Restoring the IITA Forest

Deni Bown,

Read the Estonian translation by Anna Galovich

IITA lake and forest. Photo by IITA.
IITA lake and forest. Photo by IITA.

In 2010, the International Year of Biodiversity, a new project began at IITA to enhance biodiversity and restore IITA’s Forest. Coincidentally, the United Nations (UN) declared 2011 as the International Year of Forests, and the IITA–Leventis Project is preparing to plant over 30,000 saplings of indigenous tree species this year to restore native forests.

The IITA campus (1000 ha) in Ibadan, Nigeria, now largely within the city limits of Ibadan, was acquired in 1965. The land was mostly bush, interspersed with field crops and 26 villages, whose occupants were relocated. After campus construction and the allocation of fields for crop research, about a third of the site—some 350 ha—was left untouched. In 1987, campus residents created pathways through this regenerating post-abandonment secondary forest, resulting in the Forest Trails we still enjoy today.

After more than 45 years as a reserve, and with continuing loss of forest in southwest Nigeria, this area has become an increasingly important refuge for many plants and animals that were once widespread. Together with an artificial lake at the west margin, the IITA Forest shelters a wealth of animal and plant species and provides a habitat for biodiversity in Nigeria.


The IITA–Leventis Forest Restoration Project aims to:

-Restore the existing forest by removing invasive exotic species, such as Chromolaena odorata, Delonix regia, Gliricidia sepium, Leucaena leucocephala, and Tithonia diversifolia, and replanting the area with indigenous species from seeds, wildlings, and cuttings.

-Protect the IITA Forest against disturbance and theft, in particular, against hunting for bush meat and the collection of medicinal plant parts.

-Catalog the biodiversity of the forested areas, mainly in terms of birds, butterflies, and medicinal plants, and monitor changes.

Junonia cymodoce basking in the sun. Photo by Sz. Safian.
Junonia cymodoce basking in the sun. Photo by Sz. Safian.

-Replant the east bank of the lake with indigenous tree species and carry out research into reforestation techniques.

-Engage in conservation educational activities, especially with young people, to raise awareness of the need to protect forests.

-Form local, regional, and international partnerships in tropical forest conservation, research, and education activities.

The team of rangers and nursery workers from the IITA–Leventis Project is led by Project Manager John Peacock, Project Coordinator and flora/medicinal plant consultant Deni Bown, and Nursery Manager Olukunle Olasupo. In the first year, over 21,000 seedlings of more than 40 indigenous tree species were propagated. Experimental plots were established to record the effects of different ground treatments on the growth of 10 species. Reforesting the east bank was also started by planting trees grown in their first Tree Seed Project by the International School at IITA and by the Institute’s staff.

In addition to the School’s Tree Seed Project, a Garden Club was started to show children how to grow, propagate, harvest, and value edible and medicinal plants. There are regular activities to engage children in observing wildlife and appreciating the forest. Moves are also under way to found a Youth Explorers’ branch of the Nigerian Field Society which will use the resources and expertise at the IITA campus. Educational displays of medicinal plants, butterflies, and photo archives of birds were exhibited at events, and information, both printed and electronic, is provided for the numerous visitors.

Together with the Security Unit at IITA, the team also improved the protection of the Forest.

Ibadan malimbe, an endemic bird species in Nigeria. Source: Leventis Foundation.
Ibadan malimbe, an endemic bird species in Nigeria. Source: Leventis Foundation.

Catalogue of forest resources
The IITA Forest is an internationally acclaimed Important Bird Area (IBA). Since March 2010, over 200 bird species have been identified during surveys by Shiiwua Manu, Phil Hall, John Peacock, Adeniyi Taiye, and Matt Stephens. Similar baseline surveys were carried out for butterflies by Szabolcs Sáfián, Robert Warren, and Oskar Brattström, and brought the total identified in the IITA Forest to 220. Deni Bown has to date recorded 431 plant species at IITA; of these, 382 have medicinal uses.

Flagship species
For many people, the Forest is a place of mystery and beauty but something they may not know much about. By targeting conservation efforts on spectacular species, their interest can be focused. The Project has three flagship species: the Ibadan malimbe, Malimbus ibadanensis, an endangered bird found only in the Ibadan area; the iroko, Milicia excelsa, one of Nigeria’s most important timber trees; and the “PG plant”, Pararistolochia goldieana, a liana (a woody vine) that produces the largest flower in Africa.

Pararistolochia goldieana, a woody vine that produces the largest flower in Africa. Photo by O. Adebayo, IITA.
Pararistolochia goldieana, a woody vine that produces the largest flower in Africa. Photo by O. Adebayo, IITA.

The Iroko is of major economic importance but cannot be grown successfully in plantations. The only place where it is now safe from being felled is within the IITA campus.

Likewise, the Ibadan malimbe and PG plant are totally dependent on the IITA Forest for survival.

Over the past 50 decades, the loss of tropical forests in Nigeria has been catastrophic, giving this fragment in IITA considerable importance. Increasing its extent and biodiversity is part of IITA’s new initiative to conserve biodiversity and create an African Science Park or Innovation Africa™. These are valuable resources for local interests and the wider scientific community.


Developing genomic resources for banana

Jim Lorenzen,

Jim Lorenzen checking a banana flower. Photo by IITA

Banana and plantain (Musa sp.) are a very important staple food and cash crop in Africa. Although the principles of banana breeding and genetics were established decades ago, it is still a time-, land-, and resource-intensive process. A crew of several persons collects male flowers and pollinates female flowers while perched on ladders. When successful, seeds must be surface-sterilized and embryos removed for germination in test tubes (or else most won’t germinate), multiplied, and carefully “weaned” for field planting.

Large-sized plants require much field space, and new hybrids must be evaluated through two or three production cycles (about 3 years) before being selected for further testing, such as for disease resistance. Some essential attributes, such as resistance to disease or nematodes may also take several years to assess properly. It would be a huge advantage if early selection could be done, based on some associated marker or rapid test, to eliminate susceptible individuals without wasting resources on them. For other complex traits, it would be useful to have markers based on component genes to be able to select ideal “genotypes”.

One way to do early selection is to use molecular markers that are linked to the target traits (molecular-assisted breeding). This method is becoming common in cereal breeding, yet should be even more cost-effective for a large perennial crop such as banana that requires so much time and space to evaluate. The tools of DNA fingerprinting are applied, and by knowing which DNA markers lie near genes of interest, selecting for the markers will be equivalent to selecting for the trait a year or more later.

