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June 06, 2008

Scientists meet in Nigeria to discuss GM cowpea production in Africa

As world leaders met earlier this week in Rome to find solutions to the global food crisis, a number of scientists and other stakeholders also converged on the Nigerian capital, Abuja, to consider the possibility of increasing Bt cowpea production in Africa to feed the continent.

The three-day international conference, organized by the Nairobi-based African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF) and the Institute for Agricultural Research (IAR) of Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, attracted participants from Australia, the United States and some African countries.

Speaker after speaker called for effective ways to propagate the message that Bt cowpea, given the necessary attention, could be a major source of food especially protein, to the ever-increasing population of the continent.

Currently, AATF is engaged in a process of developing a new genetically modified cowpea with a Bt gene that would enable smallholder farmers in Africa to have access to high quality seed and socially acceptable cowpea varieties with increased resistance to maruca pod borer, an insect that troubles the produce.

In a presentation on her behalf, Nigeria’s Federal Minister of Science and Technology, Chief (Mrs.) Grace Ekpiwhre, assured the participants that the government of Nigeria, the largest producer and consumer of cowpea, supported every progress being made to develop Bt cowpea.

“For many years, plant breeders have used conventional plant breeding methods to improve crops, and to help speed up natural selection and evolution by combining different genes for crop improvement but all these have not been yielding desirable results. A major advantage of modern biotechnology is that it often generates strategies for genetic improvement that can be applied to many different crops, and beneficial organisms which this project employs.”

Nigeria and Niger, together, produce about 86 percent of the world’s cowpea, which is considered the most important food grain legume in the dry savannah of tropical Africa where it is grown on more than 12.5 million hectares of land.

“Over 200 million people consume the crop, thus an improvement in cowpea productivity in Africa will ensure quality and increased food yield, improved health for all, eradication of malnutrition in the African child and assurance of prosperity of the rural sector,” said the minister.

For his part, Professor Shehu Ado, Director of IAR, said the proper organization of the conference even indicated that “Africans, given the political backing by their governments, can engineer effective solutions to problems on the continent.” He said the importance of cowpea to all, especially the poor, earned it the Hausa nickname “naman talaka” which literally means “meat for the poor.”

The Director of the Tamale-based Savannah Agricultural Research Institute, Professor A.B. Salifu, was happy to state that Ghana now had a legislative instrument to enable scientists to conduct field trials on Genetically Modified products in agriculture.

“As I have had the occasion to remark before, for us in Ghana the argument for deployment of GM products in our agriculture no longer lies with the science; what is key now should be the issue of public perception of the concept, including issues related to consumer awareness.”

Modern Ghana

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