Anyone for cowpea?

Improved cowpea variety. Photo by IITA.
Improved cowpea variety. Photo by IITA.

The cowpea is not actually a pea but a little bean that has a huge range of remarkable attributes and properties. Despite being a staple food to millions of people, this unassuming crop does not have the global profile it deserves.

Did you know that the cowpea is actually one of the oldest domesticated crops known to the human race? It is believed to have originated in West Africa between five and six thousand years ago where it was associated with ancient cereal farming. From Africa it was taken around the world by merchants, travelers, and most notably by slaves. Between the 16th and 19th centuries, millions of people were transported across the Atlantic. Many of them ended up in the southern United States. The cowpea was brought with them and became a staple of African American cookery, which is often called “soul food”.

Today the cowpea is grown on over 10.1 million ha across the globe (FAO 2008). Africa produces almost 5.2 million t of the global total of 5.4 million t of dried cowpea. Nigeria is the world’s largest producer, generating 58% of the worldwide yield.

The cowpea is rich in several vitamins, minerals, and especially protein, which makes it a key crop in poverty-stricken areas because it can be used as a replacement for meat. More than 4 million t of cowpea are consumed worldwide each year. In Africa alone, 387,000 t are eaten.

In East Africa, the leaves are often used rather like spinach, in soups and stews. In Asia and Latin America, the green seed pods, similar to runner beans, are eaten as a vegetable. The seeds, though, are the main food product from the cowpea plant. They can be dried, used fresh, or cooked, then canned or frozen. The beans are often served with rice but can also be added to other meals. In Nigeria, cowpea is used to make akara, a savory fried donut and moin-moin, a steamed bean cake.

However, it is not only humans that enjoy the crop. The plants are also used as animal fodder. The stems, leaves, and vines can be harvested and given to livestock fresh but are more commonly dried and turned into hay or silage. In West Africa, cowpea hay is a significant source of income for farmers during the dry season.

On top of being an incredible food product, cowpea is resistant to drought and easily adapts to different soils while growing intercropped with other plants, such as yam, maize, or millet. This makes the crop easy to grow, even for small-scale farmers. As a legume, cowpea acts as a green manure, replenishing the nitrogen in the soil and increasing land fertility. The crop also maintains the land by growing quickly and covering fields, deflecting the rain with the leaves, and preventing erosion.

Cowpea market vendor, Ibadan, Nigeria. Photo by IITA.
Cowpea market vendor, Ibadan, Nigeria. Photo by IITA.

It’s not all plain sailing for the versatile cowpea. Pests, such as aphids and bruchid weevils attack the cowpea plant during its life cycle; it is also damaged by bacteria, fungi, and viruses that cause diseases such as Cercospora leaf spot, a fungal infection on the leaves. Other problems that the cowpea can face come from nematodes in the ground that inhibit the roots and parasitic weeds that grow up around the plant and eventually choke it.

IITA and its partners have made a significant breakthrough with this plant. They have created varieties with better disease and pest resistance and some with consumer-preferred traits, such as being easier and faster to grow, high yielding, and having seeds of a specific size, texture, or color. In addition there are varieties that actually shorten the processing because they are easier to cook and peel. These modified varieties have been distributed to over 68 countries across the globe.

IITA has also made major steps in collecting and categorizing the world’s largest collection of cowpea germplasm in its genebank. The diverse collection represents 70% of African examples and just under half of those found globally.

At the Fifth World Cowpea Research Conference, taking place in Senegal from 27 September to 1 October 2010, scientists from around the world will meet to tackle various issues surrounding the crop. Not least of these is to promote the versatile cowpea from being a less well-known extra to a main player on the world stage. So, anyone for cowpea?


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