The problem is that we lack enough information on the banana genome to have molecular tools to map traits. One of our activities has been to map and characterize new molecular markers for use in banana breeding and genetics. PhD student Gaby Mbanjo from the University of Yaoundé, Cameroon, has been working in Uganda and Kenya to characterize and map a large new set of simple sequence repeat (SSR) markers, often called microsatellite markers. She is a scholar of the Biosciences for Eastern and Central Africa (BecA) program, with funding provided by the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA).

Gaby is also working to develop other types of molecular markers based on small genetic differences (single nucleotide polymorphisms = SNPs) between alleles of genes involved in controlling plant defensive reactions. These will be used to try to map the genetic loci responsible for resistance to the burrowing nematode (Radopholus similis) and banana weevil (Cosmopolites sordidus) in the population she is studying. Markers of both types can be converted to semi-automated assays for hundreds or thousands of assays. This effort is expected to result in a DNA fingerprinting assay in which we can select the associated DNA markers and thus also select the target resistance without spending as many resources on susceptible plants.

The molecular markers will have other practical uses. Unfortunately, sometimes varieties get distributed with wrong names, or a batch of plants supposedly of a single variety may actually contain a mixture of varieties. Molecular markers can be used to “fingerprint” mother plants used to produce new planting material to ensure that they are of the proper variety. They can also be used to select diverse parents for maximizing the heterozygosity of offspring. Some of the markers are being transferred to a national research program for assessing varietal purity in their advanced selections.

Molecular markers are a way in which biotechnology and the rapidly expanding knowledge of DNA sequences in plant genomes can be used to make classical breeding more efficient. This should be especially helpful for large perennial crops such as banana and plantain.

Kirsten Jørgensen: Research to help sub-Saharan Africa

Kirsten Jorgensen with her transgenic cassava plants
Kirsten Jorgensen with her transgenic cassava plants

Kirsten Jørgensen obtained her MSc in biology at the University of Copenhagen in 1989. The focus of her Ph.D studies was the identification of auxin-binding proteins in Brassica napus. The work was carried out at the Danish Institute of Agricultural Sciences in Roskilde. Following her Ph.D. she was employed in Danisco Biotechnology, Holeby, Lolland, Denmark as responsible for the plant biotechnology R&D laboratory. This laboratory bred new varieties of sugar beet, rapeseed, sunflower, and potatoes using biotechnological approaches. The main techniques implemented were transformation, double haploid formation, and micropropagation.

In 2000 she was employed as Associate Professor at the Plant Biochemistry Laboratory, Department of Plant Biology, University of Copenhagen where her work focused on molecular breeding of cassava to achieve acyanogenic-transformed lines high in protein and vitamin content. As an expert in imaging techniques used for tissue, cell, and organellar localization of gene expression, enzymes, and enzyme activities, her network of collaborators is extensive.

She is married with three grown-up daughters, and is now a grandmother to three boys aged 1-3.

Please describe your work on acyanogenic cassava and its importance. What is the status of the research?
I first worked on cassava in 2000 when I started to work in the group of Prof. Birger Lindberg Moeller, together with part-time technician, Christina Mattson. Today, the group consists of Asst Prof. Rubini Kannangara, who takes care of the molecular biology; three technicians: Charlotte Sørensen, Evy Olsen, and Susanne Bidstrup, who assist in all aspects of this project from producing the transgenic plants, analyzing them, and helping in the greenhouse, where our gardener Steen Malmmose takes care of the plants.

The cassava group is a part of a larger group with a focus on cyanogenic glucosides—from the regulation of these compounds in the plant to their end use as a defense system. In cassava, our emphasis is now the “when”, “where”, and “why” the cyanogenic glucosides are found in the plant. We also work on producing an acyanogenic cassava.

We are currently working on producing the third generation of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and analyzing the second generation in the greenhouses. The first generation was based on antisense technology and the background of the transformed plants was the South American model line Mcol22. When the RNAi technology became available for downregulation (reduction) of specific genes, we used this technique to obtain second generation plants, exhibiting a more complete downregulation of cyanogenic glucoside content (second generation). Eventually we started to work with African elite lines from IITA to be closer to the product that could be used directly after testing the GMO lines in their appropriate environment. In the third generation we have been fine-tuning the downregulation of cyanogenic glucosides to assure that this takes place in the specific cells which express the enzymes involved in their synthesis.

Plants from the first generation, based on Mcol22, have limited utility for field testing as they are far from the cultivars grown today. Our focus has shifted to African lines, either those used today or promising breeding lines from IITA. By now, we have African elite lines (e.g., TME12) downregulated to contain less than 10% of the cyanogenic glucoside content in tubers measured in wild type TME12 growing in the greenhouse. Several lines are completely devoid of cyanogenic glucosides in their leaves.

Kirsten Jorgensen and Rubini Kannangara, Plant Biochemistry Laboratory
Kirsten Jorgensen and Rubini Kannangara, Plant Biochemistry Laboratory

Our next goal is to produce cassava lines with enhanced nutritional value. We have focused on using a storage protein from potato (patatin) and are currently transforming African elite lines with this trait provided by IITA’s Dr Alfred Dixon. Two of these lines have been bred to contain an enhanced amount of carotenoids, the precursor of vitamin A. Our dream is to assemble all these traits—producing cassava that is acyanogenic and nutritious.

What are some of the important tools you use on the job? How would genetic engineering help you meet your research goals?
The tools are all the techniques currently used today in a modern, biotechnology oriented laboratory. The basic knowledge of the synthesis of cyanogenic glucosides gives us the opportunity to strengthen work for an improved cassava. Our group works with basic science, which is then converted to applied research, and ends up, for example, in new cassava lines improved by molecular breeding—another word for genetic engineering. Genetic engineering is just a tool which can be used where it is difficult or impossible to achieve the improvements wanted in a variety. So far, no one has succeeded in obtaining acyanogenic cassava by classical breeding methods. Here genetic engineering comes in as an important tool.

What are some of the challenges in working on this area?
Working with a crop which has limited focus from breeding companies makes it difficult to obtain funding in a nontropical country such as Denmark. Because cassava is a tropical crop, it is difficult to mimic tropical conditions—however, we are pleased that we are able to grow the cassava plants in our greenhouse under conditions where they do produce tubers. So our data are based on measurements on real tubers.

As the scientific community working on cassava is small, we need to share knowledge. On our part we have been open in sharing our techniques. So far Dr Ivan Ingelbrecht, IITA, and Dr Sareena Sahab, Danforth Plant Science Centre, have visited us and been trained on how to carry out cassava transformation using our protocols and regeneration systems.

