Science in Society Archive

GM African Cowpea to Enter African Markets

Coinciding agenda of seed and biotech industry to enter African markets via GM African cowpea as Ghana seeks injunction on crop Dr Eva Sirinathsinghji

The development of genetically modified (GM) Bt cowpea for the lucrative African market is a threat to food sovereignty in the region, says a report from African Centre of Biodiversity (ACB) [1]. The report accuses the industry of targeting a crop that has clearly defined social, economic, nutritional and agro-ecological niches in the four countries set to grow it– Ghana, Nigeria, Burkina Faso and Malawi, prompting a court injunction in Ghana to halt its commercial release [2]. ACB’s report, entitled ‘GM and seed industry eye Africa’s lucrative cowpea seed markets: The political economy of cowpea in Nigeria, Burkina Faso, Ghana and Malawi’, documents the converging agenda of both the seed market as well as the GM industry to profit from growing demand for the crop.

The project was spearheaded by the African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF), an influential pro-GM organisation and funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development (DFID) and the Rockefeller and Bill and Melinda Gates Foundations. The GM cowpea was modified to carry an insecticidal Cry1Ab gene that encodes a Bt toxin, developed by the Australian Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), with Monsanto donating the Cry1Ab and nptII (neomycin antibiotic resistance) genes now that its patent has expired. Field trials were performed in Nigeria and Burkina Faso from 2014 and Ghana from 2012. It is clear from the list of organisations involved that far from being a locally owned project by those who understand the complexities involved, the GM cowpea has been developed by multinational seed and biotech industry set to divert profits away from farmers into their own coffers. As the report states: “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”.

Cowpea is integral to diet, farming, culture

The cowpea, originally domesticated in Southern Africa, is one of the most ancient crops. In 2013, an estimated 95 % of all cowpea was produced in Africa, covering more than 11 million hectares. Its consumption has spread worldwide and is popular in Caribbean, Central and South America and Asia. Surveys conducted in Ghana found that 43 % of farmers ranked the crop as the most important source of food. It provides a source of protein in the “hungry period” at the end of the wet season as well as important nutrients such as folic acid, calcium, zinc and iron, many of which are lacking in cereals. It is a very versatile grain, used in many culinary forms and there are notable regional differences in taste.

Cowpea is also used for animal feed, providing an important resource for livestock farmers. Its ecological advantages include nitrogen-fixation, drought-tolerance, shade-tolerance, provision of animal fodder and erosion protection for creeping varieties that offer groundcover. Farmers intercrop cowpea with maize, millet, sorghum, sugar cane and cotton with most seeds sourced on farm from previous harvests. With low productivity attributed to the low fertility of soils in parts of Africa, as well as limited water and limited access to organic compost, leguminous plants such as the cowpea are a long-known remedy. For example, a survey of Malawian farmers found that the second most important attribute of cowpea is its ability to be intercropped with maize, the country’s most important staple crop, while its third attribute sought be farmers being its ability to improve soil fertility. The primary reason for its cultivation was its use for self-consumption and sale. Such factors are important to farmers, along with other attributes that are all context-specific. They include:

1. Agronomic traits: high yields and resistance to abiotic stress, large size (which consumers generally prefer) with good texture and colour of skin and colour of the eye, with preferences depending on the region, as well as good taste, cleanliness and free from stones and other waste materials. The storage and processing potential are also important.

2. Early maturity: with drought compromising longer maturing varieties, early maturing varieties are often now preferred by farmers and are becoming increasingly important in an era of climate change and unpredictable droughts.

3. Profile for Farmers: Depending on whether people are growing commercially, for animal fodder or for private consumption, farmers may have different preferences. For example commercial farmers may place more emphasis on yield as well as uniformity for processing; small-farmers growing for private consumption may focus more on the taste.

Cowpea is not just an important African crop, but also an important woman’s crop, particularly with regards to socio-economic opportunities. In Ghana, a study found that women are the greater consumers of cowpea compared to men (65 % versus 35 %), and rely on it as an important food for the healthy growth of children. The leaves are stewed to make porridge. It sustains livelihoods throughout the value chain, from its cultivation to processing, wholesaling, distribution, and selling as cooked foods.

