Cowpea protected from a devastating pest, free for smallholder African farmers

October 26, 2017, Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
CSIRO Research scientist TJ Higgins (right) and African colleagues examine a Bt cowpea field trial in Ghana. Credit: Mumuni Abudulai

Across Africa, armies of hungry caterpillars destroy the flowers and pods of cowpeas; casualties can reach 80 percent of this staple food crop if no measures are taken. But the real victims are smallholder African farmers who feed their families on farms smaller than five acres. Next year, they will have the option to grow cowpeas that are resistant to one of these pests.

Scientists report in Plant Cell Tissue and Organ Culture that they have engineered cowpea—one of the most important sources of vegetable protein for rural families in Sub-Saharan Africa—to produce a Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) protein, which protects against the Maruca pod borer that plagues cowpea. Bt has been used as an organic pesticide for several decades, but it is often unavailable or too expensive for smallholder farmers.

Bt cowpea could yield as much as 25 percent more than other cowpea varieties, said TJ Higgins, a research scientist at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) who led this work.

Bt cowpea could be released next year—at no cost—to farmers in Nigeria, Burkina Faso, and Ghana. In 2009, Higgins began working with colleagues and authorities in West Africa to develop regulatory approval for Bt cowpea.

"Many African farmers do not have to pay for seed, and they will not have to pay anything extra for the Bt cowpea either," Higgins said. "They will be able to save the seed and re-sow it the following year. There are no additional costs because this work has been publicly funded all the way through."

This work was initially supported by the Rockefeller Foundation and then funded consistently for over a decade by USAID, the lead U.S. government agency that works to end extreme global poverty.

"I am to have multiple genes for resistance to the pod borer—not just one," Higgins said. "There's always a risk that the insects will build up resistance if you've only got one mechanism of action, one arrow if you'd like—I'd like to have two or three arrows. In this paper, we've added another arrow to the repertoire."

Cowpea is one of the orphan of the world, despite the fact that at least 200 million people rely on it as a source of protein and energy, Higgins said. "This crop is neglected by commercial companies because while it is an important crop, it is important to some of the world's poorest people," Higgins said. "The sustained funding by USAID is miraculous really, and was greatly needed to realize these new, difficult-to-engineer technologies and get them to farmers in the developing world."

Higgins said everyone is committed to safeguarding this technology through stewardship, or practices that help prevent insects from developing resistance. Management plans have been developed for farmers by the African Agricultural Technology Foundation, a not-for-profit organization that facilitates partnerships to deliver agricultural technologies to smallholder farmers.

Cowpea breeders are also committed to incorporating Bt into their best lines to ensure that this technology keeps pace with yield improvements from traditional breeding.

Likewise, Realizing Increased Photosynthetic Efficiency (RIPE), a research project aimed at increasing crop yield by improving photosynthesis, will work with Higgins to incorporate the project's yield improvement technologies into Bt cowpeas.

"There is a widespread belief that only large biotechnology companies can deliver valuable transgenic crops to ," said RIPE Director Stephen Long, Gutgsell Endowed Professor of Crop Sciences and Plant Biology at the Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology at the University of Illinois. "This public sector collaboration between Australia, Nigeria, and other West African countries shows that with modest support these technologies can reach some of the least well-off farmers in the world, indeed ones where a 25 percent increase may be the difference between insufficient or sufficient food for their families."

Explore further: The time is RIPE to transform agriculture and feed the world

More information: Bosibori Bett et al, Transgenic cowpeas (Vigna unguiculata L. Walp) expressing Bacillus thuringiensis Vip3Ba protein are protected against the Maruca pod borer (Maruca vitrata), Plant Cell, Tissue and Organ Culture (PCTOC) (2017). DOI: 10.1007/s11240-017-1287-3

Provided by: Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign


Related Stories

The time is RIPE to transform agriculture and feed the world

September 15, 2017

Political and agricultural leaders gathered at the University of Illinois today to see transformative work by Realizing Increased Photosynthetic Efficiency (RIPE) that has increased yields by 20 percent. The research project ...

Researchers root for more cassava research

October 27, 2016

Cassava makes up nearly 50 percent of the diet in parts of Sub-Saharan Africa, where populations are projected to increase by more than 120% in the next 30 years. With stagnant yields for the last half century, scientists ...

Recommended for you

Galactic center visualization delivers star power

March 21, 2019

Want to take a trip to the center of the Milky Way? Check out a new immersive, ultra-high-definition visualization. This 360-movie offers an unparalleled opportunity to look around the center of the galaxy, from the vantage ...

Ultra-sharp images make old stars look absolutely marvelous

March 21, 2019

Using high-resolution adaptive optics imaging from the Gemini Observatory, astronomers have uncovered one of the oldest star clusters in the Milky Way Galaxy. The remarkably sharp image looks back into the early history of ...

When more women make decisions, the environment wins

March 21, 2019

When more women are involved in group decisions about land management, the group conserves more—particularly when offered financial incentives to do so, according to a new University of Colorado Boulder study published ...

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

1 / 5 (2) Oct 26, 2017
I am cautiously optimistic that the widespread adoption of the new seed can prevent new famines.

I am happy that the producers offering seeds (sexual reproduction). Which could avoid the disaster facing tropical and desert farmers with the cassava varieties, That for centuries have been distributed as cuttings (clonal reproduction). Resulting in widespread biological deterioration.

Threatening nearly a billion human consumers with chronic crop failures and imminent malnutrition and starvation.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.