Who are your partners in this collaborative effort and what are their roles? Who funds the research?
Our collaborator for more than a decade has been IITA with whom our group has collaborated on various projects mostly funded by Danish International Development Agency (DANIDA). IITA has also provided important financial support. In the same period we have collaborated with CIAT, Columbia, on molecular markers for the genes encoding the enzymes involved in the synthesis of cyanogenic glucosides. A newer collaboration is with Kenyatta University, Kenya, with whom we have collaborated on the latest DANIDA project “Improvement of the nutritional value of cassava: high storage protein content and no cyanide liberating toxins”.

In addition to the funding from DANIDA we had a project on “Biofortification of Cassava” funded by the Research Council for Technology and Production.

The funding and generous sharing of elite lines from IITA have strengthened the ties between our laboratory and IITA.

How would you describe the collaboration with IITA and other partners working on the project? Any insights on collaboration and partnership?
The close and fruitful collaboration with Dr Ivan Ingelbrecht and Dr Alfred Dixon has helped us a lot, for example, with respect to choosing optimal cassava lines for our transformation work. We really want to work with lines that are of value to African end users. In addition to the collaboration on producing GMO cassava, we have collaborated on the bioinformatics and logistics to design and build a cassava microarray DNA chip. Our collaborations have been very open and enjoyable. For us, it is very important to keep close contact with scientists working in an African environment. This helps us to set the right research priorities.

How would you measure the impact of your work on cassava in SSA?
Our aim is to improve the nutritional value of cassava. This includes reducing its content of cyanogenic glucoside and introducing a higher content of proteins and vitamin A precursors. In our lab we can only go as far as producing these lines and testing them in our greenhouse facilities. Although the lines behave well there, we cannot mimic real tropical conditions and cannot expose the plants to the environmental challenges they encounter when grown in African soils. So we really want to collaborate to have these lines grown in their real environment to observe how the plants behave.

Any personal information or other insights that you want to share with our readers?
Throughout my working life, the emphasis has been to produce new improved crops—both for the European market and now for the African continent in the case of cassava—using biotechnological techniques. It is important always to use the appropriate techniques to reach the goal most efficiently. I am driven by a strong desire to show that high quality basic research provides the way to obtain improved crop plants for the future.

One of my main interests is working with plants—both at work and at home, where I spend a lot of time in the garden and in our summerhouse. The rest of the time is for the family—I look forward at one point to visit Africa and especially IITA.

In my career I have wanted to use my knowledge in applied science. Tissue culture fascinates me—to start from such small pieces of tissue and end up with plants in the greenhouse—I am still amazed at what plants can do.

Jacob Hodeba Mignouna: Leading the way in science

Jacob Hodeba Mignouna

Jacob Mignouna is a molecular biologist/biotechnologist with an MSc degree in chemical engineering and a PhD in molecular biology and genetics, both from the Catholic University of Louvain, Belgium.

He joined IITA in 1992, as a research scientist-biotechnologist. He led the Biotechnology Unit and developed and implemented a research program on the use of molecular genetic tools to improve food crops and efficiently manage crop genetic resources.

He was a distinguished Frosty Hill Research fellow and had worked as visiting scientist at the Institute for Genomic Diversity, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York; Research Associate Professor of Biotechnology and co-Director of USAID’s Farmer-to-Farmer program in East Africa at Virginia State University, Petersburg, Virginia; and Biosafety Consultant for the USAID Program for Biosafety Systems (PBS), International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), Washington D.C., USA.

As Technical Operations Manager at African Agriculture Technology Foundation (AATF), he identifies opportunities for agricultural technology interventions, assesses the feasibility and probability of success of project concepts, identifies sources of appropriate technologies, negotiates their access and deployment, and provides overall leadership in the implementation of AATF’s project portfolio.

farmers-meetingPlease describe AATF’s work and your work.
AATF is a not-for-profit organization that facilitates and promotes public-private partnerships for the access and delivery of appropriate proprietary agricultural technologies for use by resource-poor smallholder farmers in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA).

The Foundation is a one-stop-shop that provides expertise and know-how that facilitates the identification, access, development, delivery, and use of proprietary agricultural technologies.

AATF works toward food security and poverty reduction in SSA, and its structure and operations draw upon the best practices and resources of both the public and private sectors.

It also contributes to capacity building in Africa by engaging African institutions to work in partnership with others.

AATF strives to achieve sustainable impact at the farm level through innovative partnerships that bring together players all along the food value chain—from smallholder farmers to national agricultural systems, regional and international research organizations, and technology developers.

Currently, AATF is working on biotechnology projects focusing on maize, cowpea, banana, rice, and sorghum—all important crops in Africa. We are also looking at ways to address aflatoxin contamination in peanuts and cereals and processing of cassava.

How did the AATF and IITA partnership come about?
In 2004, IITA approached AATF seeking to access candidate genes conferring resistance against banana bacterial wilt (BXW). IITA had already established contact with Academia Sinica, Taiwan, which held patents to the technology and wanted AATF to negotiate for a license to the ferrodoxin-like protein (pflp) and hypersensitive response assisting protein (hrap) genes from the institute.

In August 2005, IITA, Uganda’s National Agricultural Research Organisation (NARO), and AATF convened a two-day consultative meeting at which stakeholders, including other national research institutes from the Great Lakes region, including IRAZ and other NARS in the region, drafted a project concept note on developing banana bacterial wilt-resistant germplasm.

Soon after, AATF approached Academia Sinica, Taiwan, to license the pflp and hrap genes to it on humanitarian basis.

The initiative has since grown into a full-fledged project designed to enable smallholder farmers in Africa have access to disease-resistant high-yielding banana developed from East African highland varieties.

The project has two components. One focuses on developing transgenic varieties using the acquired technology and the other on improving the capacity of institutions in the region to produce high-quality disease-free planting materials using tissue culture technique.

AATF coordinates the project, including providing support in management of intellectual property rights and regulatory issues, while IITA leads the research, working with Academia Sinica and various institutions, including NARO-Uganda and IRAZ (the national research institution of Burundi), and public and private tissue culture laboratories in Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Burundi, Rwanda, and DR Congo.