As concluded in the report, the cowpea “occupies a clearly defined social, economic, nutritional and agro-ecological niche….it connects local 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”.

Non-GM cowpea thriving, tempting agribusiness

The development of a GM cowpea comes at a time when the non-GM cowpea market is on the rise. The cultivation of conventional cowpea has increased in Burkina Faso, Ghana and Nigeria in the last 10 years; Malawi, with the smallest production by far, is the only country to see a decline (see Figure 1). Most cultivation is in West Africa, where a very lucrative seed market has emerged and rising with demographic growth and urbanisation; all the more reason for agribusiness to get involved. Not only has production increased, but yields have also been rising (see Figure 2) due in part to improved varieties as well as increased intensification in farming practices. Malawi is the exception with a general trend of reduction in both production and yields. Sudden drops in production are attributable to drought and pest damage. So, why do we need a GM cowpea?

Figure 1   Production of cowpea in four countries (Hectogram/hectare; 1 hectogram = 100 gm)

Figure 2   Yields of cowpea (Hg/Ha) in four counties from 2000-2013 (Hectogram/hectare)

Seed industry developing new varieties at the taxpayers’ expense

Seed saving still dominates in the four case-study countries. In Burkina Faso for example, 90 % of seeds come from the informal sector, with farmers who receive improved seeds saving them over three consecutive years to build up enough personal supplies. The practice of barter and donations is widespread, as is the purchase of seed from food markets for planting. The formal sector in Burkina Faso falls under the Ministry for Scientific Research and Innovation, which exclusively develops, produces and distributes seeds. In Burkina Faso’s formal sector, certified seeds are still often bought by the state or NGOs, which then provide them to farmers at highly subsidised prices or even for free, to the discontent of the private seed industry as it undermines their seed market.

New laws are aiming to abolish such practices. In Ghana a new seed law was enacted in 2011 to open up seed development to more private seed companies. This suits investment agreements such as AGRA (Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa) set up by the Gates and Rockefeller Foundations that have been pushing for such changes, along with the G8 Alliance for food and Nutrition and USAID. AGRA’s aim is to develop 100 new varieties of core food crops using currently publically owned genetic material developed with local traditional knowledge. It plans to extend commercial agriculture at the expense of small-holder farmers through many means including the privatisation of land and seed and the channelling of public money into public-private partnerships. They were involved in assisting the Ghanaian government in reviewing its seeds laws, pushing for harmonisation of laws across regions, for plant variety protection and marketing laws.  For cowpea alone, AGRA has sponsored 3 projects in Burkina Faso, and 8 in Ghana between 2007 and 2012. It is clear that multinational and local seed companies are interested in the development and production of foundation and certified seeds, both GM and non-GM, to make the most of a growing market.

Pushing for harmonisation of seed laws would allow the registration of varieties in one region to be automatically made available across the nation without additional trials; and based on the UPOV agreements, onto all the African countries that have thus far joined this investment partnership, as well as AGRA. UPOV is a model law system for plant variety protection and patenting, setting out a system of protection for plant breeders. The latest version criminalises farmers for saving and re-using protected seeds (see [3] Beware the Corporate Takeover of Seed under Many Guises, SiS 64). We are yet to learn who the owners of the new GM varieties are, though the report anticipates that the AATF will be intimately involved in the negotiation of seed licence agreements with the public sector. AATF has permanent observer status at the World Intellectual Property Organisation. The ACB report concludes that this project and similar interventions elsewhere threaten the sustainability of ecologically balanced livelihoods by removing control over seed/germplasm as a key element of any farming system.

