In Ghana, a bumper crop of opinions on genetically modified cowpea


The country plans to release the modified seeds this year or next. Will they benefit the small farmers they were designed for?

Under the noonday sun, Alimatu Alidu uses a stone to grind tomato, red pepper, and small crayfish into a red paste. Drops of sweat collect on her forehead, just below her black headscarf. She adds the paste along with other ingredients into a cooking pot balanced upon a make-shift stove, consisting of two uneven rocks with a small fire burning between them. Once her mixture is sufficiently heated, she adds the final element: boiled cowpea beans. Known as poor people’s meat, these faded yellow legumes with a big black dot along the curve are ubiquitous throughout West Africa, including here in Ghana.

The legume is a favorite among farmers and laborers, who consume it before work and don’t feel hungry until sundown.

Other days, Alidu prepares cowpea fritters, or koose, whipping ground cowpea and water into a batter, adding spices, then frying individually-rolled balls to be served for breakfast. She can make five different dishes from cowpea beans, which grow inside green pods up to 12 inches long.

Soon the spicy dish known as red-red is fully cooked and ready for Alidu’s 16-person family, which includes herself, her husband, their six children, and her husband’s second wife and their seven children. Together, they live in thatch huts that surround this open-air kitchen in the northern village of Zinindo.

Cowpea is a staple in Ghana and other parts of West Africa, where it is believed to have first been domesticated. The legume is a favorite among farmers and laborers, who consume it in the morning before leaving for work and don’t feel hungry until sundown. At her doctor’s request, Alidu increased her own consumption when she was pregnant, and she used the ground seeds to wean her children. Cowpea is a mainstay of school lunches in Ghana. And because the crop can be harvested within two months of sowing, it fills the “hunger gap” for poor families between May and August when other crops, such as maize, are still young in the field. And cowpea tolerates droughts, which are increasing across sub-Saharan Africa. Every woman in Zinindo keeps some cowpea in her home, says Alidu.

But cowpea has been under attack for years. A winged pest, Maruca vitrata, bores into the pods and nibbles away at the seeds, destroying anywhere between 20 and 80 percent of West Africa’s cowpea crops every year. In response, scientists have genetically modified cowpea plant lines to resist the pest, and advocates for the technology — which involves altering an organism’s DNA in ways that aren’t possible through traditional breeding — believe that genetically modified (GM) cowpea can help feed the fast-growing population on a warming planet. It can also help reduce the use of pesticides, they say, freeing up land for other uses, providing enough surplus for regional market opportunities, and giving farmers an additional choice about what to grow.

Ghana plans to release GM cowpea sometime this year or next, which would make it the third sub-Saharan African country after South Africa and Nigeria to approve local production and sale of GM food.

What worries some critics is that all of Africa’s genetic modification projects are closely tied to Western organizations. Licenses for the patented genes that African scientists use to modify cowpea crops, for example, were provided royalty-free by biotech companies such as Monsanto (since acquired by Bayer) — inviting questions about whether their goals are purely humanitarian. Further, social scientists warn that GM seeds are being pushed by international donors without fully taking into account the agriculture practices of poor farmers and the specific crop characteristics that they most want and need. While some African scientists are working tirelessly to reassure laypeople that GM foods are safe, it’s clear that safety concerns, however unfounded, are not the only challenge standing in the way of GM cowpea in Ghana.

Here in this rural village, Alidu and other poor farmers have not been following these controversies. But they say they are open to new approaches that would minimize pests, allowing them to grow enough cowpea to feed their families with a surplus to sell.

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