Across Africa, armies of hungry caterpillars destroy the flowers and pods of cowpeas, reducing yields of this staple food crop by 80 percent.
The real victims are smallholder African farmers in Nigeria, Burkina Faso and Ghana who feed their families on farms smaller than 2 hectares (5 acres).
Cowpeas are an important sources of protein for rural families in Sub-Saharan Africa. In 2018, these farmers – many of them women – will have the option to grow Bt cowpeas resistant to the Maruca pod borer, one of the most destructive insect pests.
Bt cowpea could yield as much as 25 percent more than other cowpea varieties, says TJ Higgins at the Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO) who led this work.
In 2009, Higgins began working with colleagues and authorities in West Africa to develop regulatory approval for Bt cowpea.
“Many African farmers do not have to pay for seed, and they will not have to pay anything extra for the Bt cowpea either,” Higgins says. “They will be able to save seed and replant it the following year. There are no additional costs because this work has been publicly funded all the way through.”
This work was initially supported by the Rockefeller Foundation and then funded for over a decade by U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).
The Bt cowpeas have multiple genes for resistance to the pod borer. There’s always a risk that the insects will build up resistance with only one mode of action.
At least 200 million people rely on cowpeas as a source of protein and energy, but the crop is neglected by commercial companies because it is most important to some of the world’s poorest people.
The African Agricultural Technology Foundation (ATTF) has developed management plans to deliver agricultural technologies to smallholder farmers.
Cowpea breeders are also committed to incorporating Bt into their best lines to ensure that this technology keeps pace with yield improvements from traditional breeding.
The public sector collaboration between Australia, Nigeria, and other West African countries shows that with modest support GM technologies can reach some of the most impoverish farmers in the world where a 25 percent yield increase may be the difference between hunger and sufficient food for their families.