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January 23rd, 2018 / Genetic Literacy Project, US

A project begun nearly 15 years ago is finally coming to fruition, as Nigeria is poised to become the first country to release a genetically modified variety of insect-resistant cowpeas to farmers.

“The cowpea growers have been very supportive. They like the GM crop. They have seen it perform and they are ready to grow it,” Issoufou Kollo Abdourhamane, the project’s manager at the African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF), told me.

Cowpeas, known as black-eyed peas in the United States, are a key source of protein for over 200 million people, mostly in West Africa. However, the destructive pod borer insect can cause yield losses of up to 80 percent, and conventional breeding methods have been unable to help.

The GMO crop has shown strong resistance to the pest in field trials so far. Scientists used genetic engineering to insert a single gene from Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), a soil bacterium commonly used as an approved natural insecticide and sprayed on crops by organic farmers.

Several crops now utilize the Bt technology to protect against insects, including corn and soybeans in the US, cotton in the US and India, and eggplant in Bangladesh. Monsanto developed the first Bt crop, corn, in 1996. Today, over 75 percent of the corn grown in the US is Bt.

The intellectual property for the Bt gene was provided by Monsanto to the project royalty-free. This, along with initial funding from the Rockefeller Foundation and sustained funding for the past decade from the US government’s Agency for International Development (USAID), will allow the seeds to be distributed to farmers at no cost. The company has also provided Bt traits royalty-free for other development projects, such as eggplant in Bangladesh and corn in Africa. Read more