For the first time, subsistence farmers in Nigeria have planted a new variety of genetically modified (GM) cowpea with the aim of bolstering food security for over 200 million Nigerians.

This follows a decision made in December 2019, when Nigeria became the first country in the world to approve the commercialisation of GM cowpea.

Cowpeas are a staple food and an important source of protein. They are mostly grown in West Africa. The protein-rich cowpea, commonly known as “poor man’s meat”, is the country’s staple legume.

This new variety took a team of African and international devotees 40 years to develop, out of which 20 years was spent to improve its traits through traditional breeding and another 20 using genetic engineering to develop resistance to the destructive Maruca pod borer.

Speaking on the latest development, Mohammad Ishiyaku, a geneticist and cowpea breeder at Ahmadu Bello University in Northern Nigeria, said the new variety is a game-changer for farmers.

“The demand is outstripping supply,” he says.

Most Nigerian families consume cowpeas daily either boiled and eaten with rice or fermented and cooked in oil to provide a tasty local dish known as Akara. The stalks are also nutritious fodder for livestock, and any extra harvest can bring in cash at the local market.

Since most farmers grow what they put on the table, when their crops fail, their families starve. Some 91 million people are considered at risk; most can’t afford fertiliser and chemicals, there’s no irrigation or power, and life has only gotten tougher in recent years due climate change and conflict.

Therefore, this latest development, according to researchers will not only increase food security but also give farming families a leg up out of poverty.

Ishiyaku estimates that by lowering their spending on pesticides and raising yields, the crop could enhance farmers’ income by close to 30%.

The new variety should also help the country’s bank balance. While Nigeria is the world’s largest producer of cowpea, it still needs to import 500,000 tonnes per year.

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