Through the collaborative research, five banana cultivars—Kayinja, Nakitembe, Mpologoma, Sukali Ndizi, and Nakinyika—have been transformed using an Agrobacterium-mediated system. Several transgenic lines have been produced and tested in vitro by artificial inoculation with the pure Xanthomonas campestris pv. musacearum (Xcm) bacterial culture. Some of the promising lines showed no bacterial wilt symptoms. These plants were further analyzed and confirmed to have the transgene pflp integrated into the banana genome.

With progress on banana transformation well under way, AATF will soon commission a biosafety study. The findings will inform stakeholders as they develop a roadmap for the various processes required for regulatory approvals as the project progresses through the product development pipeline.

Farmers preparing cassava leaves for silage. Photo by S. Kolijn
Farmers preparing cassava leaves for silage. Photo by S. Kolijn, IITA

Please share your insights on collaboration and partnership.
First, collaboration works well if there is a clearly articulated and shared need for joint effort.

Secondly, such partnerships work best if roles and responsibilities are well defined. Work in the banana project is governed by a Memorandum of Association that recognizes the capacities of the partner organizations and facilitates each to contribute optimally to the project.

Also important is the need to bring on board potential partners early enough so that they can provide their input into the project design right from the concept stage. In this project, and generally in all AATF initiatives, we have found comprehensive consultations with a wide range of stakeholders, especially at the formative stage to be a critical success factor.

Third is information flow. Building a communication strategy into the project design ensures that the information needs of partners and external stakeholders are adequately met.

Capacity building is core to all AATF partnerships because of the key role it plays in moving the technologies through the entire food value chain, including scaling up of technologies. In this project, the hub of banana transformation work is at Kawanda, where IITA researchers are working with scientists from national research systems and jointly carrying out the transformation work. This kind of collaboration ensures that staff of national agricultural research institutes in the target countries provide continuity of work in their home country.

Another important aspect of partnership is focus on the smallholder farmer. We have found that having a shared commitment to improve the livelihoods of resource-poor farmers—a clear statement about the ultimate focus of our work—enhances stakeholders’ commitment to project activities.

Then, of course there is the need to have clear negotiated ways to deal with conflict, ensure accountability, and other governance issues.

How did AATF handle the licensing agreement for using the genes for developing resistance to Xanthomonas wilt in bananas?
AATF typically follows a strategy in which it takes the role of the principal and “responsible party” in facilitating public-private partnerships. AATF has entered into licensing agreements to access and hold proprietary technologies and to ensure freedom to operate (FTO) for all the components of the technologies. The Foundation then sublicenses partner institutions to carry out research and adapt technologies for regulatory compliance, and to produce and distribute the technologies. After signing the relevant agreements allowing use of the technology, AATF and partners are guided by a business plan that spells out the roles of each partner and how the technology will be used.

As the principal party, AATF monitors compliance with the requirements of sublicenses to minimize the risk of technology failure, and facilitates the work of appropriate partner institutions to ensure that links in the value chain are connected and result in technology products that reach smallholder farmers.

How would this research impact on banana producers and consumers in Africa?
Millions of people across the East African highlands depend on banana for their livelihoods, directly for food and smallholder producers for the market or as traders and other players in the crop’s value chain. Since banana Xanthomonas wilt broke out in the region, it has caused losses estimated at over US$500 million in Uganda, eastern DR Congo, Rwanda, Kenya, and Tanzania.

In parts of Uganda, where the crop is a staple, some families reported that their banana production had decreased by up to 80%. Given the severity of losses caused by BXW and the fact that the effectiveness of existing remedies is limited, development of disease-resistant varieties will have a huge impact on livelihoods. The benefits can be multiplied many times over by making available clean planting materials to enable farmers to rapidly expand their production.

Increased production will lead to higher incomes for families from sale of the crop, including to the vastly untapped European and American markets, now dominated by South American countries, which account for 60% of the global banana trade.

Scientists inteviewing cassava and maize farmers. Photo by K. Lopez
Scientists inteviewing cassava and maize farmers. Photo by K. Lopez, IITA

What are some of the biggest constraints to adoption of biotechnological tools or products in Africa?
I believe that properly applied agricultural biotechnology holds the key to food security in Africa. Molecular genetics tools should be used not only to improve crops but also to create a better understanding of the abundant diversity of African genetic resources for food, feed, medicine, etc. The biggest constraints to adoption of biotech tools include limited resources—both infrastructural and in terms of trained scientists and other personnel.

Some African countries also lack a regulatory environment conducive to biotech research and development. Although there have been positive changes over the past couple of years, a lot more needs to be done in these areas, including developing regulations to operationalize biosafety laws.

What could be done to take advantage of opportunities that current agricultural technologies provide and harness them for the development of African agriculture or the improvement of food security in SSA?
There are various ways but a key one is by building partnerships, such as those AATF facilitates, that can help access needed technologies, move them from product development and into the hands of farmers. This means different organizations working together to identify and resolve farmer constraints through pooling of available resources where necessary.

We also need to rapidly enhance our capacity to use biotech research. African governments and institutions need to come together and harness their various strengths to develop biotech infrastructure on the continent.

This means training more high-level scientists, equipping laboratories that can serve as centers of excellence and strengthening collaboration among African institutions and between them and research centers and universities abroad.

Lack of awareness about biotech is a major challenge. There is a need for well-designed communication campaigns not only to increase awareness and knowledge of biotechnology, but to increase public acceptance and use of technologies.

You used to head the Biotech Unit at IITA. Please tell R4D Review about your experiences in using biotechnology tools then.
The focus of the Biotechnology Unit, which comprised seven scientists and 45 support staff, was to use the tools that were then available for improving IITA mandate crops. Our work was mainly in two areas. One was developing genetic markers for the characterization of genetic resources, molecular breeding for pests and disease characterization, and exchange of germplasm. The other area was genetic engineering, where we applied tools to address intractable pests and diseases, such as insects that affect cowpea, viral and fungal diseases affecting plantain and banana and cassava mosaic disease. We also addressed diseases and pests in yam, another important food.

What are your aspirations for Africa?
My vision is to see Africa embrace all available tools, including biotechnology and develop the capacity to use them to produce enough food and improve the livelihoods of communities across Africa.


Steffen Abele: Juggling science and research management

Steffen Abele. Photo by IITA

Steffen Abele is a Director of Research whose job is to facilitate the scientists’ research in terms of managing regional activities, and in IITA’s programs, such as in Banana and Plantain systems, Opportunities and Threats, and Agriculture and Health. He is a socioeconomist based in IITA-Tanzania, the East and Southern African hub, which became operational early this year. He joined IITA as a postdoctoral fellow in 2002, became the Program Leader of Social Sciences in 2005, and named Director in 2008.

