The first cowpea plant made suitable for mechanized harvesting is being developed by BetterSeeds, an Israeli agri-tech company that genetically enhances agricultural crops by using its proprietary genome editing technology. The company will plant their enhanced black-eyed pea (lubia) seeds in the US this spring to test its potential for mass scale cultivation.
The cowpea (Vigna unguiculata) is an annual herbaceous legume from the genus Vigna. While the date cultivation began may be uncertain, it is still considered one of the oldest domesticated crops; remains of charred cowpeas from rock shelters in Central Ghana have been dated to the 2nd millennium BCE.
Its tolerance for sandy soil and low rainfall has made it an important crop in semiarid regions across Africa and Asia. It requires very little assistance, as the plant’s root nodules are able to fix atmospheric nitrogen, making it a valuable crop for resource-poor farmers and well-suited to inter-cropping.
The whole plant is used as forage for animals, with its use as cattle feed likely responsible for its name. They can be erect, semierect (trailing) or climbing. The crop is mainly grown for its seeds, which are high in protein, although the leaves and immature seed pods can also be consumed.
They provide a rich source of proteins and food energy, as well as minerals and vitamins. Due to its high protein content, heat tolerance and highly efficient water and fertilizer consumption, Cowpea is a very sustainable legume with enormous nutritional and agronomic value. Soybean, the most abundantly grown legume, requires large quantities of water and fertilizers and grows well only in a temperate climate. As such its yield is forecast to decline by 30% in the upcoming decade due to global warming. Thus, as a sustainable food and plant-based protein source, cowpeas are a leading legume candidate to fill the gap in soybean yield due to climate change.
Cowpeas were domesticated in Africa and are one of the oldest crops to be farmed. A second domestication event probably occurred in Asia, before they spread into Europe and the Americas. The seeds are usually cooked and made into stews and curries or ground into flour or paste.
Most cowpeas are grown in Nigeria and Niger, which account for 66% of world production. They have a worldwide production of three million tons and are consumed by 200 million people on a daily basis. Insect infestation is a major constraint to the production of cowpea.
Why did the black-eyed peas need redesigning?
BEFORE BETTERSEEDS’ successful gene editing achievement, cowpea’s plant architecture and fruit appearance were not fit for mechanized harvesting and therefore could not be grown at scale. Sprawling on the ground with gradual appearance of pods, it could only be harvested by hand and is grown in developing regions where labor is less expensive.
Betterseeds, Israel’s largest and leading plant genome editing company,redesigned cowpeas by targeting the gene that changes the plant’s structure into a determinant and erect plant with simultaneous pod appearance, thus suiting cowpeas for mechanized harvesting by a combine – just like soybean. A determinate meristem usually produces a part of the plant that has a predictable size and form, such as the flower, whereas an indeterminate meristem produces parts of the plant that can grow for variable periods of time and vary in size and shape, dependent on the local environment.
With this redesigned cowpea farmers can both increase the versatility of legume cultivation, utilize their land all year round and also ensure the market has a sustainable supply of plant-based protein. BetterSeeds’ is further enhancing cowpea with its upcoming trait of herbicide resistance.
BetterSeeds has shown that better crop genetics is the key to solving the food security challenge of feeding the world’s growing population. The company makes use of its unique genome editing technology, EDGE (Efficient Delivery of Gene Editing), that enables the broad application of CRISPR across crops thus making it possible to develop new varieties across a broad portfolio of crops incorporating game-changing traits which are not available today due to the limitations of applying genome editing technologies.
BetterSeeds CEO Ido Margalit said: “If I had to choose one crop to focus on, its cowpea, since we are facing a huge shortfall in the supply of plant-based proteins, namely soybean, due to climate change. Cowpea has the capability to fill in this gap pending its redesign to make it fit for mass scale cultivation which is exactly what BetterSeeds is doing. Cowpea will help to feed the world. BetterSeeds is committed to providing better crops which will solve the world’s looming food security problems. I believe that we will make an enormous impact.”