Ghana’s biosafety regulator is urging the public to submit comments as it reviews an application to approve the country’s first genetically modified crop — the pod borer-resistant (PBR) cowpea.
In a public notice published in the Ghana Gazette on Feb. 18, the National Biosafety Authority (NBA) confirmed it has received an application for environmental release of the GMO cowpea. If successful, the request will also allow for “placing on the market of genetically modified Pod Borer Resistant (PBR) cowpea in Ghana.”
In December last year, NBA Chief Executive Officer Eric Okoree told the Alliance for Science in an interview that the plan to invite public comments is intended to ensure a transparent process that gives ordinary people a say in the decision-making process.
“We look at the information provided by the application, the risk assessment to be done by the technical assessment committee, and then we look at the socio-economic considerations and then the information provided by the public,” he explained. “That is the transparency side.”
Cowpea, popularly called beans, is a popular, protein-rich staple crop consumed by millions in Ghana and other African nations. But the crop is vulnerable to the Maruca pod borer pests, prompting farmers to spray pesticides eight to 12 times during the 12-week life cycle of the crop. The GM variety, which includes a gene from a naturally occurring soil bacterium known as Bt, is resistant to the pest. Confined field trials have shown farmers can reduce their spray regimen to just twice per season while gaining a five-fold increase in yield.
Nigeria approved GM cowpea, developed by the Institute for Agricultural Research at Ahmadu Bello University, in 2020. Farmers began growing the crop last year. It proved so popular that demand for the seeds outstripped the supply. Nigerian Farmers reported a huge drop in pesticides use as a result of growing GM cowpea..
The Ghana Gazette notification quotes the application to the NBA as saying Ghanaian farmers and consumers will benefit from PBR cowpea as a result of higher yields, lower costs of inputs, greater on-farm safety because of reduced pesticide usage and decreased pesticide residue on the beans.
The NBA is reviewing the application together with relevant regulatory agencies and independent experts. The review seeks to ascertain that GM cowpea line 709A is safe to human and animal health and to the environment, the notice said.
“As provided under section 19 of the Biosafety (Management of Biotechnology) Regulations 2019 (L.I. 2383), all interested persons are invited to submit written comments on this application to reach the NBA at the address below not later than 60 calendar days from this date publication,” the Gazette notification said.
The application, which follows almost 10 years of research, was submitted to the NBA by government scientists at the Savanna Agricultural Research Institute (SARI) of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR). According to the document, the PBR cowpea exhibits very high levels of resistance to the legume pod borer, which is responsible for yield losses up to 80 percent.
The NBA said it will conduct a rigorous assessment of the GM cowpea before deciding. “Key aspects considered in the food safety assessment include but are not limited to nutritional composition and potential toxicity and allergenicity. The environmental evaluation of PBR cowpea looks at its potential to become a weed of agriculture or invasive of natural habitats, potential impact of pollen mediated gene transfer, altered plant pest potential impacts on no-target organisms and biodiversity,” the Gazette notification said.
“In the event of the authority reaching a decision to grant approval for environmental release and placing on the market PBR cowpea line 709 A and its progeny in Ghana, the process governing testing, official release and commercialization of seed and plant varieties containing 709A cowpea in Ghana shall apply as per existing policies, legislation and guidelines for introducing new cowpea varieties,” the document added.
A final decision on the request is expected by August 2022 as Ghana’s biosafety law gives the NBA 180 days to rule on an application. If the NBA, which is an agency under the Ministry of Environment, Science and Technology, approves the GM cowpea, it will then have to move through the same Ministry of Food and Agriculture process as conventionally produced seeds before they are commercially available.