How has it been like working for IITA?
This is one of the best jobs a scientist can think of: conducting interesting research and at the same time finding solutions to help people in Africa overcome hunger and poverty. And all of that in the most interesting place in the world: Africa.

As an economist, how do you measure the impact of IITA’s R4D on, for example, banana and plantain?
We are only at the beginning of measuring the impact of research, ours and our partners. Banana and plantain are some of the most important food and cash crops in Africa, and our studies already show that the impact we are having from our research brings hundreds of millions of dollars annually into peoples’ hands, in particular in East and Central Africa.

Steffen Abele Juggling Bananas at IITA-HQ, photo by IITA

As head of the Banana and Plantain Systems Program, what are your plans in the medium term? In the long term?
We—I am not at all working as a lonely “head of program”, but in a very dynamic and enthusiastic team—are trying to raise the profile of banana and plantain and their potential for food and cash. A good step forward was the Banana Conference in Mombasa in 2008.

Where do you see banana and plantain improvement heading?
In the coming years, we will spend a lot of effort identifying and managing present and emerging diseases. This will be done through conventional breeding and genetic modification of germplasm, but also through new disease management practices, and work on healthy planting material, for example, through micro- and macropropagation, also through planting material sanitation. Beyond that, we are also learning a lot in the field of agronomics at the moment, and we hope to have a lot of good recommendations for crop management soon, which will raise yields further.

How could banana and plantain be commercialized in Africa? What are some of the problems in commercializing the crop in SSA?
Banana and plantain are already an important cash crop in Africa. Yet farmers suffer from problems that affect these crops more than any other crop. The crop is perishable and therefore difficult to transport and market. African banana are not competitive in the global market. We will tackle these problems through a multitude of measures: optimizing crop management according to market needs, providing market information, and producing clean planting material—which is a market in itself.

What is the most memorable part of working for IITA?
That would be the external program and management review (EPMR) in 2007. Being a part of management, I certainly wanted nothing more than for IITA to excel in this EPMR. Which we did. The great experience was to move around with the EPMR team and the IITA scientists in Uganda and Tanzania, and see how colleagues worked so hard as teams to present IITA and its achievements. Such moments of team spirit are really impressing, and one actually soars on these spirits for a long time.

How would you encourage colleagues at work?
Keep going, even if it’s tough! You will succeed!

Maria Ayodele: Invest in people

Maria Ayodele. Photo by IITA

Dr Maria Ayodele is from Cameroon. She set up and has been in charge of IITA’s Germplasm Health Unit (GHU) since 1998. IITA recognizes that germplasm health is a very important concern, and is proactive about ensuring the production of good quality and healthy plants by guarding against the introduction of exotic seed-borne pests, and preventing their spread to collaborating countries and partners. The GHU has thus adopted strict phytosanitary measures and has facilitated the movement of thousands of items of germplasm materials for its mandate crops every year.

Dr Ayodele obtained her first degree in the Netherlands on tropical agriculture, MSc in plant bacteriology from the University of Aberdeen, Scotland, and PhD in plant pathology, University of Ibadan, Nigeria. She also has a Diploma in Bible Studies and a Certificate in Discipleship, and is an Assistant Pastor of the Redeemed Christian Church of God. Dr Ayodele is a mother of six and several other children in the Lord; she specializes in mothering and welfarism.

Please tell R4D Review about yourself.
I am a plant pathologist by training, specializing in bacteriology and mycology (fungi), but also in seed pathology, phytosanitary regulations, and capacity building. I take care of plant health testing and diagnostics, and liaise with breeders and other scientists for test results, and with national partners for phytosanitary requirements and plant quarantine.

Please describe your work. What is your main research interest?
As a research support scientist, I help IITA in testing seeds for import or for sending to partners by making sure that they are disease-free to prevent the spread of exotic pests and diseases. I do plant health testing and grow seeds or other plant parts, such as leaves, stems, or tubers, in a containment facility; I inspect the plants in the field or in the genebank; take care of the bacteriology and mycology screening; send the materials to the Virology Unit for viral testing; compile all the test results and send them to the scientists; and make sure that all the proper documentation in terms of phytosanitary permits or requirements are provided for each crop and for each cooperating country.

I liaise with the plant protection and quarantine service organizations of partner countries where IITA sends or imports seeds or other plant materials for use in research. With FAO, I provide technical backstopping in plant health and phytosanitary regulation, and also capacity building for SSA partner countries, including Nigeria, Bénin, Burkina Faso, Gabon, Gambia, Guinea Bissau, Mali, Togo, Cote’Ivoire, Niger, and Senegal. For example, since some partners do not have the capacity for plant health diagnosis, IITA works with the Plant Quarantine Service (PQS) or the national plant protection organizations in doing the testing, with the PQS doing their own inspection. Otherwise, I travel to where the test plants are and inspect them.

Last year, I was part of a team that conducted training on pest risk analysis and the safe movement of germplasm for partners in the national programs of Tanzania, Zanzibar, Uganda, Kenya, and Zambia, Burundi, Malawi, and DR Congo.

I also do some research, specifically in the areas of classification and characterization of anthracnose for yam, morphological characterization of gray leaf spot in maize, and the establishment of pest-free areas for multiplying germplasm materials.

Maria Ayodele checking yam plants. Photo by IITA

What are some of the highlights of your career at IITA?
I have enjoyed the capacity building part—coordinating training and sharing my knowledge with partner-participants and investing in people. I maintain links with participants who start as students and later become colleagues, and keep communication lines open. They can always come back to me with questions. My relationship with them is based on honesty and mutual respect. This approach has helped such that I have never had any difficulty when asking for plant quarantine documentation.

What is your work philosophy?
I believe that people should be happy with what they are doing, or not do it at all. I like my job, I like what I am doing, and I am happy transferring knowledge and building the capacity of partners in plant health testing and diagnostics.

It is important to me that the type of job that I do motivates me. That way, I get complete satisfaction. I want to see that the client is happy, so it is important to work together with clients—work with people, work with results; in short, be self-motivated. Getting good results makes people happy, and I make sure that I deliver on those results.

I am most happy when I am in the field—I see the challenges there—and they make me think and look for solutions to problems; for example, why are this year’s plants different from those of last year? Was it the climate?

What lessons or insights do you want to share with colleagues?
I work a lot with partners in the national programs and this is very challenging because of differences in capacities. When I work with my “students”, I usually break down information and bring it to their level. This means simplifying language to make science, even common concepts, understandable. I provide hands-on exercises so participants are exposed to the practical side; for example, I bring them to the field to do actual disease diagnosis.

