Biotechnology, Panacea To Army Worm Maize Infestation

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By Nkechi Isaac

Maize (also known as ‘corn’ in some countries) is one of the most common and important food crops across Africa. It is widely eaten in various forms and more than 900 million Africans depend on maize every year because it is often cheaper than rice and wheat, two of the other most consumed cereals.

A report released by the IITA estimates that about 800 million tons of maize is produced worldwide every year.

According to the report, though the United States remains the world’s largest producer with 42 percent of all maize produced globally, Africa contributes significantly in this production with 6.5 percent of this volume which is still insufficient for local consumption.

Nigeria remains Africa’s largest producer with nearly 8 million tons per annum. It is closely followed by South Africa, Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda.

It was therefore a nightmare when Nigeria like the rest of Africa woke up to the Fall Armyworm (FAW) infestation which was rapidly spreading across the region.

Army worm is very deleterious and like the name suggests it derives its name from its feeding habits, of “marching” in large numbers from grasslands into crops. They strongly prefer grasses, cereals like maize, and can mercilessly eat the stem of the crop as well as the leaves.

Army worm infestation can be disastrous on the crops. It affects the yield of the crop from the stalk to the stage of maturity and is capable of destroying entire crops in a matter of weeks if it is unchecked.

Like other African countries, Nigeria woke up to a nightmare of recent army worm infestation in the region,  leaving farmers worried as the pest, which has grown resistance to chemicals, wreaked havoc on newly cultivated maize farms across the country. This resulted in the severe reduction on the yield recouped by farmers on their maize field.

The Federal Government quickly waded and convened a meeting with commissioners for agriculture from the 36 states in Abuja to find ways of ameliorating the effect of the havoc and contain the infestation.

In his speech, the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, Chief Audu Ogbeh, said the achievement of self-sufficiency in maize production would continue to be a mirage with the pest infestation.

He said the spread of the maize disease had negatively affected the poultry industry, which largely depends on maize for the production of feeds.

The minister explained that the aim of the meeting was to brainstorm on ways of finding sustainable solutions to the army worm infestation which had ravaged maize farms in the states.

“It is the state government that owns lands; so we need to tackle this problem to boost agricultural production,’’ he said.

Ogbeh told the meeting the federal government required N2.98 billion to curb the army worm infestation of farmlands across the country, adding the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) had pledged to support the country in its fight against the army worm infestation.

However, scientists are calling on farmers to embrace biotechnology by using genetically modified crops which have been proven safe for man and the environment to permanently tackle such occurrences.

Speaking during an interview with journalists in Abuja, the country coordinator of Open Forum on Agricultural Biotechnology (OFAB), Nigeria Chapter, Dr Rose Gidado, said genetic modification, also known as “genetic engineering,” is a technologically advanced way to select desirable traits in crops, pointing out that while selective breeding has existed for thousands of years, modern biotechnology is more efficient and effective because seed developers are able to directly modify the genome of the crop.

The OFAB coordinator said adopting genetic modification technology to develop maize variety resistant to pest provided a lasting solution for army worm infestation, adding genetically engineered (GE) plants are selectively bred and enhanced with genes to withstand common problems that confront farmers which include maize that could survive pesticides/infestation.

Gidado, a deputy director, at the National Biotechnology Development Agency (NABDA) revealed that a breakthrough recorded by scientists with the development of a maize variety called Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA) which has proven to resist the attacks from army worm infestations provided a lasting solution to the infestation.

She said: “The lasting solution to army worm infestation on maize is the use of genetic modification technology to develop a maize variety that would be resistant to the pest, that gives a permanent solution.”

She added, “There is already a variety of maize called Water Efficient Maize Variety for Africa that has proven to be resistant to army worm, it has not yet been deployed to Nigeria but we are making plans.”

The WEMA project is a public-private partnership to develop royalty-free African drought-tolerant white maize varieties, it also increases yield stability, protects and promotes farmers’ investment in best management practices.

The project which is water conserving and insect protected conventional and transgenic maize, is expected under moderate drought, to increase yields by 20-35 percent over current varieties; it is also expected to translate into additional 2 million MT of maize during drought to feed 14 to 21 million people.