Stalling of GM Cowpea Trial Depriving Malawi of Economic Benefits
As climate change continues to impact negatively on farming in the country with most traditional cash crops not giving desired results, experts have been suggesting the need to promote other crops as a way of filling the gap.
One such crop that is being recommended is the cowpea which apart from being used as food can also be used as an ingredient for other food products - both for the local and international market.
Logistical challenges and a lack of funding for scientific research on modified cowpeas is depriving the country the opportunity to grow her economy through the crop.
About eight years ago, the Malawi government issued permits for three trials on genetically modified crops: cotton, transgenic banana and cowpea to assess if they could be improved to be disease resistant, drought tolerant and high yielding.
After a lengthy but successful trial, a genetically-modified cotton variety, commonly known as BT cotton, was approved for commercialization, and most farmers are now growing it. Many are speaking of its profound benefits.
However, trials for the transgenic banana and Bt cowpea being conducted by the Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources (LUANAR) were suspended due to logistical issues and a lack of funding, according to Dr. Kingdom Kwapata, a biotechnology researcher at LUANAR.
“The initial challenge was the reluctance of the Department of Agricultural Research Services to be part of this process and their restriction for LUANAR to use their research sites. The funding issue came in later because the donor was frustrated,” said Dr Kwapata.
Dr Lilian Chimphepo, the National Biosafety Registrar working under the Ministry of Natural Resources and Climate Change, says at the time the trail on genetically modified cowpea was being terminated it had already passed the first stage - confined field trial - which showed it was able to protect itself from the pest known as maruca pod borer.
The maruca pod borer destroys up to 50 percent of pods and can only be controlled by spraying insecticides at least eight times in its three-month life cycle.
“The BT cow pea trial was terminated prematurely but the first trial proved the variety is safe but it needs to be tried in other sites before it is approved for commercialisation” said Dr Chimphepo.
Kenneth Lompwa, a farmer based in the area of Traditional Authority Chikowi’s area in Zomba, eastern Malawi, says the current varieties are labour intensive and expensive due to high demand for chemical use.
For a half an acre he spends up to K70, 000 or $67 on chemicals.
“Pests are the main problem. When there is too much rainfall or when we delay harvesting the crops, they easily get attacked by diseases. I spend a lot of money on buying chemicals to spray my crops,” says Lompwa.
That’s just for half an acre, but according to Dr Kwapata the cost can go as high as K250,000 or $240 per season further draining the already little forex for the country as most of the chemicals are imported.
The hope is that if approved and adopted, the genetically modified cowpea would reduce the use of insecticides, thereby saving costs for farmers.
Meanwhile, Dr Chimphepo says while the variety needs to be tried in other locations before it is approved for commercialization, her department already confirmed it was safe both for human consumption and the environment.
Another LUANAR based lecturer, Dr Abel Sefasi, says delays to complete the trial is depriving the country of huge opportunities to grow her economy as genetically modified cowpea varieties have proved to be effective in other countries such as Nigeria.
Dr Sefesi downplays fears that GM crops cause health problems such as cancer as no medical research has proved the claims despite GM products being in use world over for over 20 years now.
“The major problem is on the part of communication. The public, including policy makers, need to be made aware of the power of this technology in terms of solving real problems.
“Open Forum on Agricultural Biotechnology really has done a good job through the National Commission for Science and Technology to engage scientists and the media to help them interact on these issues because the major problem has been on the part of communication,” says Dr Sefasi.
When contacted on the matter, Ministry of Agriculture’s Director of Research Dr Grace Kaudzu said she needed more time to gather information since the trial was not directly being conducted by the ministry.
Nonetheless, agriculture expert Leonard Chimwaza says the country should make everything possible to ensure the trial is completed and the crop is approved for commercialization.
Grain Traders and Processors Association President Grace Mijiga Mhango supports the need to have improved varieties of cowpea in Malawi.
However, she blames the halting of the trial on the information gap, saying there are many investors, including the private sector, that could help in supporting such a cause.
With the trial on Bt cowpea is on halt, Malawi has only cotton as a commercially approved GM crop variety.
The National Commission for Science and Technology, a Malawi government institution mandated to promote the application of research and science technology, is ready to help on the cause if need arises, according to Gift Kadzamira, the commission’s acting director general.
“The trial on GM cowpea indeed stalled due to a lack of resources. NCST is working with different collaborating partners to mobilize resources. Once reasonable resources are mobilized, the trial will continue,” said Kadzamira.
Currently, on average, Malawian farmers harvest 2 tons of cowpea per hectare, getting over K2.4 million annually.
From these figures, it is clear that cowpea, whose price is even higher than other cash crops such maize, could be the right option for GM commercial agriculture in Malawi because if the improved variety is approved, there is hope that the gains could double.
Elsewhere in Africa, farmers are already enjoying the benefits, for instance in Nigeria, whereas, according to the Alliance for Science, a global initiative to promote access to scientific innovation as a means for enhancing food security, GM cowpea could be commercially available to Ghanaian farmers in 2024 following approval by the National Biosafety Authority of that country in 2022. Malawi could be missing an opportunity.