I am now working on a practical manual on field diagnosis for each IITA crop. This is intended for students of agriculture, universities and colleges, extension workers, farmers, and partners. Our scientists should be encouraged to produce simple monographs on their research breakthroughs, documents that are easily affordable and accessible to our clients. At the moment, our scientists write mainly for academic journals. Of course, we know that many of our clients have no capacity to pick up information in those journals.

When I approach work, I do not look only at the problems. Yes, I find out what the weaknesses are, but I focus on the strengths and think of solutions. I use this approach for everything. Not everything can be bad. Negativity is a wrong thing in life, so it is best to find the positive aspects in people or situations. Once you get a working system, look at what needs to be changed. Oh, and do not criticize—be constructive.

Lastly, we should also be resourceful and show our initiative at work.

You would be retiring from IITA soon. What would you want colleagues (or partners) to remember you by?
I want colleagues or partners to remember me as a good teacher and effective communicator—a colleague who is results-oriented, or who works until she gets results. But you should be asking my colleagues about this, not me!

What do you wish for Africa?
My wish is for Africa to have the phytosanitary structures in place where feasible, to prevent the introduction of exotic pests and diseases that are dangerous to African crops, and to assist and sustain agricultural development for food security and the prevention of genetic erosion. We can sustain agriculture in Africa if we protect it by preventing the introduction of pests accompanying plant imports—unintentionally introduced—and avoiding the spread and establishment on alternativee hosts.

Would you like to share some personal details?
Although I am an extrovert, I am a very private person. So, take what you see, and whatever you don’t see, don’t bother to look for it.

Christian A. Fatokun: The guardian of biosafety

Christian Fatokun. Photo by IITA

Christian Fatokun is a plant breeder/molecular geneticist in charge of biosafety at IITA. He attended the University of Ibadan where he obtained BSc and PhD degrees in agriculture and plant breeding, respectively. He was a lecturer in plant breeding and genetics at his alma mater before joining IITA as a scientist in September 1993. He was also a postdoctoral research fellow in IITA’s farming systems program between 1976 and 1977. According to him, his active working career will end at IITA when he retires this year.

Tell R4D Review about your work.
I work on cowpea improvement. In Nigeria, we eat a lot of cowpea, a cheap source of protein. Before joining IITA I had worked on exploring the genetic potentials of wild cowpea relatives and on the genomics of cowpea. I continued research in both areas when I joined IITA. Now my research is on improving cowpea for enhanced levels of drought tolerance. Compared with many other crops, cowpea is drought tolerant. Our efforts are geared towards increasing the level of tolerance in existing improved and farmers’ varieties. The new varieties would be better adapted to drought stressed environments.

What are some of the highlights of IITA’s work on cowpea?

IITA has a global mandate to study cowpea. It has conducted research, including agronomy, pathology (bacteriology, virology, nematology, Striga and Alectra biology), entomology, physiology, microbiology, socioeconomics, technology transfer, seed storage of germplasm lines, breeding and genetics, and attempts to genetically modify the crop.

Making wide crosses, studying the genome structure, identification of markers with effects on traits of importance, and evaluating germplasm lines for their drought tolerance are all aimed at genetic improvement of cowpea.

We are now developing varieties with enhanced drought tolerance, resistance to Striga and Maruca vitrata, and possessing consumer-preferred traits, such as higher nutritional levels and easier processing. The Bacillus thuringiensis gene which was recently introduced, through bioengineering, into cowpea in Australia can be transferred, using conventional breeding techniques, to lines that are popular with farmers and consumers if the gene is found to be effective in controlling Maruca. I foresee increased research on the contribution of cowpea consumption to human health.

What impact does IITA’s work on cowpea research have on producers and consumers in Africa?
The average cowpea grain yield for Africa up to the 1990s was around 300 kg/ha. According to FAO, average cowpea grain yield for West Africa in 2006 increased from 240 kg/ha to 470 kg/ha. For Nigeria, the world’s number one producer and consumer, grain yield increased from about 470 kg/ha to 670 kg/ha. IITA research on cowpea contributed to these increases.

Cowpea. Photo by IITA

There are now new varieties that mature within 60 days from planting. These varieties suffer less damage from drought and pests than traditional varieties that remain much longer in the field before flowering and setting pods. Some improved breeding lines with resistance to field pests such as aphids and flower thrips and the parasitic weeds, Striga gesnerioides and Alectra vogelii are also available. Farmers who adopt these new improved varieties apply insecticides less often. These have reduced production cost, less damage to the environment, and provide less exposure to chemicals. Improved production practices have also increased yield. Improved dual-purpose varieties are particularly beneficial to farmers in the dry savanna regions because the haulms are a very good source of quality fodder for livestock.

What is your work philosophy?
It is to do my very best and leave the rest for others along the chain of workers. The primary school that I attended has as its motto: ”what is worth doing is worth doing well”. We were made to repeat this statement regularly.

In addition, I am convinced that the most benefit can be derived from one’s income only when one always has put in one’s best efforts. Essentially, the nature of the harvest accruing to an individual cannot be different from what has been sown.

How did you get involved in biosafety work?
I participated in the preparation of the Nigeria Biosafety Guidelines that IITA initiated in 1993 and published in 1994. Later, I was invited by the Federal Ministry of Environment to participate in preparing the National Biosafety Framework.

IITA has a biosafety containment facility built next to the biotechnology laboratory. It is at a biosafety level (BL2-P standard), which is appropriate for growing bioengineered crops. We also have a confined field trial site on campus at Ibadan that has not been used since it was constructed. IITA is therefore committed to ensuring compliance with international standards in biosafety.

What are some of the biggest constraints to the adoption of biotechnological tools or products in Africa?
The use of these relatively new tools in research in Africa is in its infancy. There is great promise in the new technology. However, the capacity to carry out research using these new tools is very limited in most African countries. The critical mass of scientists in the field is nonexistent in several African countries. In addition, the needed infrastructure is also lacking. A few countries, such as South Africa and Egypt, have been exemplary in developing scientific capacity and providing resources to support research in this field. Their farmers, both commercial and small-scale, have seen some of the benefits that the technology has to offer. Burkina Faso has recently joined these countries to commercialize a genetically modified crop. Kenya has likewise given approval for the growing of a bioengineered crop in the country.

