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Research, Field Training Key to Sustaining World’s Cowpeas

Barry Pittendrigh

Michigan State University researchers are working to find a disease- and pest-resistant variety of cowpeas that could transform the operations of cowpea farmers worldwide and affect millions of people who rely on cowpeas as a fundamental component of the daily diet.

Grown in warm climates such as Africa, South Asia, Central America and South America, cowpeas are tolerant to drought and can thrive in poor soil conditions. The rich nutrient profile consists of vitamins, minerals and protein, making cowpeas an important food source for many who can’t afford meat.

However, cowpeas have a considerable enemy: The legume pod borer, which decimates up to 90 percent of some farmers’ yields. Also referred to as Maruca vitrata, the legume pod borer lays eggs on the flowers of legume plants. Larvae feed on the flowers before moving to pods. Without appropriate treatment, larvae can ravish an entire crop in short order.

The pod borer can be controlled with insecticides, but they are expensive, not easily accessible to resource-poor farmers, and continuous use results in the advancement of resistance in target pests. “Capacity building is extremely important because we want to create sustainable systems in these countries, for pest management and much more,” said Karim Maredia, an MSU entomology professor and program director of the World Technology Access Program (WorldTAP).

“Training and education are a necessity, and we need to develop and present a range of options to farmers. Biotechnology is just one tool in the toolbox. We are looking to develop a package of strategies that will work long into the future. That means we need experts from all disciplines to weigh in.”

One capacity building project is a pest initiative run by Barry Pittendrigh (photo above, left), an MSU Foundation Professor in the Department of Entomology, who was formerly an endowed chair in Insect Toxicology at the University of Illinois (UI). Pittendrigh’s research aims to provide growers in Benin, Burkina Faso, Ghana and Niger with tactics that consider cost, human health and environmental impact.

Many local producers live on less than $2 per day, so management improvements need to make sense economically. His group has conducted field studies that define pest populations in the region for legume pod borer and other insects. Traditional methods such as spraying neem oil, which has been used as a natural pesticide for hundreds of years, have been explored.

Biocontrol tests with a wasp that preys on the legume pod borer are also underway. “Cowpea is a staple for millions of people and an important source of protein,” Pittendrigh said. “It needs to be protected in ways that are feasible to local farmers. We have worked with Manuele Tamò (insect ecologist at the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture in Benin) on the development and release of biocontrol agents and with our host country scientists on local solutions that can be taught to farmers. But it all comes down to sustainability and making sure that we give a full range of strategies for farmers to choose from.”

Once management plans are created, dissemination can be a substantial challenge that requires a network of organizations. The research team is working with NGOs and Scientific Animations Without Borders (SAWBO), a program that conveys scientific and extension information through two-and three-dimensional animations that are accessible in several languages and free of charge. For cell phones and tablets, a free SAWBO app is available.

A Nigerian television station has aired some of the animations, prompting Pittendrigh to scout elsewhere for similar opportunities. “The research is needed to provide scientifically-sound solutions, but it doesn’t mean much if we can’t get it into the hands of the farmers,” Pittendrigh said. “SAWBO helps us connect with both local educators and end users through mobile devices, such as cell phones and in some cases through computers and television. The availability of these devices is increasing significantly in developing countries. The more platforms where SAWBO animations are used, the better chances that it can positively influence a greater number of people.”

– excerpted from AgBioResearch: Cameron Rudolph, “Battling Insects: Keeping Pesky Pod Borer, Bean Weevil at Bay” from Futures, Spring/Summer 2016

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