficacy of GM crops in strengthening food security throughout Africa.
Cowpea – black-eyed pea in some parts of the world – is a major source of protein in Ghana and the rest of the sub-continent. It is integral to Ghana’s food security. It is a staple, especially in the northern part of Ghana, where it is second only to groundnut in terms of area cultivated. Ghana is the fifth largest producer of cowpea in Africa.
While cowpea production is essential for Ghana, farmers face many challenges, including an array of pests. The GM cowpea has been genetically engineered to resist the the Maruca pod borer. The hope is that this resistance will help decrease the amount of insecticide farmers have been using to control pests and increase yields. Insecticides are known to be deleterious to human health, but their use is on the rise throughout Africa.
If Ghana commercialises GM cowpea, it will join Nigeria as the second country in the world to grow it. Burkina Faso may follow in commercialising it as well. While GM crops so far have a mixed legacy in Africa, proponents hope that GM cowpea could change that narrative.
Tensions over GM crops
In Ghana, efforts to introduce GM crops have not gone without challenge. Since Ghanaian scientists first began conducting field trials of GM crops in 2013, a large contingent of Ghanaian civil society groups, from trade unions to farmers’ associations to advocacy organisations, have raised concerns. These include:
- the complex partnerships in developing GM crops and questions of ownership
- the appropriateness of the technology
- pricing and accompanying intellectual property rights
- the Ghanaian government’s ability to regulate GM seeds and crops.
These concerns are not necessarily unique to GM crops. However, as I write in my forthcoming book, We Are Not Starving: The Struggle for Food Sovereignty in Ghana, GM crops have become a vehicle to discuss not simply agricultural production, but also visions for the country’s scientific, political and agrarian future.
For Ghana’s small biotechnology community, GM crops represent a potentially important tool for the country’s food security strategy.
Critics, on the other hand, see GM crops as a narrowly conceived tool that is ill-equipped to address the structural issues that contribute to food insecurity in Ghana.
Further unpacking the approval of the GM cowpea helps illustrate these tensions.
The Ghanaian scientists overseeing the project are at the Savanna Agricultural Research Institute (a wing of the public research institution, the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research). The next regulatory hurdles they face are the Food and Drugs Authority and the National Varietal Release and Registration Committee.
These approvals can be sought concurrently. However, given that this is Ghana’s first genetically modified crop to go through the entire approval process, even its biggest proponents aren’t sure how long the next steps will take.
Once all approvals have been received, the scientists at the Savanna Agricultural Research Institute will still need to execute a plan for seed multiplication, packaging and distribution. Then GM cowpea will be ready to hit the market. In all likelihood, its availability is a year (or more) away.
A number of factors will inform whether farmers choose to purchase and grow the seed. These include availability, varietal preference, pricing, performance and exogenous considerations such as other pests.
An obvious but key factor is the seed’s performance. In confined field trials, GM cowpea suffered less damage from the Maruca pod-borer than non-GM cowpea. With that said, there are a multitude of other diseases and pests that cowpea farmers in Ghana, and elsewhere in West Africa, must contend with. Different varieties of cowpea contain varying resistance to different pests, which farmers consider when deciding which variety cowpea to grow.
Take Songotra, the cowpea variety which has been genetically modified. Non-GM Songotra was first introduced in the Ghanaian market in 2008. In certain regions in Ghana, Songotra is susceptible to other pests, especially aphids and thrips, which has led to its low adoption rate: around 10%.
A study by the International Food Policy Research Institute estimated that GM Songotra is only likely to reach a 15% adoption rate.
Another hurdle the GM cowpea will face is price. The same report estimated that GM cowpea could cost as much as 50% more than conventional seed. Proponents hope that the premium could be offset by the reduced use of insecticides.
But those savings depend on whether farmers actually do use less insecticide. That will depend, on part, on the presence of other pests. While GM cowpea has shown resistance to the Maruca pod-borer, it is not resistant to other prominent pests such as thrips and aphids. Farmers will still need to deal with those pests, whether with insecticides or other intervention.
The future of GM cowpea in Ghana remains to be seen, and will depend on factors like:
- the ability of Ghanaian scientists and their global partners to develop more popular varieties of cowpea (which they plan to do)
- how the GM cowpea performs in farmers’ fields
- the taste and consistency of cowpea once cooked
- the availability of the seed and a market for the crop.
Some civil society groups are expected to maintain opposition to GM crops. One group, Food Sovereignty Ghana, is challenging GM cowpea in the Human Rights Court.
Independent monitoring and evaluation of the rollout of the seed, its performance and its farm-level impacts will be crucial. The story of GM cowpea in Ghana is far from over.
Joeva Rock, Assistant Professor in Development Studies, University of Cambridge
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