Biosafety regulatory regimes would be needed for the technology to prosper in Africa.

Fatokun shows off cowpea plants in the screenhouse. Photo by O. Adebayo
Fatokun shows off cowpea plants in the screenhouse. Photo by IITA

What could be done to take advantage of opportunities that current agricultural technologies provide and harness them for the development of African agriculture or the improvement of food security in SSA?
Governments in Africa need to show more commitment to agriculture by addressing the problems that limit productivity. For example, crop production is mostly rainfed and this exposes crops to terminal drought, especially in the savanna region where there is large potential farmland. There are very limited irrigation facilities where year-round farming could be practiced.

Inadequate fertilizer supply to farmers is a major problem. Many of the newly developed crop varieties are responsive to good soil fertility. They cannot attain their optimum yield where soil fertility is low. There should be commitment on the part of governments to ensure availability of this important input. The private sector should be encouraged to get more involved with production, importation, and distribution of agricultural inputs.

In a nutshell, expansion of irrigation facilities, better supply of fertilizers and other needed inputs, such as improved seeds, etc., and the construction of motorable roads to ensure easy transportation of farm produce would, among others, enable farmers to take advantage of available technologies. If these and other identified problems faced by farmers could be addressed, agricultural productivity would be increased and food security ensured. When farmers come across good technologies, they embrace them.

Any lessons or insights that you want to share with colleagues?
We should see ourselves as members of a community of scientists working to solve problems of food security and poverty in Africa. There is a great need for harmoniously working together since we are all working toward the same objectives of increased food production, ensuring food security, and regeneration of income for our clientele. The Yoruba people in Southwestern Nigeria have a saying. When translated, it means that if hunger is eliminated from among the problems associated with poverty, then the burden of poverty is remarkably reduced. As IITA staff, we should always remember that our little individual contributions add up and could make a difference to many people.

Ensuring biosafety

Christian Fatokun,

For thousands of years, developing improved crop varieties has depended on conventional plant breeding methods.

With developments in scientific research and technologies, it is now possible to ”design” crops with improved characteristics within a shorter time and with more precision using biotechnology. Through transformation, genetic information (genes) can be transferred between distantly related species, which would not happen in nature (transgenes). This allows novel and unique characteristics to be incorporated into crop varieties. Through this technology it is possible to develop new crop varieties (genetically modified organisms, GMOs) with higher yield, adaptation to variable environments, resistance to pests and diseases, enhanced storage time, and improved nutritional values, among others.

Cowpea plants in the IITA screenhouse. Photo by O. Adebayo
Cowpea plants in the IITA screenhouse. Photo by IITA

Concerns have been expressed about the impact on human and animal health of these transgenes. Concerns also revolve on their possible movement from the bioengineered crop to other cross-compatible crops, and in particular, to wild relatives growing in regions where the crop has its origin or center of diversity, and on the impact of products of transgenes with pesticidal activities on nontarget organisms The concern is that transgenes could confer “fitness” on the crop’s wild relatives, thus making such plants develop into “super weeds,” especially when they become resistant to herbicides. There are also concerns that the protein in the transgenes could be allergenic to people. Outcrossing is a common occurrence between compatible plants and the degree of outcrossing depends on the crop species.

To regulate the release of GMOs to the environment in any country, a set of biosafety regulations are put in place. The International Biosafety Protocol (Cartagena Protocol) places emphasis on the transboundary movements of GMOs and offers a set of guidelines on their safe handling and use. It has been adopted by several countries, including 38 in Africa.

Biosafety is generally defined as “policies and procedures adopted to ensure the environmentally safe applications of modern biotechnology in medicine, agriculture, and the environment, so as to avoid endangering public health or environmental safety.”

IITA’s research on genetic engineering is in consonance with the CGIAR’s guiding principles on the application of modern biotechnology in the improvement of any of its mandate crops. We do not have a separate set of biosafety guidelines. The Institute has worked very closely with agencies of the Federal Government of Nigeria to establish biosafety guidelines for the country. The Federal Ministry of Environment is responsible for regulating the release of bioengineered products, and reports that a Biosafety Bill has been prepared. The document will soon be presented to the National Assembly for deliberation prior to being passed into law. With the existing biosafety guidelines that became operational in 2001, it is possible to carry out research on genetic engineering and test products of the technology under confinement in Nigeria.

Technician examines banana cultures, IITA genebank. Photo by O. Adebayo
Technician examines banana cultures, IITA genebank. Photo by IITA

Uganda and Tanzania are two countries where IITA is undertaking transformation research. In Uganda, work on transforming banana resistant to banana Xanthomonas wilt (R4D Review Edition 1) and nematodes is ongoing. In Tanzania, transformation research on incorporating resistance to cassava brown streak disease is being undertaken with partners. Both Uganda and Tanzania are signatories to the Cartagena Protocol, which requires signatory countries to develop a regulatory framework and the capacity (in terms of people, expertise, and technology) to undertake risk assessments in developing and using GMOs.

The Government of Uganda recognizes biotechnology as a tool that can be used to help stimulate economic development and meet national goals for improving the standard of living for the poor. Biotechnology is specifically included in the Poverty Eradication Action Plan as a component in the Program for the Modernization of Agriculture.

Recently Uganda’s cabinet has approved its first National Biotechnology and Biosafety Policy after 8 years of deliberation. The policy provides objectives and guidelines for promoting and regulating biotechnology use in the country, and contains the guidelines on the legal, institutional, and regulatory framework. The guidelines cover tissue and cell culture, medical diagnostics, industrial microbiology, and biochemical engineering.

For the policy to be implemented, there must be a law. At the moment, a draft bill has been presented to Parliament. The commercialization of GM crops in any country requires this law.
Tanzania released its National Biosafety Framework in 2005. An Institutional Biosafety Committee addresses biosafety activities within any institution conducting genetic modification. The Division of Environment is currently the National Biosafety Focal Point, which is responsible for overseeing the review and approval of applications, and implementation of biosafety issues.

In vitro yam seedlings. Photo by O. Adebayo
In vitro yam seedlings. Photo by IITA

An interim biosafety regulatory process exists for permitting small-scale confined research/field trials of plant and plant products. Applications are reviewed by the Agricultural Biosafety Scientific Advisory Committee and the National Biotechnology Advisory Committee. The Tropical Pesticides Research Institute and the Plant Biosafety Office require risk management measures to ensure that the field trial does not adversely affect the environment or human health.

The first application using the interim measures was for the MARI-IITA project on cassava genetic transformation for virus resistance in Tanzania.

