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The release of Nigeria’s first genetically modified (GM) food crop, Pod Borer Resistant (PBR), cowpea which has been approved by the Federal Government for commercial release is experiencing delay due to the impact of COVID-19. JULIANA AGBO reports

Before the Coronavirus outbreak, farmers were at the verge of getting the newly released Bt cowpea known as the Pod Borer Resistant (PBR), cowpea for the 2020 farming season.

While farmers have been waiting to try the new crop on their farms after battling pod borer (Maruca) infestations for years, the COVID-19 pandemic may have interfered with the proposed planting of Bt cowpea, which is one of Nigeria’s most important staple crops.

The farmers, whose hopes were upbeat about the Bt cowpea, which scientists have determined confers 100 per cent protection, have been undergoing training in the best practices and skills to effectively begin growing the crops as soon as the planting season begins.

On how the COVID-19 pandemic affected plans for the roll out of the PBR cowpea, the Regional Director, African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF), Issoufou Kollo said the commercial aspect of the cowpea is delayed because they couldn’t use the last three months to meet with farmers due to the lockdown.

Kollo, who explained that there are enough seeds to distribute to farmers, said AATF can still meet with the deadline to get the seeds across to farmers.

He said: “COVID-19 has impacted on our plans, but I think we can catch up with time. The only way farmers won’t have access to our PBR cowpea seeds, is if they would not do farm work during the next season.

“We can still work with farmers during the rainy season, because we have enough seeds to go on farm demonstration trials with our farmers.”

On plans to mitigate some of the challenges encountered as a result of COVID-19, Kollo said the Foundation didn’t stop working, but couldn’t do some activities such as meeting with people who come from different parts of the country.

He said: “We were able to change how we meet. Instead of travelling, we use electronic way of meeting, but there are certain activities that could not be carried out because Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria where we carry out our activities is closed.

So, it means all field activities in the school stopped, even as some of the laboratory works could not be carried out. It is better to save the scientists instead of endangering their lives.

Furthermore, a farmer from Niger State, Inuwa Alli, who spoke with The Nation in a telephone chat, said the news of the release of Bt cowpea elicited excitement among Nigerian farmers.

Alli, who said the Coronavirus pandemic has slowed down most of the activities of the rainy season planting, said food security would be threatened this year if nothing is done to avert it.

“The Maruca outbreak has been so severe, and the crop losses so significant, that a number of farmers have quit growing cowpea due to frustration.

“We were told that Nigeria will gain N48 billion annually from PBR cowpea. This is good news and farmers have been waiting to start planting of the crop.”

Continuing, Kollo explained that the data given on the revenue to be generated from the cowpea annually were not fabricated.

He said: “We didn’t fabricate these data. The data came from the farmers who participated during the National Variety Performance Trials. Many farmers have been able to carry out some tests on their own.

“The data that has been presented to the National Variety Release Committee was not collected by the research team. The data was collected by farmers and extension workers, and we firmly believe that the N48 billion is underestimated.

“Nigeria has three million hectares of planted cowpea. So, even if you have 20 per cent yield increase in this three million hectares, that’s the amount of money it can give you, and it is even underestimated on our side of what PBR cowpea can produce in a year.

On trials, he said: “We have two series of trials; one is on-station across Nigeria and across different local government areas which have been selected by the essential people. So, farmers are the ones who manage their own trials.

On seed multiplication for PBR cowpea, the cowpea manager said some seed companies have been selected to produce the certified commercial seeds for farmers and some to produce foundation seeds.

“We have made some selections, but we couldn’t finish the selection process because of the COVID-19. So, we couldn’t invite or visit some of them.

“We are planning a meeting with the seed companies. Definitely, we want to ensure that the seed companies benefit from the PBR cowpea to produce the certified commercial seeds for farmers and some to produce foundation seeds. Seed companies will be one of the biggest winners for PBR cowpea project,” he added.

Kollo noted that to improve farming and agricultural development, there is the need to develop the skills of extension workers.

He said: “As long as extension workers are in the dark, you don’t have agricultural development. Extension is very important for agricultural development. It is not only research.

On the Newest rice project, Kollo said the Foundation was through with the first year of data.

“We have made serious progress with the project. If you want to get the variety approved by the National Biosafety Management Agency (NBMA), you have to provide scientific data that shows that the product is safe. So, the first year of data has been collected, and we are in the second year of data collection.

In agriculture, two cropping seasons are never alike, with what you see in one season, you can’t base your conclusion on it. You need at least two cropping seasons to be sure that your conclusions are valid. So, we are in the second and last year of data collection. Hopefully next year, we believe that the crop will be approved by NBMA,” he said.

While commending the effort of the AATF, a Kaduna-based farmer, Donatus Cletus, said if the cowpea is released, it would help a lot of farmers who have abandoned cowpea farming for other crops due to pod borer (Maruca) infestations.

Nigeria has joined the list of countries seeking to harvest good opportunities from agricultural biotechnology innovations in the seed system with the Bt cowpea.

“We need to get the seeds fast so that we can catch up with the planting season.  Allowing the 2020 farming season to go without planting will plunge Nigeria into more crises.”

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