Bt toxin and other GM health risks

The Cry1Ab gene in the cowpea is also contained in MON810 maize, which has been approved across the world. But Cry1Ab was shown to be toxic in studies of MON810 maize in different laboratory systems and models including in vitro and in vivo experiments (see [4] Ban GMOs Now , Special I-SIS report, for a summary) [5, 6] (GM Maize Disturbs Immune System of Young and Old Mice, and GM Maize Reduces Fertility & Deregulates Genes in Mice, SiS 41).  Bt toxins are allergens, and when used organically as a spray, can also induce allergic reactions. The safety of the Bt cowpea needs to be tested separately, as toxic effects can come independently of the transgene, and may arise from disruption of the host genome, resulting in a number of effects including the dysregulation of genes as well as the creation of novel gene products and novel regulatory nucleic acids (see  [7]). A toxicology study on the aquatic organism Daphnia magna found that chronic feeding on MON810 leads to reduced body size and fecundity later in life [8]. This is the first study to show effects on this non-target organism. The authors suggest that the toxic effects are due to the changes in the maize genome/metabolome caused by the transformation process (introduction of the transgene into the host cell), resulting in nutritional/compositional differences between the GM and non-GM maize.

Bt cowpea not a farming solution

The report describes studies that have shown that yields of cowpea are affected by drought and pest infestation, with parasitic weeds such as Striga gesnorioides and Alectra spp. causing particular damage in semi-arid regions. The main pests during the growing season are pod-sucking pests gs (Riptortus spp., Nezara viridula and Acantomia sp.), aphis (Aphis fabae, Aphis craccivora), blister beetle (Mylabris spp.) and pod-borer (Maruca vitrata). Post-harvest losses are also critical factors, attributable notably to the cowpea weevil Callosobruchus maculatus (Coleoptera: Bruchidae). The pest that will be targeted by the Bt toxin is only the pod-borer. Additional factors shown to affect production include abiotic constraints such as poor soils, fungal, bacterial and viral diseases, and inappropriate agronomic practices as well as policy interventions as well as price fluctuations as a cash crop. With such a myriad of factors affecting yield, it becomes obvious that Bt cowpea is not the solution, but instead a narrow-minded reductionist approach that is doomed to fail.  Cowpea is self-pollinating, but hybridises freely with wild varieties through insect pollination, making containment of the Bt gene impossible to control.

Injunction against the commercial release of BT cowpea in Ghana

An injunction is being pursued by Food Sovereignty Ghana against the Ministry of Agriculture, the Attorney-General’s Department, the Ghana Association of Farmers and Fisherfold (GNAF) as well as the newly inaugurated National Biosafety Authority, as the defendants. Food Sovereignty Ghana has since been joined by the Convention People’s Party and the Vegetarians Association of Ghana. The plaintiffs claim that the field trials have seriously breached the Biosafety Act and the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, of which Ghana is a signatory, and may have effects on human health and biological diversity.  Such breaches include the multiplication of seeds for commercial purposes during field trials of the crop. The case has been adjourned until October 2015.

We fully support the claimants in their battle to protect the cowpea from a corporate takeover.

Article first published 07/09/15


  1. GM and seed industry eye Africa’s lucrative cowpea seed markets: The political economy of cowpea in Nigeria, Burkina Faso, Ghana and Malawi. African Centre for Biodiversity, June 2015.
  2. FSG Goes To Court Today Over Bt Cowpeas and GM Rice., accessed 29th July 2015
  3. Sirinathsinghji E. Beware the Corporate Takeover of Seed under Many Guises. Science in Society 64, 40-43, 2014.
  4. Ho MW & Sirinathsinghji E.Ban GMOsNow. Health and Environmental Hazards Especially in Light of the New Genetics. I-SIS Special Report, 2013.
  5. Ho MW. GM maize disturbs immune system of young and old mice.Science in Society 41, 42, 2009.
  6. Ho MW. GM maize reduced fertility & deregulates genes in mice.Science in Society 41, 40-41, 2009.
  7. Ho MW. The new genetics and natural versus artificial genetic modification. Entropy 2013, 15, 4748-81.
  8. Ferreira Holderbaum D, Cuhra M, Wickson F, Orth AI, Nodari RO, Bøhn T. Chronic Responses of Daphnia magna Under Dietary Exposure to Leaves of a Transgenic (Event MON810) Bt-Maize Hybrid and its Conventional Near-Isoline. J Toxicology and  Environmental Health A. 2015, 78, 993-1007. doi: 10.1080/15287394.2015.1037877.

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Rory Short Comment left 8th September 2015 04:04:52
The root source of all our problems with GMO's is permission being granted to patent biological material. This created a channel for those greedy for money to enter the seed market. The only solution is to close the channel.