With contributions from Leena Tripathi, IITA–Uganda, and Caroline Herron, IITA–Tanzania.

Guiding Principles
1. In keeping with its mission, IITA will continue to engage in research designed to produce international public goods appropriate for use by resource-poor farmers. In doing so, it will typically use a range of technologies, including in some cases modern biotechnological methods, to produce breeding and planting materials containing traits important to and useful for resource-poor farmers. It follows that IITA believes that genetically modified organisms (GMOs) that contain traits beneficial to small farmers and have been fashioned carefully, with due regard to the range for social, economic, biosafety, and environmental concerns, are a legitimate subject for its research and development.

2. For sound scientific and practical reasons, IITA will continue to work with the gene pools of cultivated species and their wild or weedy relatives as the first and often most effective means of bringing benefits to resource-poor farmers. The formulation of these Guiding Principles is therefore not intended to be, nor should it be interpreted as signaling a shift in emphasis or priorities in IITA research programs: conventional breeding techniques will continue to be used widely in all crop improvement programs. Indeed, they are likely to remain the dominant approach for some time to come.

3. IITA will continue to monitor, research, and assess the possible social and environmental implications of the use of genetically transformed plant varieties in the ecological regions in which they might be used and, especially, in the centers of origin or of diversity of the species that may be genetically transformed. As in other subject areas, these activities will routinely be carried out in cooperation with national agricultural research systems, farmers, and other partners.

In all its genetic engineering-related research, IITA will observe the highest scientifically accepted standards of safety in the conduct of laboratory and field experiments.

Yam cultures in IITA genebank. Photo by O. Adebayo
Yam cultures in IITA genebank. Photo by IITA

4. IITA will comply with relevant national or regional biosafety, food, environmental and policy regulations for the deployment of genetically engineered organisms. IITA will not deploy genetically engineered organisms in any country lacking such regulations. In certain circumstances, IITA may voluntarily adhere to higher or more stringent standards than the minimums imposed by national legislation and regulation. IITA will not make GMOs or other such products available in a country without that country’s prior informed knowledge, consent, and support.

5. IITA will work with national partners, using the best expertise available, to address potential risks and ensure confidence in the product. If a recipient country lacks the expertise to conduct its own risk assessment,

6. IITA will work with national partners to help develop this capacity, and to develop appropriate strategies and methodologies.

7. Currently, IITA adds a modest number of plant genetic resource accessions each year to those it already conserves under long-term, ex-situ conditions. Under proper management, geneflow between accessions is essentially nonexistent, and thus the presence of GMOs within IITA’s collection is not considered to undermine or pose a significant danger to the goal of its long-term conservation of genetic diversity. When circumstances so indicate, however, IITA will screen incoming (and/or already-held) accessions for the presence of promoters or other indications of the presence of GMOs. IITA will make the resulting data available to anyone requesting samples of these accessions, and IITA will take sufficient measures to ensure the appropriate and safe management and use of such materials.

Is genetically modified cowpea safe?

Genetically modified cowpea resistant to the cowpea pod borer (Maruca vitrata) will soon become a reality. This transgenic cowpea contains the gene from the soil microbe Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) that is toxic to the pests. But before that happens, IITA is making sure that it addresses some of the potential risks associated with using such genetically modified organisms (GMO).

Typical damage by pod borer caterpillar. Photo by M. Tamo
Typical damage by pod borer caterpillar. Photo by M. Tamo, IITA

IITA started preliminary studies to assess concerns, including the development of resistance by the target insect pest to the insecticidal protein expressed in the plant, negative effects of the insecticidal protein on nontarget organisms present in the same agroecosystem, such as natural enemies or pollinators, the accidental introduction of the gene expressing the toxic protein into wild relatives of cowpea (referred to as “gene flow”), and negative effects on human and animal health.

In the meantime, a team of scientists headed by Dr T.J. Higgins of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), Australia, was able to transform cowpea successfully with the Bt toxin-expressing gene. The transgenic plant has been tested in Puerto Rico and is not yet available for testing in Africa.

Parasitic wasp, Phanerotoma leucobasis, laying egg into egg of pod borer. Photo by M. Tamo
Parasitic wasp, Phanerotoma leucobasis, laying egg into egg of pod borer. Photo by M. Tamo, IITA

IITA started evaluating some of the unintended effects of the purified Bt-toxin on nontarget organisms, focusing on natural enemies of the target insect pest, the caterpillar of the pod borer (M. vitrata).

In our first case study, we used a locally available natural enemy, a small parasitic wasp called Phanerotoma leucobasis, which develops by destroying caterpillars of the cowpea pod borer. This wasp has a curious biology because it can insert its small egg into the bigger egg of the pod borer, but its immature stages develop inside the caterpillar only when it starts feeding on the cowpea plant. It destroys the pod borer’s internal organs from the inside, ultimately killing it.

Following standard protocols in collaboration with Purdue University, USA, we first determined the lethal dosage of the Bt-toxin that could kill 50% and 95% of the young caterpillars. Subsequently, we let the wasp parasitize the eggs of the pod borer, and transferred the hatching caterpillars onto an artificial rearing diet contaminated with different doses of the toxin to let them feed on it.

Exotic parasitic wasp Apanteles taragamae. Photo by G. Georgen
Exotic parasitic wasp Apanteles taragamae. Photo by G. Georgen, IITA

The level of wasp mortality recorded in this experiment favorably compares with results obtained in other studies, and is primarily due to the death of the host caterpillar while feeding on the contaminated diet. Similar experiments are ongoing, using another natural enemy of the pod borer, the exotic parasitic wasp Apanteles taragamae introduced into our laboratories from the World Vegetable Center (Asian Vegetable Research and Development Center) in Taiwan.

What would then be the likely impact of Bt cowpea on these natural enemies in the field?

For now, we know from previous studies (Romeis et al. 2006) that the negative, unintended effects of Bt-transformed crops such as corn and cotton on natural enemies and biodiversity at large are far less than those caused by repeated applications of synthetic pesticides to control the same pests under conventional crop protection schemes. For the cowpea pod borer, several alternative host plants exist in the wild where the pest is exposed to the attacks of natural enemies throughout the year, hence providing natural refugia and thus avoiding being negatively impacted by the Bt-toxin present in the transformed cowpea.

Romeis, J., M. Meissle, and F. Bigler. 2006. Transgenic crops expressing Bacillus thuringiensis toxins and biological control. Nature Biotechnology. 24:1. p 63-71. January.