Study predicts GMO cowpea will boost Ghana’s economy

By Joseph Opoku Gakpo and Reuben Quainoo

December 17, 2018

A new improved GMO cowpea variety developed by Ghanaian scientists will grow the nation’s cowpea sector by nearly 10 percent annually over the next six years, according to a new economic study.

The study forecasts the new insect resistant cowpea will add US$52million (GH₵230m) to the cowpea production economy by 2025, if it is commercialized as planned next year.

The figure implies the new cowpea variety will add about US$8.6 million (GH₵38m) annually to the cowpea production economy, which is currently valued at about US$94 million (GH₵415m). This indicates that all other things being equal, the new variety could help grow the cowpea production sector on average of 9.15 percent annually if adopted.

However, if regulatory procedures delay the introduction of the new cowpea for five years, Ghana stands to lose about US$35 million (GH₵152m), the study predicted.

“From history and experience on the field, adoption doesn’t just happen,” said Dr. Paul Boadu, who led the economic research. “Farmers would usually want to see that the variety is actually working, and that their co-farmers are adopting it and making gains, before they do. So, based on adoption trends and experts’ opinions, the analysis was done over a six-year period.”

Scientists at the Savannah Agric Research Institute (SARI), an institute of Ghana’s Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), have completed field trials on the new GMO variety known as Bt cowpea. They are expected to apply to the National Biosafety Authority for commercial release, after which it can get into the hands of farmers if approved.

The study — conducted jointly by CSIR-Science and Technology Policy Research Institute (STEPRI), Institute of Statistical Social and Economic Research (ISSER) of the University of Ghana and the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) — assessed the potential producer and consumer impacts of commercializing GMO cowpea and rice based on secondary data and the use of the economic surplus model.

The expected gain will be derived mainly from increased yields associated with insect protection conferred by the new variety. After factoring in all other considerations, including reduced insecticide applications, the associated labor cost from spraying and other benefits, the net present value benefit of adopting the new GMO cowpea will hit US$131 million (GH₵578) over the six-year period.

GMO cowpea reduces pesticide use

Insect pests remain a major challenge to cowpea production in Ghana and Africa. The maruca pod borer can destroy up to 80 percent of cowpea fields when it infects farms. To control the pest, farmers have to spray fields every week throughout the three-month life span of the crop, which drains their finances and damages their health and the environment.

The new GMO variety was produced by introducing a gene from Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), a natural occurring, soil-borne bacteria, into a local cowpea variety, Songotra, to achieve inherent pest resistance. Dr. Mumuni Abdulai, principal investigator on the Bt cowpea project, said field trials comparing GMO and traditional cowpeas show the new variety reduces pesticide use by about 75 percent.

“With the conventional cowpea, farmers spray about eight times,” he told Alliance for Science in an interview. “With the new variety, they spray only two times.” The field trials also show the pests caused much less damage (about 28.6 times lower) in the new GMO cowpea than in the traditional variety.

The trials also show the new variety can produce nearly double the yield of conventional varieties as a result of decreased pest damage to the crop. Yield output was 0.925 tonnes per hectare for the traditional variety, compared to 1.925 tonnes per hectare for the new GMO variety.

Dr. Paul Boadu of CSIR-STEPRI, one of the researchers who led the economic study, explained that “production involves costs and the resultant output gives benefits to both farmers and consumers. Based on a scenario of 0-50 percent seed cost premium, the new variety shows not less than 4.7 percent proportional cost reduction with higher net benefits over the estimation period, compared to traditional varieties.”

New GM rice variety

The new economic study also shows the adoption of GMO rice currently being developed by the CSIR-Crop Research Institute in Ghana could add up to US$75.7 million (GH₵334m) to the rice production economy over the next six years if released in 2019. This averages out to about US$6.3 million (GH₵28m) in additional benefit every year — an amount equal to about one-tenth of Ghana’s annual rice import bill, which currently stands at more than US$47.4million (GH₵209m).

While the US$75.7 million (GH₵334m) represents producer gain from adopting the new variety, the net present value benefit from growing the new variety over the next six years if adopted will be US$196 million (GH₵863m).

For more than five years now, scientists at the CSIR have been working on the Nitrogen Efficient, Water Efficient, Salt Tolerant (NEWEST) rice, which is expected to be more efficient in the use of nitrogen and water, and as well as tolerant of salty soils. To date, the scientists have only been able to make progress on the aspect of the research involving Nitrogen-Use Efficient (NUE) rice. Nitrogen is the most important nutrient required for the growth of rice, helping ensure enhanced growth and the development of grain, which translates into yield.

But most soils don’t have enough nitrogen to support the growth of rice. NUE rice was developed by introducing a gene into the local NERICA4 rice to make it more efficient in its use of nitrogen so the plants produce better yields. Confined field trials that compared the new GMO variety with traditional varieties showed yield increases of between 14 and 25 percent in favor of the GM variety. Nitrogen fertilizers are also expensive, so varieties that use it more efficiently help farmers reduce input costs.

“We were able to do many trials on many lines and we identified the ones that are best,” said Dr. Maxwell Asante Darko, principal investigator in charge of the GMO rice project. “We set a target that they should be 15 percent better in yield. And the ones we identified met it although in some of the trials, it was better.”

Currently, the field trials for biotech rice have not been completed and it is not likely the variety will be commercialized by 2019. The study predicts that if regulatory processes delay the introduction of the new rice by five years, the rice sector will lose US$45.3 million (GH₵200m).

Scientists in Ghana have been working on introducing GMO crops into the country’s food chain since Parliament passed the National Biosafety Act in 2011. But none have been released onto the market yet. Despite repeated assurances by the scientists that genetically modified crops are safe and potentially beneficial, some civil society groups have objected to their introduction, claiming farmers will no longer have control over seeds. Some of the groups have sued government demanding a halt in the approval processes.

But Boadu said those fears are misplaced. He emphasized that the GM varieties were developed by Ghanaian scientists to be released according to the dictates of local regulations. “Farmers will not lose the sovereignty of the seeds and we will not depend on outsiders to produce the varieties for us,” he explained to the Alliance. “These varieties could be replanted by farmers, but we recommend farmers acquire new seeds after replanting for about three years as they usually do right now.”