The African Centre for Biodiversity (ACB) has today released a new report titled,GM and seed industry eye Africa’s lucrative cowpea seed markets: The political economy of cowpea in Nigeria, Burkina Faso, Ghana and Malawi. The report shows a strong interest by the seed industry in commercialising cowpea seed production and distribution in West Africa, where a very lucrative regional cowpea seed market is emerging. Cowpea, one of the most ancient crops known to humankind, with its centre of origin in Southern Africa, provides the earliest food for millions of Africans during the ‘hungry season’ before cereals mature.
The report argues that the GM cowpea push in Burkina Faso, Nigeria and Ghana co-incides with this strong interest from multinational and local seed companies to produce foundation and certified seed in West Africa.
Commercialising Seed Production
According to Mariam Mayet of the ACB, “There is a corporate push backed by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and the G8 New Alliance on Food Security and Nutrition to harmonise seed laws and intellectual property rights legislation on the basis of the Union for the Protection of Plant Varieties (UPOV) 1991. This push seeks to create regional markets for crops that otherwise would not have the economies of scale for corporate investment. Corporate investment in regional seed markets relies on varieties being released onto regional lists and that are immediately made available at national levels without further trials. It is within this context that the push for the harmonisation of seed laws at regional levels must be understood.”
According to the ACB, the danger of commercialisation of seed production is that it is accompanied by the locking out of smallholder farmers from seed production and distribution- essential life processes in African agriculture. Farmers will be transformed from active participants in the cowpea value chain, to mere passive consumers of expensive certified seed produced elsewhere.
The GM cowpea push
The pro-GM organisation, the African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF), is spearheading a GM cowpea project aimed at commercially growing Bt cowpea in Nigeria, Ghana, Burkina Faso. Field trials of the Bt cowpea underway in Nigeria and Burkina Faso are at advanced stages, with commercialisation expected in 2016/17. The GM cowpea project is funded by USAID, the United Kingdom's Department for International Development (DFID) and the Rockefeller Foundation. The GM cowpea contains the Cry1Ab Bt gene developed by Monsanto. The genetic engineering of the Bt cowpea was conducted by the Australian Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, previously involved in a biosafety scandal.
GM cowpea threatens food sovereignty
Mariann Bassey-Orovwuje of Environment Rights Action Nigeria concurs with the ACB report that the the introduction of GM cowpea “will pose a serious threat to food sovereignty in West Africa where cowpea occupies a clearly defined social, economic, nutritional and agro-ecological niche. Cowpea connects agriculture to the local environment; consumers to locally produced healthy foods; and farmers to productive resources such as locally enhanced seeds. The commercialisation of cowpea seed production in Africa will dislocate such a locally interconnected system.”
The GM cowpea is engineered to be resistant to the Maruca legume pod borer on the basis that “farmers in West Africa have identified Maruca insects as major problems in cowpea production.”
However, according to the ACB report, farmers are confronted with a myriad of agronomic and post-harvest challenges. The Bt solution responds only to one narrow aspect of production (pod borer), and it requires a significant increase in input cost, despite viable methods of biological control already in practice amongst farmers.
Dangerous opening for commercialising seed production
According to Bern Guri of CIKOD in Ghana, “Traditional farming practices based on recycling farm-saved seed and the use of locally-adapted seed varieties are threatened by a transgenic variety of cowpea that would set a precedent for the systematic commodification of cowpea seeds. Farmers can ill afford the costs of GM seeds and the associated agro-chemical inputs required by the use of these seeds. The high prices that characterise the GM technological package will contribute to jeopardising already fragile socio-economic systems.”
Risk to human health and environment
Bright Phiri from Commons for EcoJustice in Malawi, is also concerned that the Bt cowpea has been developed using the Cry1Ab gene, the same gene contained in Monsanto’s GM maize event, MON810. According to Phiri “the health risks associated with MON810 have been clearly established and are deeply concerning.”
The report also cautions that the Bt-gene will escape from domesticated to wild and cultivated cowpea, which will trigger unknown and irreversible adverse ecological impacts.
Socially just and ecologically sustainable solutions
The report concludes that rather than promoting a tragically flawed agricultural development model that brings enormous risks, solutions are to be found in more sustainable social, economic and agro-ecological food production systems. The ACB continues to insist that an equitable and sustainable solution to seed production and distribution can only come from direct engagement with farmers and their organisations to ensure their active involvement in these activities.