Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources (Luanar) researcher Kingdom Kwapata has started trials on genetically modified (GM) cowpea also known as biotechnology (BT) cowpea. This is the second GM crop to be done by Luanar.
The process of genetic modification involves inserting a gene from bacteria, or a virus (or a gene that helps plants to survive the application of highly toxic pesticides), into an organism where it would normally not be found.
The purpose is to alter the genetic code in plants and animals to make them more productive or resistant to pests, or farming techniques, like being doused with chemicals that would ordinarily kill them.
According to Kwapata, cowpea is one of the crops on demand in many African countries although its production in the country leaves a lot to be desired; hence, BT cowpea trials to improve its production potential.
“Yields that farmers are getting are low. Currently, the production is at 700 kilogrames (kg) per hectare which is far below the potential of the crop,” he said.
Kwapata said growing GM cowpea can increase production to 3 000 kg per hectare, which is not far from countries such as Britain which is producing 4 000 kg per hectare.
He said the potential of BT cowpea cannot be underestimated as it can become one of competitive crops for the country’s export.
“Nigeria alone requires 30 million metric tonnes per year and this is a potential market as the country has already adopted BT cowpea,” said Kwapata.
Experts argue that although government has issued licences to conduct research on genetically modified crops such as cotton and cowpea, the country has not embraced the commercialisation of these crops, but there is hope that it will do so in future.
“Trials are meant to produce a crop that is resistant to pests and we have taken genes from different organisms. We have used genes from bacteria which will cause insects to be repelled. If the insects eat the cowpea, they will die,” he said.
There has been controversy around genetically modified crops because of misconceptions surrounding this issue.
Some Africans countries such as South Africa, Burkina Faso, Nigeria and Sudan have already adopted GM crops.