Agricultural biotech makes farms more productive

Woman holding sprouted cowpea seeds in container while sitting in front of computer (© Pius Utomi Ekpei/AFP/Getty Images)
Scientist Kafayat Falana tests cowpea seeds at the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture in Ibadan, Nigeria, in 2017. (© Pius Utomi Ekpei/AFP/Getty Images)

Farmers around the world are using advances in agricultural science to increase crop yields, reduce the need for pesticides and feed hungry communities.

In Nigeria, for example, the government recently recommended the first strain of genetically engineered cowpea for commercial use, which was developed by Nigeria’s Institute for Agricultural Research at Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, in collaboration with a network of African, American and Australian researchers.

Cowpeas are a staple of Nigerian food, but the Maruca vitrata pod borer insects can destroy up to 80% of an ordinary cowpea crop. This can force farmers to use expensive and poisonous pesticides, often without adequate protective equipment. The modified cowpea is resistant to insects, reducing the need for pesticides.

Man scooping cowpeas from a heap in market (© Cornell Alliance for Science)
A man fills a bag with cowpeas at a market in Nigeria. The nation is the largest producer and consumer of cowpeas in the world, according to the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture. (© Cornell Alliance for Science)

“I haven’t wanted to plant cowpea here in Nigeria” because of the insects, particularly pod bore, wrote Onyaole Patience Koku, a Nigerian farmer, when the modified strain was approved in December. “But now farmers like me and across Nigeria have a way to defeat this terrible pest.”

The development of these pest-resistant crops was an international effort. With support from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), Nigeria’s Institute for Agricultural Research worked with:

  • Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation.
  • African Agricultural Technology Foundation.
  • Purdue University in Indiana.
  • Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in Missouri.
  • International Institute of Tropical Agriculture.

Succeeding around the world

In Bangladesh, farmers have already been successfully growing and eating genetically modified brinjal (eggplant) for years, boosting farmers’ profits, according to a 2019 study of Bt brinjal supported by USAID under the U.S. government’s Feed the Future initiative.

Man harvesting eggplants (© Cornell Alliance for Science)
Khalilur Rahman harvests genetically modified brinjal, also known as eggplant, in Tangail, Bangladesh. Using these crops, farmers were able to cut their use of insecticides by up to 98%, according to Arif Hossain. (© Cornell Alliance for Science)

Farmers using the modified brinjal “received a sixfold increase in the net returns with no harmful effects,” said Arif Hossain, the head of Farming Future Bangladesh. Additionally, farmers are able to reduce the use of insecticide by 61–98%, he said.

Studies show that genetically modified plants are safe, and since they are so successful at alleviating hunger, scientists have called on governments to approve the use of genetically modified crops to help feed people around the world.

Advancing agricultural science

To streamline the development of safe and effective agricultural biotechnology, President Trump signed an executive order in 2019 simplifying the regulatory process.

The president said he took the action “so that farmers can get access to critical scientific advances faster, and reap the full benefits of American innovation for many years into the future.”

Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue said, “Science-based advances in biotechnology have great promise to enhance rural prosperity and improve [people’s] quality of life.”